Welcome to the January Progress Report. Overall in the metal world, the year is off to a rather slow start, and that’s reflected here as well. We’ve mined the depths of the release calendar to present a well-rounded group of albums, from modern, aggressive progressive metal all the way to our first review of a Zeuhl band. And while there’s no guarantee any of these records will find find their way into our year-end lists, let’s take January for what it is: a month with a number of decent-to-really-good releases.
Ratings are on a five star scale.
Aver – Orbis Majora (Ripple)
Let’s jump right into the deep end with Aver, an Australian quartet specializing in a progressive brand of stoner rock. Orbis Majora is the band’s third album, and finds the band shortening their songlist while lengthening the runtimes. With three of these songs clocking in at over ten minutes, there’s a lot going on, and a lot for us to sink our teeth (and ears) into.
The psychedelic space-jams meander through our consciousness, at times delicate and mysterious (the violin throughout “Feeding the Sun”) while at other times evoking the grungy days of yore, particularly with the vocals. Each song is markedly different from the last, making Orbis Majora the best prog album of January.
Eastern Canada’s multi-instrumentalist Marc Durkee is a one-man show on his second album, Remain in Stasis. Writing, playing, and singing the whole thing, Durkee dug deep for some real emotional upheaval on this deeply personal album, giving us an enticing blend of Tesseract-like prog metal and more mellow, accessible, Anathema-influenced ballads.
While one can get the feeling that Durkee isn’t completely set on any particular style, he does manage to pull off most of these songs with excellent feel and tight compositions. The man has a good voice and is adept with all the instruments. Remain In Stasis is a highly enjoyable solo album in the most literal sense, and a worthy accomplishment for Durkee.
Steve Hackett – At the Edge of Light (InsideOut)
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I saw the latest solo effort (amazingly, over two dozen now) from legendary guitarist Steve Hackett – I’ll sadly admit to not following his career too closely. Would it be the bold compositions of early Genesis, or the more AOR-styled rock of ’80s project GTR? Turns out, Hackett gives us a little bit of everything and then some on what is the most surprising prog rock album of the month, At the Edge of Light.
The guest list is long and accomplished here, including drummer Simon Phillips (Toto) and bassist Jonas Reingold (The Flower Kings), but they are secondary to the songs here. Hackett delivers ten engrossing tracks that range from dreamy, pleasant ’70s prog rock to symphonic, bombastic tunes, to aggressive numbers that border on prog metal. The closing trio of songs, “Descent,” “Conflict,” and “Peace” are outstanding.
This one came out of nowhere, and not only did my ears perk up, I had to do a bit of research. Zeuhl music is an avant-garde brand of progressive music originally espoused by French band Magma in the ’70s. It is simple yet complex at the same time, featuring repeated, simple arrangements accented with moments of insane improv and subdued ambience. In other words, it’s weird.
Origin of the Yak is this Texas band’s debut album, and narrates a Nepalese legend about yaks. At only seven songs and 33 minutes, the album flies by in a strangely hypnotic manner. While Zeuhl music might not be for everyone, Laktating Yak have delivered a quirky and fun record that has made me search out more of the genre.
Modern progressive metal comes to us courtesy of Bangalore, India’s Orchid, and their debut album, Miasma. If you’re a fan of bands such as Dillinger Escape Plan, Between the Buried and Me, and Converge, Orchid will be right up your alley. Mastering provided by Colin Marston (Gorguts, Dysrhythmia) adds a touch of legitimacy to the project.
Not all of Miasma is heavy and aggressive, though. Interspersed throughout are off-kilter jazz improvisations reminiscent of weird Frank Zappa movements, and they serve nicely to break up the more metallic moments. One nitpick: some variance in vocal delivery would be of benefit here, Kaushal delivers everything in hardcore tones, but aside from that, Orchid have delivered an exceptional modern prog metal debut.
Static Tension – Ashes to Animation (Buried by Sky)
Southern Ohio isn’t what comes to mind when thinking of the ’90s grunge scene, but the quartet of Static Tension show their love for that era throughout their debut album, Ashes to Animation. The typical influences of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains are offset to a degree by some classic-era heaviness as well as more modern influences such as Mastodon.
Ashes to Animation is a hit or miss affair, with some songs not quite making a lasting impression (“In Spite”) and others making one think they’re listening to an old classic (the epic “Serpentine”). Rob Rom’s vocal delivery is textbook grunge, and the band backs him up with plenty of chops and talent: more consistent songwriting is the last ingredient for this promising act.