After their brief but well-deserved Winter hibernation, we’ve finally gotten round to poking our columnists back to consciousness and then to their keyboards so they can bang out some more monthly missives for us on their respective corners of the rock and metal pantheon. First up is David Keevill, who returns with to take a long hard look at what’s been going on in Prog so far this year…
1) The return of Hawk Eyes
If you’ve paid any attention to the alt-rock scene over the last few years, or even kept half an eye on Thrash Hits’ inane ramblings, you’ll have read a bullish amount of praise aimed at Hawk Eyes. Leeds’ most leftwards-thinking sons’ frank disregard for genre allocations has left them untempered to push every release into new territories, held together with a knack for writing brilliant riffs and anthemic vocal hooks.
Everything is Fine sees Hawk Eyes consolidate the sound of EP That’s What This Is, and stretch the template into a full-length filled with darkly-comic lyrical banality that laughs at the overt seriousness of heavy genres. The outsider status continues to serve them well. There’s the pre-watershed mainstream-bothering opener ‘The Trap’ that mulches into the menacing jab of ‘The Ambassador’s riff, with overtones of Faith No More contrarianism. It’s their most continuous, complete piece of work to date, and deserves the utmost praise for showing every post-FNM band how to evolve, tone and sharpen their sound without becoming lost or swollen beyond recognition.
2) Ramble on
The inaugural Ramblin’ Man Fair announced yet more inclusions to its bill, including the likes of Anathema, Alcest and Knifeworld. People who’ve had the misfortune to read this column before may also notice the presence of Haken in the announcement, a band so sharply attuned to old and contemporary prog that their latest EP was one of the best alternative releases of last year. These new additions will bolster a line-up already made-up of the likes of progressive veterans Marillion, Riverside, Dream Theater and Camel. There’s a sharp curatorial eye and hefty pulling power that has brought this group of bands together; in a year where we’ve again lost a festival giant to apparent curating issues, it’s refreshing to see a brand-new gig cater to a greedy crowd of music consumers.
Torche (that’s them, pictured at the top of this article) are set to release another work of thick-set, mulchy terror at the tail end of February, followed up by an expansive European tour in May. The new album, Restarter, doesn’t err from the heavy, fuzzy blueprint of 2012’s Harmonicraft. It’s their first release under the Relapse Records imprint, and if initial listens are anything to go by, the band have shored up their weighty talent for hooks n’ heaviness with another fine and thirsty record. Baroness-like vocal catches vie for attention with brief but pertinent soaring guitar lines, once again deftly proving that their brutish heaviness plays second-fiddle to excellent songwriting.
4) Do the evolution
Not being a geneticist, evolution for me is split broadly into two fields: on the one hand, there’s the Darwin-esque train of thought that evolution comes from a prolonged exposure to changes in environmental factors engendering the process known as natural selection; on the other, there’s Richard Attenborough’s attitude that extracting some extinct animal’s DNA (a dinosaur, for example) and shoving it up a frog resurrects an entire species, contrary to the path that nature had designed for it.
Musical progression broadly conforms to these rules as well. Vessels, a post-rock band that formed in 2007 about the time of the genre’s waning, have spent the last eight years honing their mathy-origins into a bright, pulsing electro offering, something that’s ably displayed on upcoming album Dilate. Their latest album might be closer to the likes of experimental drone of Fuck Buttons than a post-hardcore Battles, but their live show explodes with ten frenzied limbs playing anything that they can set their hands on. Unlike the immense light show of the ‘Buttons, in the flesh Vessels remain rooted in the sweating, gurning tangibility of their origins, with a sound that has honed itself into a harder, incredibly current entity.
Alternatively, Trepalium continue to fight against the natural order, trying to give shape, and credibility, to their death/groove metal and 1930s swing hybrid. Previous outings have been unconvincing; the jazzier influences of songs like ‘Sick Boogie Murder’ sounded misguided, unconvincing and desperate, as if the need to show rebelliousness outweighed the importance of the song. Their latest EP, Damballa’s Voodoo Doll has pushed the swing influences even further to the fore, only now it’s starting to work. If the reek of the whiskey fumes and revelry of Mardi Gras aren’t your thing, then at least stick around for the deeply grooving riffs.
5) First past the post
Decent releases from Spanish instrumentalists Toundra and Finnish doom-meddlers Callisto have too boosted the ‘post’ crowds’ hopes. Toundra are buried in naturalism and have a beautiful way of phrasing the voiceless that sets them apart from the re-hashed riffs and indiscriminate atmospherics that plague the scene. Album number 4, IV, is a concept album based on the idea of two foxes escaping from a burning forest, and is richly evocative of the nature that they are so indebted too. It’s pitted with nods to the likes of Neutral Milk Hotel and their emotional and celebratory aesthetic.
Callisto’s post-metal offering is much bleaker, a note-slamming, sluggish take on Isis. An improvement on their last release, the frankly dull Providence, Secret Youth makes good use of the band’s duality of clean and growled vocals.
Beardfish are a quiet, considered progressive act from a small town in the east of Sweden. Their quietness doesn’t come from being sonically muted, but instead from producing studied, retrospective and often introspective work that isn’t self-concerned.
Their eighth studio album, +4626-COMFORTZONE, is a brooding, dark and sometimes elated piece of music that deals with small-town psyches, harmful dependency in relationships, and finding a path through life. Songwriter and vocalist Rikard Sjöblom frames the album with a three part song, entitled ‘The One Inside’. The cycle, he says, is based on that inner voice you inherit from what you’re told by your parents growing up. It’s also about how to deal with that voice: “I wrote that song to myself actually when I realized I had some prejudice emotions towards something and my parents had exactly the same emotions.” It’s this framework which pieces the rest of the album together; a softly spoken narration that returns when it feels like the record is slipping too far into cycles of damaging behaviour.
The loose concepts act as a template for the listener’s emotions, supported by music that veers from Genesis-like kitsch to nods to thrash metal. Although there’s a non-committal attitude of the music or themes to stick to a path or force an agenda, +4626-COMFORTZONE feels complete, and the work of a band entirely tuned in to their surroundings. Sjöblom’s contemplation on the darker sides of humanity, his attempts “to understand destructive behaviour and to deal with it, learn about it”, have created one of the most beautiful and interesting albums of the modern era.