Saturday, February 27, 2016

Album Review: Sunburst - Fragments Of Creation

Many people whose opinion I value insist that progressive metal is in a boom period. The old guard are still out there and making good records, and there has been an influx of talent that has given hope for a new generation of bands to take up the mantle. When you consider a roster as deep as prog metal has, with Dream Theater and Fates Warning still out there, and bands ranging from Redemption to Vanden Plas in their primes, along with younger bands like Native Construct, progressive metal is in a good place. That depends on what you want from the music, however, as I have listened to many of these newer bands and been left underwhelmed. So many of them are wondrously talented, but waste it by not understanding that even in the world of prog, you need to write songs first and foremost.

Sunburst is a new progressive metal band built from the core of the band Black Fate. By not being completely rooted in the world of progressive metal, the hope is that they can bring that genre back to its song-oriented roots. The opening track, "Out Of The World", starts things off very much in that vein. The riffing is brutally deep, twisting around itself like the most deranged riffs Jeff Loomis came up with during Nevermore's unhinged period. But while that doesn't sound appealing, an amazing thing happens. When the chorus comes along, that tightly-wound playing opens up, and gives the hook plenty of room to breath. Vasilis Georgiou is a tremendous singer, and his melody is stirring. In these five minutes, we get heaviness, technicality, and rousing melody. That is the very definition of what progressive metal is supposed to be.

As "Dementia" continues, there's much about the guitar playing that incorporates elements of the djent strain of prog (which I'm not sure is actually prog, but that's a separate discussion), but does so in a way that shows how insular supposed progressive musicians can be. They take these crushing rhythms, but pair them with soaring guitar harmonies, and make sure to throw in a chorus that can be sung along with. It sounds like a simple formula, but putting something in there for everyone just makes the songs better than if they were single-mindedly focused on being progressive to prove they can.

There are going to be comparisons to Kamelot that come up, because of Vasilis' vocal tone reminding people of Roy Kahn, but I don't think that's the best analogy to make. What Sunbust reminds me of is the 'classic' lineup of Firewind. Vasilis sounds to my ears like a cleaner version of Apollo Papathanasio, and the entire band is what Firewind would be if they took every element of their sound to the extreme. That's a sincere compliment, because Firewind made one of the best power metal albums of the last decade in "The Premonition", and Sunburst is the modern progressive version of that sound. They retain in their sounds something that almost all progressive metal is missing; fun. You don't have to have a music degree to understand these songs, and you don't have to count snare hits to enjoy them either. Sunburst has written a batch of really good SONGS that can be enjoyed as such, or can be analyzed for the intricacies that make prog fascinating to music nerds.

There's nothing the least bit progressive about "Lullaby", but listening to it, it's hard not to get caught up in that sweeping melody. It just grabs you, and makes me wonder why all those other progressive metal bands have such trouble understanding why this approach works so well. I'm not sure that even the most esoteric of fans can really deny the sing-along fun of "Forevermore", which is a song that begs to look stupid miming along with it.

We do get a heavier dose of prog in the twelve minute closer, "Remedy Of My Heart". Starting off like a Nightwish song played by an actual metal band, we get a track that flows through heavier sections and lighter moments, eschewing the compact songwriting of the rest of the record for something more traditionally prog, but even so the band doesn't neglect the melodic moments. The vocals are subdued compared with the hookier numbers, but the melodies are still there, and the guitar solo in the final third of the song is soaring. The only thing missing is the epic ending the song needed. Instead of building to one last crescendo of immense proportion, a few harsh vocals lead out of that solo into a softly whispered ending. It was underwhelming as a way to end the song, and even more as a way of ending the entire album. The least powerful moment of the entire album is what we end on, which is a bit of a sour aftertaste.

But we shouldn't get lost is that Sunburst has made an excellent debut record here. They've taken what modern progressive metal is good at, and brought in elements of what it needs to be good at, to create a sound that will resonate with fans across the metal spectrum. This is what modern progressive metal should sound like.

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