Thursday, February 2, 2017

Album Review: Soen - Lykaia

Soen is an interesting case. As the return vehicle of former Opeth drummer Martin Lopez, everyone was expecting a band that touched on the same basic themes as the legends. Instead, Soen's debut record was a near exact copy of Tool, which while a good record, was shocking in how much it plagiarized that band's sound. They brought in a few of the more Opeth-ian bits we expected on their second album, which was one that veered a bit too far into the abstract. So with two records under their belt, and no identity of their own having been firmly established, that led to serious questions being raised about this, their critical third album. The best news leading up to the release was that the band had focused on a more natural recording process, which would hopefully lead to a more organic record.

We got out first taste of this new approach through the two singles, "Sectarian" and "Lucidity". The former opens the record, and introduces us to a new approach that is no longer afraid of the band's most obvious connection. The opening chords and the bridge riff are pure Opeth, as are many of the riffs that drive these songs. The Tool influence from the debut has been replaced with a more melodic edge, which is a wise move, as it gives Soen an identity that finally feels like their own. That is highlighted on "Lucidity", which diverges from everything we know about the band to spend its nearly seven minutes as a slow, plaintive ballad that highlights some lovely harmonies.

Three albums in, and I don't think it's possible for Soen to have found a better vocalist. Joel Ekelöf is the ideal blend of Maynard and Mikael, which allows the band to shift their focus from rhythm to melody without having to think twice about it. And with two albums under his belt digesting this rhythmic beast, the melodic writing has become stronger than before. That has been my main gripe with Soen so far. While they have a great sound, and some intricate rhythms, the melodies sitting atop them have not always been up to the level of the rest of the band. This was most apparent on "Tellurian", which I feel suffered from a lack of real songwriting.

"Lykaia" is the best distillation yet of the Soen sound. Martin Lopez is still playing tricky rhythms, and the guitars have just the right amount of dark bite to them, but everything hangs together as more cohesive songs than before. Now, when a song like "Orison" breaks down into a slow and somber section, it feels like the natural flow of a composition catching its breath. All bands have growing pains, even those formed from veteran musicians. Soen had to make it through that period in the public eye, but it's clear they are emerging on the other side now.

If you allow me a slightly indulgent aside here; when Opeth phased out their growled vocals a few albums back, there was massive interest in hearing what they could do, and how big they could get, with a more appealing facade. Obviously, that didn't work out, as Opeth is now flailing to justify their current sound. I mention this because "Lykaia" is exactly what we were hoping Opeth was moving towards; heavy, melodic, involved music that is immediately gratifying but still challenges us as listeners.

Sometimes you don't realize something is needed until it falls into your lap. "Lykaia" is the album that the metal universe needs right now. While metal is fracturing into tiny splinters with fans that no longer cross the boundaries, Soen has made an album that is is the embodiment of what truly modern progressive metal can be. Opeth set the metal world on fire with a run of albums that could never bridge the divides between us, but "Lykaia" can. Let me say something controversial here; the only thing holding "Lykaia" back from being the most important metal album of the year is the lack of growled vocals, and if you're one of those people who won't listen to metal with clean singing, you aren't a fan of music. Full stop.

I've been a bit harder on Soen than many, because I could imagine where they could wind up. This is that place I imagined, and now that they're here, we need to recognize that "Lykaia" is quite possibly the album that will define metal in 2017, and the first true contender to be Album Of The Year.

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