Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Album Review: Soen - Lotus

One of the words I'm guilty of throwing around more than I should is 'potential'. I use it often as praise when I'm struggling to come up with anything more tangible to say about a record or a band, but I mean it genuinely. Potential is the reason for optimism, and optimism is what keeps a musical soul searching for more. One of the most gratifying things is to see a band grow into the potential I heard in them, to spread their wings and emerge as a beautiful creature that inspires awe. It doesn't happen nearly as often as I would like, or hope, but that makes it even more special when it does.

Soen metamorphosed on their previous album, "Lykaia", which I rightfully claimed was the best album of 2017. That record saw a band that had previously shown potential blossoming, their grasp firmly on the brass ring. It took them three records to get there, but they had found their own voice on record. No longer were they trying to live in anyone's shadow, they were the consumed and digested sum of their influences, and that produced a record that was dark, haunting, and mesmerizing. As I said at the time, they captured the sound everyone (or at least me) envisioned for Opeth when they left death metal behind. Soen was the next logical step in that branch of progressive metal's evolution, and I was thrilled to have been there to see it happen.

And with that comes the natural question, 'how do you follow up a masterpiece?' With "Lotus", is how.

We were shown in advance that Soen was not done pushing that stone up the hill. "Rival" was the first track unveiled, and it was a natural continuation of "Lykaia", with twisting riffs and rhythms, and vocals that dug in the more you listened. It worked so well as a teaser because the song's construction is similar to "Sectarian", especially in the way the band builds tension through the bridge . "Martyrs" opened their sound up even further, going into new melodic territory that only "God's Acre" hinted at before. It was still tinged with Soen's trademark darkness, but it was lush and beautiful as well. Combined, the two songs formed a pulley, raising the bar for "Lotus" ever higher.

Movement forward is not just confined to the music. The production this time around is more polished and modern, the guitars cleaner than we heard last time around. Rather than coming off as slick, the clarity lets the amps distortion shine through, and puts the focus on the details of the compositions. When you're playing with unique chord voicings, being able to hear the dissonance within them is vitally important. From that delicious guitar tone to the thunderous snap of the drums, the sound is nearly flawless.

What makes Soen so effective as songwriters is how they understand the need to balance out their heaviest moments with lighter fare. Where they got that from is obvious, but the jazzy break in "Lascivious" isn't just an interesting passage, it is inherent in the success of the song, because it amplifies the power of the heavy riff when it comes back in. That instant when the guitars punch back with full force is jarring, in the good way, and it's only possible because the band rope-a-doped us to be able to hit the hay-maker.

When I say that Soen is pushing progressive metal forward, what I mean is that they take divergent strains and piece them together in a way no one else is capable of. They have the dynamics and chord choices of classic Opeth, and they marry with that the rhythmic bent of djent. But unlike the latter, where everything becomes muted by the chugging technique, Soen's focus on open notes and chords slips melody into the rhythm, which is such a simple yet devastating trick I'm amazed I can't recall anyone else who has mastered the art. Soen really is a synthesis.

Over the course of their four albums, Joel Ekelof has developed new layers to his voice, which is now capable of deep emotional resonance. As the band's songwriting has opened up, so to has the soul he puts into his vocals, which are now among the most striking in all of metal. He doesn't have the power or flash of the more showy vocalists, but he stirs the pot in a way few others do. And for this record, the band welcomes a new guitarist. That change is seamless, with the exception of the lead playing. The band's core sound is unchanged, which is a blessing in itself, but they are now capable of adding in more leads that are soulful and melodic. The title track is littered with beautiful playing, which I don't think they were capable of pulling off quite so well before.

"Lotus" is a work that stands entirely on its own, but it also works as a companion piece to "Lykaia". They are cut from the same cloth, but are shaded differently by the spotlight. "Lykaia" is the darker, slightly heavier record, while "Lotus" is the more richly melodic affair. If such a word can be applied to Soen's sound, this is their 'optimistic' record. Though still dark, there is an uplifting spirit to the melodies, which is a balance that only enhances the effect.

What is clear from "Lotus" is that Soen is a band not content to feed the machine and put out records that cater to the whims of fickle fans. They are artists who are going to push themselves in new directions every time they head into the studio. I admire that attitude, even when it moves a band away from my tastes. In this case, however, Soen's ship is drifting closer than ever to my safe harbor. I loved the instrumental sound of Soen from the first time I played "Cognitive". What I was waiting for was the songwriting to develop an ear for melody like my own. That happened on "Lykaia", which was my Album Of The Year in 2017. I adored that record, and still do.

I say that as preface to say this; "Lotus" is an album even more after my heart. Soen have taken what they have always excelled at, and added in even stronger melody. They took the formula from what I consider one of the best metal albums of the last five to ten years, and made it even better. Fortunately, I have had the time to live with this record long enough to feel it settle within me, so I don't have to predict how the record will age. As I listened again and again, "Lotus" continued to peel back new petals, revealing the sweet nectar waiting in the center. As good as "Lykaia" is, and as much as I love that record, "Lotus" makes an impact capable of digging deeper into our emotions. At it's very worst, the two albums are equals, which is high praise on its own.

There is no doubt in my mind "Lotus" will be one of the very best albums of 2019, and there's a damn good chance it has already secured its spot at the top of the mountain. "Lotus" is a monumental work that has captured a great band at the absolute height of their powers. Don't miss it.

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