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Tuesday 5 March 2019

Reviews: Dream Theater, Astronoid, Against Myself, Childrain (Alex & Sean)

Dream Theater: Distance Over Time (InsideOut) [Alex]

Prog Metal legends, Dream Theater have always gone about making music in their own way. From the revivalism of Images And Words to the scope of Metropolis Part II: Scenes From A Memory, and the darkness of Train Of Thought, they have remained faithful to their prestigious name. Ask any fan their favourite album and they may praise the fury of Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence or the complexity of Awake. Personally, I have a penchant for the bombast of Octavarium. Their recent work has been especially divisive, and while you can often find me defending the self-titled album or The Astonishing, to some they are the unholy grail of prog, and I won't pretend they don’t bear problems. Still, I think that contentiousness proves a testament to how great they are. Now on their 14th studio release, LaBrie and co. needed to create something with a little more clout and to-the-point attitude. With Distance Over Time, they exceed expectations,

An airy acoustic section drifts in before a gnashing lead guitar takes hold, accompanied by intricate drum patterns from Mangini as well as spellbinding key effects courtesy of Rudess. ‘Don’t be afraid of letting go, open your heart, be set free’ sound the last lines of Untethered Angel, as a brooding riff sets up the introspective themes, rounding off a powerful opener! Fall Into The Light is just as dazzling. Instrumental deviations, some embracing subtlety and some rejoicing in complexity, never feel misplaced or unnecessary. Every movement is considered, measured and in keeping with the emotional tone of the lyricism. S2N – or, signal to noise – takes chaos and multifarious as a virtue, always seeming gratifying and apt, especially considering the moral, of trying to find sense in a world gone insane. At Wits End is the longest song on the album, at 9 minutes. Some complain that this is too short (only in prog circles, eh?) yet it’s ambitions are satisfied flawlessly, as anxious tension is exploited, leading to a grand middle section which spirals off into a heart wrenching finale. Likewise, Pale Blue Dot closes the album, displaying a rich instrumental palate and showing off the skill of every musician here, while never sacrificing emotionality or feeling overly indulgent.

Not a concept album in the traditional sense, Dream Theater here tell human stories and show off their sentimental side. Barstool Warrior is incredibly effective. Utilizing influences like Rush and Yes as a musical guide, the ballad tells the story of one ‘doomed to be a man this world forgot’ before ‘cutting the anchor away’ and ‘starting a new life’. While admittedly cliché at times, we are invited trace the stories, line to line, verse to verse, perhaps finding some personal relationship to the lyrics, or seeing them as works of fiction. Regardless, of your interpretation, there is a lot of sincerity to be found across these 9 tracks. Take Paralysed - a dark and sometimes uncomfortable reflection on the negative effect that a closed-minded approach to life can have on yourself, and your relationships with other people. Alternatively, look to Out Of Reach. By all accounts and purposes a love song, this had the potential to be a disaster of the most sickly proportions. Yet, there is a darkness and meditation enveloping it which makes for a slow-burning, yet beautiful listening experience. Taken together, the wordplay across Distance Over Time reflects a side of prog which is distinctly poignant.

To conclude is Distance Over Time among Dream Theater’s greatest works? Of course not. Is it a wonderful indictment of how they can still be great after about thirty years in the prog game? Almost certainly. Make no mistake, I’m sure that record no.14 will provoke as much debate, as just about every other DT album that exists in the world. Take comfort in the fact that it will still be worth having those debates in years to come 8/10

Astronoid: Astronoid (Blood Music) [Alex]

Imagine the beautiful and lucid textures of progressive ambient, applied through the technical lenses of black metal. Sound bizarre and contradictory? Well, forget about imagining it because Astronoid actually realizes the idea, in a work which can be aptly described as the most extreme relaxation music I have ever heard. Aptly described as ‘experimental’, there are caveats to their sound which echo shoegaze, neo-psychedelia and space rock. Although there is the lurking temptation to compare them to Muse, Passion Pit or Deafheaven, I don’t think they would serve entirely appropriate in defining the sentiment captured by Astronoid. Like comments raining down upon earth a piercing and shimmering guitar riff cuts through the static, beginning A New Colour. A wave of spacial chaos aided by the powerful rhythm section adds a full and vibrant dynamic to the mix, while Boland’s obsessively melodic vocals, counteracts the thrill of the instrumentation. We end the opener on an inspiring, double guitar solo and it feels like the most sincere touch these musicians could have made to complete the rich and detailed picture they paint for us in these first five minutes. I Dream In Lines begins on a direct, hook-based approach, enticing the listener before taking them on a voyage through a constellation of influences and skill.

Lost continues to alter traditional formulas, capturing the feeling of anxiousness, with creeping and panicked musical motifs preceding a euphoric closing section, capturing the cleansing and washing of fear. Fault and Breath, are some of the most joyous moments across the entire experience, as the glimmering guitar melodies, charging rhythms and dramatic swell, have the effect of capturing feelings joy and elation. When somberness is needed, however, I Was There When The Sun Set and Beyond The Scope painlessly bring to life the sensations of contemplation or darkness. Noticeably, the album switches character frequently, often as we are in the depths of a song. They don’t so much present a feeling to you and say ‘make of it what you will’, as they do replicate the sway and volatility of one's own thought processes across the span of a lifetime. As a piece of art, Astronoid does not just awaken emotions in the listener but harnesses them in a way which is incredibly exploratory and arresting beyond the point of belief. Truly a unique listening experience, which I would recommend anyone hear for themselves, to fully understand the ambition at play 9/10

Against Myself: Unity (On Fire Records) [Sean]

What is this strange thing assailing my ears? M-e-l-o-d-y in my metal? Whassat’ en?? Herp derp dis’ is pop moosic! Di’s ain’t mehtulz! *infantile nerd rage intensifies* All jokes aside, I’m don’t often find myself in symphonic metal’s pristine avenues. I enjoy it when I do, it’s often a pleasant gander and even manages plaster a big dumb grin on my bald mug. Look, I’ve generally preferred the more muscular approach of it’s amiable, if obnoxious cousin, power metal but that’s not to say I dislike the genre by any mean. Sure, they’re often cut from the same cloth but one gives me the horn and the other amounts to nawt but a passing fancy. Still, I ain’t gonna deny that I’ve never hummed Ghost Love Score to myself. It’s goddamn infectious, earnest even, which is exactly what Spanish Symphonic Metallers Against Myself are. Big poppy vocal hooks, intricate synth work and a surprisingly strong metallic backbone propelling everything forward. Unity, their third release, sees Against Myself riding out once again with all of their orchestral might at the ready. And hell, its quite a fine ride too!

As soon as To The Unknown concludes is lush cinematic intro, title track Unity arrives with more clout than I was expecting. Of course, it’s fairly straightforward structure is to be expected but Against Myself are already tinkering with the blueprints before we’ve really gone anywhere! Blastbeats pop up amongst the orchestral throng, seeing the Spanish quintet trade silk for steel. Hero’s Soul is the more typical affair one expect from the genre, though it’s solid enough and the interplay between a shredding guitars and keyboards never gets old. Over The Clouds brings more of the heavy, conjuring impressions of Avantasia, complete with subtle touches of the proggy nature. Crystal Tower is the standard interlude song, stripped down to only grand piano and vocalist Irene Villegas. Not really my thing but it fits in the overall flow, providing a nice counter point to the chunky Kill To Live. It’s quite refreshing that the guitars aren’t reduced to boring chugs, growing in strength and lets not forget those blast beats! Gang shouts too? Blood hell, these Spaniards are packing a deceptive amount of power! Onrios brings the fucking RIFFS! Across the 15 minute epic, Against Myself go into full prog power mode, effortlessly shifting from theme to theme as Irene and the band pull out all the stops.

More of this, please! It’s end on The Hidden Truth, a fitting closer though it does fall ever so slightly flat in the wake of the sprawling grandeur of Onrios. Yah know what? We can sometimes get bogged down with how “heavy”, “dark” or “kvlt” music should be, we often overlook they key element that drew us towards metal and symphonic music in the first place; it’s FUN! Remember that word? FUN! It used to exist before dreary adult life ruined every definition of the word. Against Myself haven’t exactly created something original with Unity, but to say it’s without inspiration would be downright disingenuous and wrong. The songs are huge in scope, varied in ambition and frequently offer a few touches to give the occasional pause and establish their own unique flavour. One could compare Unity to a novel of classic high fantasy. You’ll recognise all the tropes, how it starts and maybe even how it ends. But you’ll still get caught up in it’s twists and turns of it’s narrative, exhaling a satisfied breath upon finishing it’s closing chapter. 7/10

Childrain: The Silver Ghost (Graviton) [Sean]

Oh bugger, have I travelled back in time? Sure fucking sounds like it, though not in the "wow the 80s! Radical!" sorta way. I'm talking about stumbling through a wormhole into a period of teenage hopes, dreams and more importantly, hair *sobs uncontrollably*. A period where the short lived "NWAOHM" was aggressive marketed by nearly every major music publication, when in reality it mostly referred to "metalcore". Yup, mid 2000's metalcore *shudders*. Aside from a few unfuckwithable acts, it quickly became swamped in recycled At The Gates riffs, Affliction wife beaters, good cop/bad cop vocal arrangements and all manner of angsty lyrical toss. So with all of that aside, are Spaniards Childrain going to shake the very foundations of my beliefs and tastes? Lol, fuck no. But let's explore their fourth offering, The Silver Ghost, in greater detail shall we?

Despite my initial ire, things start out in a fairly positive light. Opening track, Wake The Ghost, is a solid wee ditty. It’s more melo-deathy inclinations serve it well, the cleans finely balanced with the harsh and the whole affair is well constructed. Hell, I’d even go as far to to say it’s pretty good! Maybe I’ll enjoy this after all! And then Saviours Of The Earth happens, dashing any hopes of further enjoyment against the wall, garbing said hopes in a Tapout T and force feeding it’s shattered remains Monster Energy drink. It descends into generic groove riff city, the cleans taking a nosedive in quality. Valley Of Hope doesn’t fair much better, with it’s generic mid 2000’s stomp and more off key nasal warbling than I can stomach. Remember track 1? I liked that one. The Silver Walker couldn’t be any more beige, akin to something that would would hear in the the background of a WWE game. The remainder of the album doesn’t fair much better either, about as threatening as arm-wrestling Mr.Rogers. Some more off key singing and toothless flailing later, Omega closes the proceedings with a change in key and about the only noteworthy feature in the 4 minutes of it’s run time.

Sorry, am I coming across as negative? To say that Childrain are bad would be incorrect, as the music itself isn’t instant bin worthy. It’s just painfully average, fronted by a vocalist who’s clearly punching above his own weight (decent screams, though). With little in the way of surprise or imagination, one could easily drift through The Silver Ghost and not have a single taste bud tantalised. Look, I’m not asking for originality but being engaging should be the biggest arrow in your quiver, at the very fucking least. If there’s one positive I can take from The Silver Ghost, it’s that Childrain have a clear focus in their musical aim, finding comfort in their own respective pothole. Sorry guys, but this ain’t for me or my lack of tribal tattoos. 5/10

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