As international prog-metallers Skyharbor return with their third album, Sunshine Dust, we find them in a noticeably different shape to the band that released Guiding Lights nearly four years ago. With both vocalist Dan Tompkins and drummer Anup Sastry departing in June 2015, they were swiftly replaced by Eric Emery and Aditya Ashok respectively. Hitting the ground running, the new-look Skyharbor was out on the road (in a neat closing of the loop, supporting Tesseract) and had released what was intended to be the lead single for this album, “Out of Time”, just a couple of months later.
However, despite their clear intentions to keep up the momentum, and periodic single releases in the interim, the writing process for Sunshine Dust did not run completely smoothly. Ultimately, the band took the nuclear option of scrapping, rewriting and reworking a proportion of their work-in-progress, which naturally pushed back the release date.
As a result of these changes of plans, nearly half the album has been released as singles in the interim, in some form or other. The track originally released as “Chemical Hands” in 2016 appears here in a significantly reworked shape here as “Synthetic Hands”, with only the admittedly very hooky chorus recognisably surviving.
Perhaps the biggest surprise from the singles comes in the form of “Dissent”, which dropped at the start of the summer. It is the most overtly aggressive Skyharbor track since the ‘Chaos’ segment tracks from debut Blinding White Noise, which showcases a side to their sound that took more of a back seat once the band started performing live with Dan. “Dissent” throws a curveball by very obviously drawing its sonic inspiration from nu-metal. Eric’s harsh/clean vocal line, and the choppy riff, is strongly reminiscent of the early Taproot albums. It’s probably safe to assume few people were expecting that, even if all things ‘nu’ appear to be on the cusp of a revival.
But on listening to Sunshine Dust in full, it is clear that “Dissent” is more the exception than the rule, and the majority of the album remains in similar territory to Guiding Lights; gently shimmering, melodic prog-metal. Unfortunately, it does feel like Skyharbor have gone on quite a long walk to end up in a place not that far from where they set off, and “Dissent” feels a stylistic experiment that they didn’t really take to.
All too often, the songs seem to fall between too stools, not quite chilled out enough to be ambient or balladic, but not quite energetic enough to be real stompers. “Out of Time” feels like an over-polite Monuments, but is fortunately lifted by the quality of the middle eight. However, the biggest issue with both the song, and large parts of the album as a whole, is that it suffers from lyrics that practically drip with cliché and somewhat stilted vocal melodies.
A number of tracks, too, hover around the six-minute mark without much cause, and as such feel a bit bloated. The real stand-out track is “Ethos”, sitting in the middle of the running order and clocking in at a punchier four minutes. There are a couple of head-scratching decisions with the running order, too. Instrumental track “The Reckoning” is one of the tracks that feels over-long, and sits about two-thirds of the way down the tracklisting. Just a couple of tracks later comes “Temptress”, a two-minute interlude with a more ominous vibe that feels more like an introduction than a penultimate track.
It is obvious from everything that happened that Sunshine Dust had a difficult birth. But it would seem that, in the process of rescuing the material, it has also been somewhat pasteurised and played just a bit too safe. The somewhat frustrating result is an album that does contain some genuine earworm hooks, and never quite gives one cause to turn it off whilst listening, but also not many reasons to hit the play button again once it’s come to an end. It is fair to say that Skyharbor have been through a transitional period, but now they are more settled in their current form, we will see them take a few more risks in the future.