VOLA‘s album from 2016, Inmazes, had the complicated pleasure of being a hit with a very specific subsection of the metal community. Far from the band’s first list, it was nonetheless their first release which put them on the map of the progressive metal scene. In fact, it sounded almost engineered to fit that scene; it had the right aesthetic, lyrical content, and tone to appeal to a very certain milieu which is quick to adopt bands into its bosom, hungry for the incredibly specific sound which it likes. It might sound like I’m passing judgment on that scene or, indeed, Inmazes itself but that is not my intention; indeed, I myself loved Inmazes and its take on djent-y, progressive metal, its moody vibes delivered mainly through synths, and its evocative lyrics and vocal delivery.
But it’s important to understand how troperiffic that album really is because, without understanding both albums’ relationship with tropes, it will be difficult to understand Applause of a Distant Crowd. Though I doubt that was the band’s intention, the album name itself already hints at how cognizant of fan expectations the album is, murky as they might be. And murky they are; the “modern” progressive metal crowd is a fickle one and seems to elevate some bands where others were expected to succeed. Applause of a Distant Crowd is, simply put, VOLA acquiescing to a path that’s become very common for progressive metal bands/artists making use of “alternative” or “external” influences in their music (like Steven Wilson or Between the Buried and Me or Opeth, to give three very different examples), namely the magnification of the “alternative” element to create an album that’s more mellow, eerie, calm, meditative, choose your adjective. This is also usually accompanied by a lyrical focus that shifts from internal processes to criticism of modern society, often ham-fisted ones, a shift in focus that is very much present on this release as well.
Yes fine, you might say, but is it good? The answer to that question is complicated (which is why I’ve just spent 300 words setting it up). First, let’s look at the “yes” part of that answer. Applause of a Distant Crowd definitely does this kind of sound well. That is, the execution of the “this is still alternative, progressive metal but on the other side of the fence, the alternative side of the fence” concept is done very well; the synth tones, far louder on this album, are haunting as you’d like them and the vocals, even closer to Agent Fresco‘s utilization of clean vocals this time, are melancholic to suit. Tracks like “We Are Thin Air”, which opens the album, and “Ruby Pool”, lean cleverly on these darker vibes, channeling parts of what drew so many people to VOLA’s previous album.
When the album decides to bring in the contrasting riffs, it also does that pretty well. On lead single “Smartfriend” or “Alien Shivers”, the heavy guitars serve their role well, as they did on the previous release. The djent-y influenced chugs work smoothly with the backing synths and the quieter interludes between the heavy parts do well to set those parts off, creating rich contrast of texture. But herein is where we start to drift towards the “no” part of our answer. Because those heavier parts are fewer and farther in between than on Inmazes, that trademark VOLA contrast is missing from much of the album. Indeed, at certain points it feels as if they are absent altogether which is weird, because they aren’t; every other track has some sort of heavier riff, almost as if VOLA were cognizant of this issue and attempted to fix it.
Which is, perhaps, where lies the rub; the album and its contrast between the lighter, alternative elements, and the heavier, more metal parts, feels very forced. Unlike Inmazes, which flowed very well between its segments and achieved its unique sound seemingly organically, Applause of a Distant Crowd feels engineered and forced at many of its points. Its almost as if, in the shadow of that distant applause, VOLA felt obligated to play out their role, to follow that path towards a more mellow release, while still looking back on the kind of music which made brought them to the public’s eye in the first place. This is, of course, speculation; there’s no good way for us to pin down how influential these expectations were on the band. Even if we asked VOLA about it, these are subtle things and their influence is hard to gauge, even for the influenced themselves.
But, regardless, Applause of a Distant Crowd feels less energetic, dynamic, and organic than its predecessor. It’s not a bad album and there are moments on it which are able to come close to the emotional delivery and capacity of the debut. But in lieu of flow and the powerful delivery of the previous album, VOLA have chosen to fill this album with a series of “one-two punch” combos that are visible from a mile away and which makes it a somewhat awkward and lumbering release. It edges towards the finish line where Inmazes leaped. eyes constantly focused on the next step instead of letting the athletics of the music unfold. When it nails the landing, it sounds great, but the awkward buildup often makes it feel insecure and stumbling where it should run smoothly.
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Applause of a Distant Crowd was released on October 12th. You can listen to it in full via the Bandcamp link above and purchase it there as well.