Beyond analysis, beyond notes, preferences, and accuracy, there lie theme, feeling, and vibe. These are ideas that are often hard to grasp and even harder to communicate to others but they have crucial bearing on the realms of music. Indeed, many a genre rely wholly on them, setting out to create a certain emotion or state of mind in the listener rather than intellectually intrigue or befuddle them. This has nothing to do with technicality, mind you; the most complex genres (like progressive rock or metal for example) can also focus mainly on theme and feeling (for example, the reason Gentle Giant are so good is not only or even mainly because they’re mind-bending musicians but mostly because of the atmosphere their music creates). Thus, it would be a mistake to equate complex songwriting with less emphasis on mood or vice verse.
Europa‘s Small Steps is a great example. It’s not a simple album by any measure of the word; both on the album’s structural level (how the tracks are configured and placed in relation to each other) and in every individual track, Small Steps is made up of many moving piece. First, there’s a decidedly progressive or even math tendency to the composition, like on the repeating and bewildering leads of “Criminals”. This emphasis on speed and complex expression lends many segments on the album that kind of intellectually fascinating quality, as you try to parse and understand exactly what goes in them.
The second musical theme or vibe is less about specific notes or techniques and more about a certain type of flavor. It comes from the harsher backing screams on tracks like “Redesign” or the “bigger” and more melodic riffs on the opening track. It’s a kind of melodic metalcore vibe, very emotional and strained in its expression of emotions but also bright and filled with hope. Perhaps the best example can be found on the second interlude track, aptly named “Interlude, Earth”. The sweet vocals and guitar lines right after the heavier ending of “Redesign” get across this kind of feeling perfectly and call to mind Coheed and Cambria in the way in which they blend progressive metal, emo emotionality (what a term), and metalcore heaviness.
But the third theme of the album is where things get most interesting. It would have been possible to split this theme into two or even three segments but it’s useful to think of them together: simply put, they are everything you wouldn’t expect to find on either a progressive rock/metal album or a melodic metalcore album. These include post-rock influences in the form of dreamy guitars and ambient passages scattered throughout the album, electronic glitch effects (yeah) on the vocals in places like the wonderful “Slower”, or the long, drawn out, incredibly emotional passages of the over 14 minutes long “Semantic Memory” which come close to doom metal slowness before fading away into ethereal vocal choirs forever. These disparate influences come in under the moniker of “weird” to give Small Steps an incredibly unique flavor, a difference that’s expressed in little touches which build up to create its own atmosphere and style.
The beauty lies in the fact that all of these touches and digressions revolve around the same core sound, around that sweetness and sense of melancholic hope which seems to keep Europa going strong. This means that all those influences make sense and can coalesce to form the album’s sound instead of breaking apart at the seams and creating a fragmented mess. Yes, it does feel weird to listen to glitch electronics right after cavernous chords on “Semantic Memory” but it also feels so, so right and rewarding because it sounds like the same band, the same vibe, and the same theme which runs through Small Steps. As such, Europa conjure to mind names like The Safety Fire, where complexity is only one tool in their belt and expression is the end goal of everything which happens on the album. It’s not weird or off-key for weird’s sake; it’s weird because that’s how Europa have chosen to express themselves and their self expression is rich, interesting, and varied.
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Europa’s Small Steps releases on November 13th. You can head on over to the Bandcamp link above to pre-order it. Also, if you come back to the blog on the 12th, you might find a related surprise…