Disclaimer: Leah Marcu, the mind behind Tillian, is a good personal friend of mind. I’ve been following the project as it slowly came to life for a while now. Nonetheless, I am reviewing this album because I earnestly believe in its quality and have aimed to do as good a job as possible in describing it objectively.
Ah, progressive rock! What an unruly beast it is. Standing in 2019, it seems as if the depth of my fatigue from the genre is almost as great as the warm place I have for it in my heart, as I grew up on its sonorous and often excessive trappings. Perhaps that explains the reason for which I still give it a shot, wading through a sea of mediocrity to find the gems that can still be gleaned from its depths. Fortunately, sometimes the gems come to me and surface much closer to home. Such is the case with Tillian, a Tel Aviv based progressive rock band which just happens to be spearheaded by one of my close friends. They also happen to make fresh, exciting progressive rock, centered mostly around Leah Marcu’s vocals but containing much more.
The basic core of Tillian is firmly rooted in the traditions of acts like Porcupine Tree and Pain of Salvation. These traditions, namely of a “darker” tint of progressive rock bordering on metal (and crossing that border at times, like on the excellent “Monster”), lend Tillian their lyrical content first and foremost. This results in a personal and intimate album which mostly discusses personal struggles, relationships, coming to terms with oneself, and other tropes associated with progressive rock. These themes are presented with a fresh eyes for metaphor and simile, creating a deep connection with the listener through tried and true metaphors.
This connection is also fueled by Marcu’s excellent command of her voice. Her range on this album is nothing less than impressive. At more “natural” states it has a refreshing, deep timbre, not quite like any other vocalists in the genre (although comparisons to iamthemorning could certainly be made). However, it is where Marcu clearly departs from her comfort zone that interesting things happen. The aforementioned “Monster” is a great example; as the music diverges into Spanish influenced guitar lines, Marcu’s voice swims around and above her usual inflection, sometimes going higher (much higher) than one would expect and sometimes deeper, exploring the edges of what she is capable of instead of satisfying herself with safety. In both places, you can hear the strain but the execution is carried very well, the effort adding an emotive layer to it, an appreciation for a daring task well done.
However, pleasingly so, the album is made up of much more than just Marcu’s voice. What would usually be described as a “supporting cast” is transformed on this album into a full band, with just as important a role in the creation of the album. The groove sections and the guitars all receive their own well written roles but especially deserving of attention are the truly excellent synths and pianos on the album. Once again, “Monster” serves us well: it features excellent synth tones, utilized cleverly to offset and flesh out the rest of the instruments. Here as well Tillian aren’t afraid to experiment: the next track, “Moonlight Dancer”, moves away from both prog and the Spanish influences from before, inserting Mediterranean vibes and rhythm structures, utilizing the instrumentation in a much different capacity now, more dynamic and forceful. An added cello role, which features prominently elsewhere on the album to excellent effect (like on “The Beggar”), fleshes out the track and adds an air of mystery to it.
Funnily enough, these different influences and sounds (the album also has slower, drawn out ballads, more metal tracks like “Black Holes”, and a few more styles) end up also being one of the album’s major, and only, pitfalls. In general, Lotus Graveyard could do with a bit more cohesion. As it stands, the album is very much a debut effort in that regard, still moving around and shifting in its attempt to find a consistent voice. This is also a place where the release is quintessentially progressive rock , often bothered by the inherent indecisiveness that plagues much of the genre while constantly being forced to do more, to reach further, to add more influences by the genre’s inherent obsession with experimentation.
Still, when the album is on, it’s on and that’s more often than not. Where the album stands out is where it owns its own sound (get it) and “speaks” from a place of confidence. Luckily, this is more often than not; tracks like “Black Holes”, opening “Reborn”, lead single “I’m Too Close” and “Love or Heaven” (once again containing excellent synths and even well executed growls) present enough stand out moments to pierce through the not insubstantial amount of music on this release and reach into the heart of the listener. “I’m Too Close” and “Black Holes” (make sure to catch the backing vocals on this track, they’re excellent) are especially potent examples of what happens when Marcu and the rest of the band join forces to push a consistent message and theme. Thus, even if it does misstep a few times in its ambition to do everything and go everywhere, Lotus Graveyard is a bold and successful attempt to capitalize on the band’s impressive synergy, promising much for this new and coalescing group.
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Tillian’s Lotus Graveyard sees release on April 20th. You can head on over to the band’s Bandcamp page to pre-order it.