European progressive metal is just one of those genres where the promise of a well-made album lies at the other side of a field of mediocrity. Perhaps it’s because of how cheesy the genre actually is and how hard it is to be self-aware and wield that tool well. Or maybe it has something to do with the scene’s ties to power metal, ever popular in Europe. Or it might just have something to do with the fact that, wherever it’s made, progressive metal just naturally lends itself to the bloated, the self-aggrandizing, and the stale. Whatever the answer is, the fact remains, however, that if you’re willing to trudge through those fields of sub-par releases, there are real hidden gems waiting beneath the surface. In the excellent year that was 2019, we were treated to just such a gem: Horizon’s End magisterial Skeleton Keys, an album which both embraces and transcends the European progressive metal moniker.
Horizon’s End are, of course, not newcomers to this scene. The Greek band was formed in 1993 and has been a staple of fast, technical, unapologetic prog for years now. However, on Skeleton Keys, it seems as if some sort of new power grips Horizon’s End, creating one of the more convincing and engaging albums they’ve made in a while. Make no mistake: a lot of it is “just” straight up excellent progressive metal. “Forming Fantasies”, the second track to which we’ll soon return, is filled with guitar/keyboard unisons, wailing solos, and shifting time signatures over its nearly eleven minute run-time.
But here’s the secret to the track’s (and the album’s) success: no part overstays its welcome. This is such a common pitfall that I don’t know why people still do it. Progressive metal’s staple sound is busy and over-indulgent; as I’ve said on here before, it’s chocolate cake. Sure, one piece tastes good and maybe even a second one but if you keep eating, your stomach is going to hurt and acid reflux is a bitch. Likewise in prog: you have to ascertain exactly when a certain idea, lick, or passage has outlived its welcome and then you move on. What a concept! Where other bands often seem to miss the mark, Horizon’s End are experts at transitioning away from stale ideas; instead of wailing at the same note or passage, they introduce something new into the mix. This new thing, of course, revolves around the same ideas but approaches them from a different angle.
Speaking of different angles (and returning to “Forming Fantasies” as I promised), the power metal influences on this album (and, indeed, throughout the band’s career) are just a joy to behold. I wouldn’t classify them exactly as “power-prog” but you can’t really listen to the vibrato on “Forming Fantasies” and deny the aesthetic or the galloping-riffs-over-scintillating-synths of the “The Land of Decay” which follows it or the Symphony X drenched “Dreamer’s Hands” right after it. These little power metal nudges, found in synth and guitar tone but also, and mostly, on the vocals do a lot to dispel some of the more beleaguered moments on the album.
Throw in some excellent piano work, a few more ballad-like tracks, and some truly exceptional vocal moments (“Ocean’s Grey” is a great example) and you get one hell of an album. Sure, you’ll be drowning in notes and extended, instrumental passages but you’ll love every moment of it because, unlike so many in its genre, you never really know what Skeleton Keys is going to throw at you next. In a genre known for its imitation games and formulaic tendency, Skeleton Keys stands as a shining example of what happens when a band isn’t afraid to spice up their genre’s rotes with some honest, well made, well executed passion.
Horizon’s End was released on October 31st. You can head on over to Steel Gallery to buy it or search for it on iTunes for a digital copy.