Obscure Gems – Ark

Way back in 2011, in what is now the Days of Yore of Heavy Blog, Noyan ran a series of posts titled Obscure Gems. It focused on underrated, under-appreciated albums, shining a light on their genius. In 2020, I’m bringing this series back; it can focus on any period of time, whether old or new, and will once again to bring some excellent albums to people who might not have heard of them otherwise. The idea here is not to do this for clout. I’ll readily admit that many of these albums were recommended to me; I’m not trying to show off my impeccable taste (though it is, of course, impeccable) or the depth of my knowledge. The idea here is purely about the music and excellent music at that. If I can introduce even one person to a fantastic album they didn’t know beforehand, my mission will be complete. So, “obscure” should be taken with a grain of salt; Your Mileage May Vary. My obscure is not your obscure and that’s totally fine. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get into it.

There’s a man called Jørn Lande. His voice is unmistakable though his excess and grandiosity is often criticized. He has landed his voice to projects such as Masterplan (an incredibly underrated band in their own right, I’ll probably be covering them as well in the future) and Ayreon. Wherever he goes, his epic timbre goes with him and, admittedly, not every band can support and work with the sheer volume of his singing. But there was one band, for one album, that managed to do arguably better than any other Lande-adjacent project. That band is Ark and in 2001 they released their second albu, Burn the Sun. It is a masterpiece of progressive metal, melding the talents of Tore Østby (Conception), John Macaluso (Riot, Yngwie Malmsteen), Randy Coven (Steve Vai) and Mats Olausson (Malmsteen), and yes, Lande himself. The end result of this cauldron of talent is an incredibly intricate, moving, and wild album that utilizes the names above to an incredibly elegant and effective degree.

At the base of Burn the Sun lies, naturally, Lande’s voice. On this album, like any other, he utilizes his incredible lung capacity for prolonged screams and, more than anything, his ability to simply rouse your emotions. Whether it’s the opening, self-titled track and its sci-fi vibes or on the refreshing “Just a Little” with its surf rock themes, Lande is simply at the height of his powers on this album. Listen to the outro to the latter track for example; where the rest of the track is lighter and less ambitious, Lande can’t help but burst into flames near it ends. He’s able to conjure up all of that power of expression even when the instruments are simpler and more intimate; he’s a force in his own right.

But it would be a grave mistake to focus just on the talents of Lande when describing this album. The first on our list is Randy Coven, who sadly passed away in 2014. His performance on the bass guitar on this album cannot be overstated. Listen to the eerie “Torn” for example and the ways in which his playing “swims” in between the more elaborate drums and ambient guitars. It does so much to Lande’s vocals, working in permutation with them, embellishing his lows and highs with genius touches of the instrument. When it’s time to play a more supportive role in conjunction with the drums, along the chorus, Coven can do that as well, melding with the percussion into a powerful groove section. His playing in these more subtle tracks reminds of John Myung and his under-appreciated work on the excellent Falling Into Infinity, which is a contemporary of Ark (released in 1997) and very much represents the same “moment” in progressive metal’s history.

While we’re here, we can naturally talk about Macaluso’s drums and their equally elegant performance. Moving just one track forward, we find the atmospheric “Waking Hour”, where the drums do an amazing job of keeping the otherwise somewhat abstract track grounded to its beat. Elsewhere, Macaluso also performs very well in more intricate passages, never giving up his emotional connection to the beat in favor of its technicality and complexity. Deserving of its note is his work on the cymbals, neither overwhelming nor too quiet but just right as he fills silences and beats with a moving, connective tissue. It’s obvious that, along with Østby, Macaluso is the beating heart of the band; his frills, fills, and little touches are omni-present in their expression and depth on Burn the Sun.

Which brings us to Østby, the other half of the heart of this group. If you back to the aforementioned “Waking Hour” and focus on the guitars on this track, you’ll hear both of the styles which Østby’s playing takes on this album. First, they paint these weird ambient melodies that are replete throughout the album (they get even weirder on tracks like the following “Resurrection”), setting the tone for everything else that’s happening, granting it this dark tint that colors everything on Burn the Sun. The other mode, more present in the latter half of the track, manifests in wild, uncontainable solos that refuse to obey the tropes of 90’s progressive metal. Instead of mirroring Lande, as many solos back then worked with the vocalist’s range and key, Østby runs free, channeling a sort of corroded tone to an amazing versatility and technical degree. The result, coupled with Lande as contrast rather than mirror, is an incredibly powerful catharsis emanating from the guitar that is rare to see.

I could go on. The keyboards are also amazing. There are brass instruments. There are more bass improvisations and touches and ambience and weird ass solos. But the bottom line is that Burn the Sun is one of the more expressive, unapologetic, and unrelenting albums made within the progressive metal sub-genre, in the 90’s, the early 00’s, or ever. It is a milestone which has influenced many musicians (just ask around some progressive musicians and you’ll see) but which has been missing from the public discourse on the genre. To be honest, I myself only found out about it three or so years ago, when Ayreon’s Y made me want to dig deeper into Lande’s career. Now I’m here, telling you to rediscover one of the greatest progressive metal albums ever made. You won’t regret it.

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Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.