What a lovely phrase “return to form” is and how lovely it is to speak it in the same sentence as VOLA. Don’t get me wrong, Applause of a Distant Crowd was a good album, even if it did take me a while to fully get it. However, there are many, many (many) bands doing the whole “we used to play progressive metal and now we play airy, atmospheric pop” right now. Some of those bands are even good at it. But on Applause, I felt like the potential of VOLA, namely their successful mix of electronic pop and heavy, crunchy progressive metal, was being somewhat squandered. It’s that mix which made Inmazes into one of my favorite albums from the last decade, giving it its heft and emotional punch.
When you take all of this into consideration, you can see why I was pleased when I first turned on Witness. While the opening track, “Straight Lines”, already has its promise, it’s on “Head Mounted Sideways” that I was really grooving. The mix between djent-y, hard hitting riffs, soaring vocals, and lush synths was exactly what I’ve been craving from this album. VOLA are just masters at pulling off the contrast and making it interesting; listen, for example, to how the track slows down past the three minute mark, letting the synths take the rein and lead the way towards the dreamy outro, punctuated by an excellent scream that sends it all crashing down. This feeds into the brighter, and totally Inmazes sounding, “24 Light-Years”, which is quickly becoming my favorite VOLA track.
But here’s the thing: Witness doesn’t “just” give us back the VOLA of previous releases. It also experiments with the basic VOLA sound in really brave ways. The main example of this is the controversial “These Black Claws”, which features a guest spot by SHAHMEN, a hip-hop artist who has delved in dark beats and vibes for a while now. His experience in that darkness is well evidenced on this track which, alongside an absolutely monstrous guitar riff, has a weird, creepy, and unsettling vibe that VOLA hasn’t really tapped into before. The hip-hop/rap elements on the track are excellent, adding an extra noir sheen to the track that is extremely welcome.
There’s a charge that could be levied against this album which says that these experimentations make it feel scattered and unfocused. While I don’t disagree, I think I would “pay that cost” any day of the week to hear VOLA push themselves into new spaces while still insisting on retaining what made me fall in love with the band in the first place. Put all of Witness together and you get an album that, wait for it, progresses VOLA into their future. It leans heavily on the elements which made them successful to begin with, namely the excellent conjunction between loud, heavy progressive metal and illustrious electronics. But it also reaches forward from that vantage point, exploring new ways for VOLA to channel their energies instead of squandering them on “mature” and aloof renunciations of the band’s roots.
VOLA’s Witness was released on May 21st. You can head on over to their Bandcamp page to purchase it.