Progressive rock and metal have this interesting duality built into the core of them. On one hand, their pedigree almost requires of them to be dark, in both sound and theme. Sure, there are bands which break through this requirement but, in general, the genres of rock and metal skew towards the rough, the abrasive, and the morose. On the other hand, progressive music was born, at least in part, from a sort of exuberance. If you go back through the roster of the classic progressive rock bands, you find acts like Yes, Rush, and King Crimson. While the latter definitely has a darker side to it, none of of these bands exactly evoke a terribly muted color palette, with Yes (and Gentle Giant and Gong and a dozen other bands) frankly awash in light, hope, peace, and joy. I used “interesting” to describe this duality because that’s just what it is; it’s not a problem but rather a puzzle or a range of options, to be solved in a myriad of ways, configured and reconfigured.
Up until their latest release, Azure seem to have configured the dodecahedron of progressive influence on the lighter side of things. Both “Mistress” and Redtail, the two previous pieces of music we got from them, were inherently bright. First, their music sounded bright; it was filled with chromatic guitar solos and leads, evocative and explosive colors, and a feeling of unrestrained desire to live and to be free. Secondly, their themes were also bright. Sure, Redtail has its share of fear and struggle, but it’s inherently a track about an outsider coming into their own. But for Of Brine and Angel’s Beaks, their release from 2021, both the darker themes and the darker sounds of Azure’s palette, previously quite muted on both fronts, have been brought to the fore. This makes the album a much more difficult listen than previous releases, as more complexity and a wider range of ideas is brought to bear to convey this darker tone.
“Outrun God” is probably the best example of this. The track starts off with bright-enough synths but is primarily motivated by this fast, chuggy riff. The electronics soon follow suit, introduced amen breaks, bleaker tones, and an overall structure which amplifies the rougher edges around the guitars. Further down the line, the guitars are even heavier and more oppressive and while the chorus is decidedly Azure, showcasing Christopher Sampson’s iconic, bright voice, it’s all a set up for devolution. The track doesn’t wait long before it comes for Sampson’s vocals as well, distorting them in a few ways before the track comes to its morose and forlorn close, led into its demise by that heavy riff returned and made even more oppressive.
You can find the added complexity I mentioned in my description of “Outrun God”. Electronics, samples, vocal distortions, and new kinds of riffs, all make this track one of the band’s most intricate. But the entire album is like that, using constantly changing structures to nail home its more difficult themes. “Mercy”, which follows “Outrun God”, changes the tempo again, sinking into slower and more contemplative beats for its main thrust. Other tracks, like “Ameotoko I – The Curse” utilizes Galen Stapley incredible talent on the guitar to generate shimmering, many-noted bridges. In other Azure recordings these might be called “bright” but here, in conjunction with the rest of the instruments and especially the synths, they come across as macabre, theatrical and melodramatic to an exact degree. All of the added parts are in service of the album’s melancholy and frustration, using progressive music to unravel these complicated feelings.
But here’s the thing: Azure is, first and foremost, a progressive band and because of that, the glimmer of their optimism is deeply embedded into their work, whatever direction they choose to go. The above mentioned “Ameotoko I – The Curse” is actually a fantastic example of this, as it includes the sort of 80’s pop-rock passages we’ve grown to love Azure for. These spots of light shine all the brighter for being surrounded by so much anger, frustration, and sadness, and herein lies the true strength of “Of Brine and Angel’s Beaks”. It refuses to choose between the different presentations and spectrums available to progressive music, instead finding away to thread the needle between both. In a way, the cover art already hints at this combination; it tells us the story of this album, for Azure, the resplendent bird above the empty ocean, both hopeful and longing at the same time. It tells us that this album is something else, a new/old direction for the band.
It tells us that the album is Azure through a mirror, darkly. The same band we’ve come to love (and boy, do I love Azure) is still there, their optimistic, hopeful, powerful heart still beating underneath the added musical layers. And that’s what makes all of those additions work; in other works, they’d come off as extraneous or forced, the mark of a band trying too hard to be something they’re not. But here, the extra tones, the contrasts, the counterpoints, and the overall structure of the album work so well because they are in constant communication with Azure’s style and their artistic direction. If you weren’t excited about what this band can do and will hopefully continue to do in the future, Of Brine and Angel’s Beaks should be the release to make you so. It shows that Azure are more than “just” excellent at their trademark sound but that they have the musicianship and the self confidence to go elsewhere and do just as well there.
Of Brine and Angel’s Beaks was released on June 11th. Please, please go over to the band’s Bandcamp and support one of the best progressive bands around.