Welcome back galaxy brain memes and Hammond organ-sniffers! As I’m still adapting to my new role in charge of this column, I’m still working out how I might want to use this intro piece. For now I’ve decided to take it as it comes and focus on whatever news pieces interest me or warrant a comment, as well as possibly a gig review here or an album anniversary discussion there.
Thankfully earlier this week, a piece of prog-relevant news fell right into my lap just as I was pondering on what to pen. After 11 years in the making, Porcupine Tree have announced their return, with a new record, Closure/Continuation, due in June 2022 and a European tour scheduled for autumn of the same year. My initial reactions? Huge excitement followed promptly by nervousness. Porcupine Tree were my gateway to what I’d like to call “modern prog”, which opened my eyes to a whole slew of newer bands who were taking the torch from PT and dialing up the extremity, darkness, or spaciousness. I was pretty late to that whole scene, it was about 2014 by the time I had properly sunk my teeth into the band’s sound, and I recall thinking at the time that it would be the perfect time for them to reunite and release a new album given that all my favourite PT records at the time were from the latter half of their career, In Absentia, Deadwing, Fear of a Blank Planet and the like. 7 years later and they’re back. What do I expect out of Porcupine Tree’s sound in 2022? Will they simply pick up where they left off and further expand on their The Incident era? Will they do a classic comeback move and throw it back to the shroom-infused sound of On the Sunday of Life…? The mind boggles thinking of where they could possibly go next, but my god am I excited to hear it. Enjoy this month’s picks!
Closer To The Heart (Top Picks)
HAAST – Made of Light (power progressive, doom)
There is only one other band on this planet for which I am willing to use the label “power progressive” and that’s Anathema. Not to be confused with progressive power metal (yes, metal genres can be dumb), power progressive doesn’t denote any sort of affiliation with power metal. Instead, it signals a sort of powerful (duh) version of progressive rock, one which channels significantly more emotive extravagance into its vocals, guitars, and overall composition. So, you know, Anathema Weather Systems or We’re Here Because We’re Here. If you’ve heard those albums and have fallen in love with them to the extent that I have (the extent wherein you dream about them), you’ll know why I’m applying this particular label to them.
And now, I am incredibly happy to report that another album has entered the hallowed state where I want to use that label to describe it: HAAST’s Made of Light. Apparently, UK’s HAAST have been around since 2013, albeit under two different names. They also made vastly different music than Made of Light, focusing more on heavier sounds born from sludge and doom. I’ll be frank with you: I was not familiar with their music. I was first acquainted with it three days ago when I opened an email from one of the band members containing a link to their latest album. Yes, three days ago and I am already comparing this album to one of my all time favorite albums, Weather Systems, an album which, on certain days, holds the number one spot as my favorite album of all time. And that’s because I am absolutely, head over heels, in love with Made of Light.
Interestingly enough, the band tell me they’ve never even heard Anathema. That’s incredibly exciting to me in a weird way, because it’s downright miraculous that they’ve reached a style very similar to theirs. They even followed the same path there, seeing as Anathema started their career (all those decades ago) as a doom metal band. But Made of Light stands on its own, make absolutely no mistake. It is comprised of one half of incredibly moving and epic “clean” segments which sing right to the emotional core of the tracks. That core is comprised of observations on loss, perseverance, redemption, love, and sorrow. The lyrics are a major part of the draw and while I’m still working them out, what I have already is very good. All this comes together with large, resounding instrumentation, propelled forward by guitars, to create exactly that Anathema-esque vibe of power progressive.
The other half of the equation, and what sets HAAST apart, is the vestigial remnants of their doom metal/sludge years. Every once in a while, a riff emerges that would not feel out of place on any heavier albums. The second track “A Myth to End All Myths” probably has the most appealing one: it works below and alongside the clean vocals to an extremely satisfying degree, providing great contrast to their deeper timbre. HAAST have also done well to follow up what is perhaps the loudest track on the album with the self-titled, somber ballad which evokes A Natural Disaster in its smoother and more melancholy vibes. The two tracks come together, alongside the forceful and sweeping opening track, “Antipodean”, to distill the essence of HAAST into the first three tracks, opening the album in an extremely convincing way.
Made of Light has a lot more to offer beyond those tracks but I want to give you something to explore by yourself. I seriously urge you to give this album the time that it needs; it will feature highly on my end of year list (yes, it’s almost time to make those again) and I thoroughly anticipate that, like the above cited Anathema albums, it will stay with me well beyond this year.
Hippotraktor – Meridian (progressive metal)
Now that prog has been an established genre for over 50 years, it takes more and more effort and creativity to have even a modicum of interesting things to say and do in your music. Of course this happens with all styles eventually, but progressive rock, and progressive metal in particular, are certainly up there when I think of genres of music that seem a bit, well, stuck. To make myself clear, Belgian band Hippotraktor aren’t reinventing the wheel in progressive music, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t made a stonker of a debut record that deserves to be up there in the ranks of this year’s best prog.
What Hippotraktor get right on Meridian, they get pretty much spot on. Let’s get the boring stuff out the way first; boring but vital. At just over 40 minutes in runtime spanning seven tracks, the record is taut enough for the heft of the music to carry over immaculately and effectively. Not a single track is wasted and every one feels full and dynamic. If there’s a genre that’s most commonly accused of being bloated and laboured to the point of exhaustion, it’s prog. I don’t want a Victorian banquet with twelve courses, I want an appetising starter, a main course that keeps me salivating for more, and a dessert that leaves me bouncing off the walls.
The starter Hippotraktor are serving up is the incredibly aptly titled “Manifest the Mountain”, one of the most perfectly engineered opening songs of the year. It charges forward with a Periphery-esque propulsion before a sky-high chorus chars your skin and leaves you craving that main course. It’s a good time to mention another one of the band’s strengths, the dual vocal assault by Stefan de Graef (vocalist of Psychonaut) and Sander Rom, which creates a soaring force over the instrumentals, Rom hitting the roof with his high cleans while de Graef burrows underneath him with gorgeous, serpentine melodies.
You could criticise the band for the generic nature of the djent grooves that pepper the record, often recalling the way Haken approached their riffs on their most recent works, Vector and Virus, they’re chrome-like, quasi-industrial even. On “Juncture” the stuttering guitar work sounds right out of the TesseracT playbook, particularly One. Despite this, the band make it interesting. They do this via the way different aspects of their sound play off one another, and by settling for less, rather than completely overstuffing their music. I’ve already described how brilliantly Hippotraktor do this in their vocal approach, but they also achieve it in their instrumentals too. This is again demonstrated on “Juncture” which cycles through light, ethereal passages, chunky djent riffing, and then out of nowhere the seas part for a delectable bluesy guitar solo before the soaring climax.
To reiterate, Hippotraktor aren’t breaking new ground here, but this is only their debut record. To my ears, the band pull from all the greatest areas of progressive music from the past 40 or 50 years and craft it in to their own beast to sound vital, massive and tasteful. Imagine what they could do on their third, fourth or fifth record if this is what they can produce first time around. You better stick around to find out.
Polyphonia (Further Listening)
Sunrise Dreamer – A World to Know (progressive metal)
There’s a whole sub-genre or sound of progressive metal that’s pretty much became extinct in this day and age because it was overtaken by the sounds championed by much bigger bands (without pointing any fingers here, look no further than the big sellers of the late 1990’s to the late 2000’s). This genre is motivated more by groovy foundations based firmly in progressive rock, preferring their intricacy to be rooted in engaging compositions rather than flashy displays of technicality or the grandeur of long runtimes and bulky epics. We can name a few examples: Threshold. Sieges Even. Sunrise Dreamer. Wait, who’s that last one?
Sunrise Dreamer is a new project from members of Inner Strength and while you may not know the name it was one of the standard bearers of early 90’s progressive metal, that same style I eulogized at the beginning of this paragraph. Sunrise Dreamer is very much a continuation of that sound, with A World to Know containing plenty of bangers in the style. Listening to “Falling Away”, the opening track, is probably the best idea. The majority of the track’s first half is given over to groovy and solid instrumentation, providing the foundation on which the more flamboyant vocals rest. But the second half of the track is a more technical feast, featuring multiple solos, bass/guitar/drum unisons that defy standard time signatures and a lot more that should be tasty for fans of the genre.
The rest of the album reiterates on these ideas, re-creating the sound of progressive metal from before it gave way to sweeping antics and polished sounds. If you’re interested in this different vision of what progressive metal could have been, and still might be, then definitely give this album a chance. It definitely suffers from some of the weaknesses of that style (namely a bit of repetitiveness and an over-reliance on progressive tropes) but it more than makes up for those by wearing its musical heart on its sleeve.