Thursday, August 11, 2016

Evergrey (review by Matt Spall)

Matt Spall is a prog music connoisseur and writes extensively about it. Matt's most beloved band is Evergrey, which happens to have a new album coming up. Never one to miss an opportunity to write about his favorite band, Matt has delivered a new review about it on his The Blog of Much Metal.
At the end of this review you will find the link to Matt's blog. Here is the review.
Artist: Evergrey
Album Title: The Storm Within
Label: AFM Records
Date Of Release: 9 September 2016
Frequent readers will already know all-too-well about my love for Evergrey. I have no hesitation to say that this band is my favourite band of all-time. Their music has been with me for over 16 years and has been a rock to me through many periods of my life, both good and bad.
Evergrey’s early albums, right up to ‘Recreation Day’ accompanied me to my first ‘career’ job, helping to take away the nerves on the journey to work in those early weeks when I could no longer hide within the security of the education system.
My increasing admiration for the band took me to my first festival, Bloodstock in 2004. That was back when it was an indoor festival and when maybe three others in the unenlightened UK crowd had even heard of Evergrey. It also led me inexorably to Gothenburg to witness first-hand the appropriately-named and unforgettable ‘A Night To Remember’.
And, when my younger brother passed away a few years ago, Evergrey was the first metal band that I listened to after a significant degree of inner turmoil that pushed me away from heavy music for some time.
I’ve witnessed Evergrey play to around 50 people in London and in front of thousands in Germany at the 2007 Bang Your Head Festival. And I’ve even shared their tour bus for a night or two during a brief UK tour.
Quite simply, Evergrey connect with me on both a musical and an emotional level, continuing to be an important friend to me whilst I still battle day to day with personal demons and insecurities. I love the combination of melody, subtle progressive tendencies and the heaviness of the music, not to mention one of the very best voices in heavy metal in Tom Englund. I also understand the sentiment in much of the lyrical content and it gives me strength to know that I’m not alone. It might sound trite, but it’s true.
For all this, I am the first to admit that my fanboy status wavered for a few years, beginning with the release of 2006’s ‘Monday Morning Apocalypse’. It wasn’t a bad album per se; far from it really. It was just that it felt too ordinary, not progressive enough and a little too modern. The follow-up, ‘Torn’ was also good but not up to the normal stratospheric levels of their masterpieces, namely ‘Recreation Day’, ‘Solitude, Dominance, Tragedy’ and ‘In Search Of Truth’. In fact, the latter remains my favourite album of all time.
My point is therefore that, whilst I am an unashamed fanboy, I am honest and will admit when I think that the band fall below the standards I expect.
Following the release of ‘Monday Morning Apocalypse’ Evergrey seemed to suffer from a bad case of ‘revolving door syndrome’ as members came and went more frequently than they would have liked. So, when in 2014, it was confirmed that two long-term members of the band, guitarist Henrik Danhage and drummer Jonas Ekdahl, were returning to the fold, fans rejoiced. I rejoiced. This newfound sense of optimism and confidence was palpable and it resulted in Evergrey’s strongest release for many years in the form of ‘Hymns For The Broken’. For many it is the best, and for me, it certainly rivals the magnificence of ‘In Search Of Truth’ and ‘Recreation Day’.
So, what of the follow-up, Evergrey’s tenth studio album to coincide with the band’s 20th anniversary? With arguably the strongest Evergrey line-up, consisting of the aforementioned as well as guitarist/vocalist Tom Englund, keyboardist Rikard Zander and bassist Johan Niemann, could they build on a new-found sense of unity, hunger, confidence and desire to produce something as good as before? Could they maybe even better it? Or would the euphoria of 2014 dissipate, thus causing a drop in creativity? The answer, I am overjoyed to report, is very much the former.
‘The Storm Within’ is the glorious sound that is created when five musicians come together at the very top of their game. Rikard’s keys permeate the entire album with an abundance of sounds and textures, both familiar and new. Tom and Henrik’s guitar playing is out of the top drawer, both in lead and rhythm guises. Johan’s bass is clear within the muscular mix, allowing his understated dexterity and sense of melody to provide an audible pulse to the music. And Jonas’ drumming is the heartbeat, offering a solid foundation that’s also deceptively complex and ambitious, arguably his most accomplished performance to date.
From the first notes of opener ‘Distance’, to the final moments of the closing title track, ‘The Storm Within’ is just about the perfect album for me in the here and now. It is exactly the kind of music that I want to listen to and, more so, that I crave. I have listened to this record more times than I care to admit, probably close to twice a day on average if not more. And the great thing is that it keeps getting better.
For those looking for a carbon copy to any of Evergrey’s previous releases, prepare to be disappointed. ‘The Storm Within’ is the sound of Evergrey 2016 and it is another step in their gradual evolution towards what they personally perceive to be the Holy Grail. The closest reference is clearly the predecessor ‘Hymns For The Broken’ but crucially, it is a lot more than that. If you give this record the care and attention it deserves, you will begin to notice many more subtle aspects emerge within Evergrey’s current brand of music. The band themselves refer to the output on this album as ‘cinematic, eerie and desolate’, and that’s not far from the mark at all.
Beginning with the lyrical content, in keeping with most other Evergrey albums, the subject matter is based on intensely personal and human emotions. ‘The Storm Within’ is a concept album that deals with a subject that all of us, to a greater or lesser extent can identify with: loving someone, losing them and then dealing with the often tumultuous aftermath. The words act as a compelling partner to the music that surrounds them.
Onto the music itself and deliberate or not, there are more than a few nods to previous releases on this album. Be it a riff that calls to mind ‘Monday Morning Apocalypse’, a string embellishment that conjures up nostalgic memories of ‘Solitude…’ or a keyboard sound that recalls the ‘In Search Of Truth’ era, these little gems do exist and they are truly wonderful.
‘Distance’ sets things off perfectly, book-ended by simple, lonely piano notes from Rikard Zander that certainly sound eerie, almost forlorn. In between is a crushing riff that kicks in to set the song moving at a modest, bulldozing mid-tempo. The melancholy atmosphere in which this song enshrouds the listener is sensational, topped off by a huge hook-laden chorus, duelling solos and a breath-taking, goose bump-inducing choir-led outro, featuring Englund’s talented daughter Salina amongst the ranks.
By contrast, ‘Passing Through’ ups the pace noticeably and with immediate effect, thanks to an explosive opening, an energetic rhythm section and blazing solos that push all my buttons. But again, memorable riffs and a monster chorus all combine to create a stunning opening one-two on the album, one that leaves you gasping for breath but demanding more.
‘Someday’ was a bit of a grower if I’m honest, not hitting me hard out of the blocks initially. However, it isn’t long before the relatively simple chorus works its almost insidious magic, surrounded by crushing riffs that are slower in pace, thus allowing the notes to resonate more deeply thus creating a different aural impact to the faster material elsewhere. The bass rumble is irresistible, as is the sudden freefall into a brief yet inspired vocal and keyboard section that breaks the song up brilliantly.
Next up is the utterly sublime ‘Astray’, a song that brings Evergrey’s progressive sensibilities much more to the fore. I love the way that this song sounds so simple on a first listen but with time, gently and elegantly blossoms to reveal its true identity. The transitions between the different elements are so smooth, they can almost get missed. Heavy riffs nestle against minimalist moments of introspective atmosphere, the tempo frequently shifts and savagery blends seamlessly with melody. The icing on the cake is the guitar solo from Danhage that screams ‘The Inner Circle’ beautifully.
‘The Impossible’ is a stripped down song that features just Englund’s vocals and Zander’s synths throughout, only joined by a rich and powerful string section in the very latter stages. And yet, rather than give listeners a breather from the dark oppressive content, it simply adds to it. There is a palpable urgency and despair that is classic Evergrey and it allows Tom Englund to unleash his powerfully soulful and melodic voice to devastating effect, communicating an almost heart-breaking anguish in the process.
If fans are looking for speed from an Evergrey composition, then ‘My Allied Ocean’ delivers in spades. It is aggressive and intense but also has the feel of a power metal song insofar as the whole thing is totally infectious and decidedly up-tempo, dominated by fast, measured drumming from Ekdahl that’s utterly relentless, barely dropping below a quasi-blastbeat gallop at any point.
The first of two duets on the record, ‘In Orbit’ is one to get the hardcore fans debating feverishly thanks to a guest vocal appearance from Nightwish’s current femme fatale Floor Jansen. It goes without saying that Floor delivers her role in the track expertly and with power and passion. However, to fixate or obsess positively or negatively about Jansen’s inclusion would be to miss the power of the song itself. Expertly crafted, it once again features an enormous chorus that borders on mainstream territory initially. However, I love the bass work from Johan Niemann in the opening verses, whilst the second half of the track cleverly and surreptitiously reverts more to a ‘Recreation Day’ Evergrey vibe, complete with bruising riffs and arguably one of the most evocative and poignant guitar solos on the entire record.
As much as I love the first half of ‘The Storm Within’, it is the final four tracks where I personally believe that these five sickeningly talented Swedes really excel themselves. ‘The Lonely Monarch’ begins this impressive quadruple and is initially striking thanks to Rikard Zander’s more modern choice of keyboard sounds. As previously mentioned, Zander’s eloquent stamp is all over this album but here he comes even more to the fore. Another huge chorus never fails to raise a smile on this wizened visage, neither does the duelling solos from Danhage and Englund that are simply killer and hark back to earlier times.
Led in by more beautiful piano work from Zander, ‘The Paradox Of The Flame’ is a ballad to end all ballads. The combination of the piano, the string section and Tom’s captivating voice is stunning. And then Evergrey release their secret weapon: Carina Englund. How this beautiful vocalist is not a successful artist in her own right baffles me because she has one of the richest and emotional voices I’ve heard. And the combination of husband and wife, when accented by some simple and effective rhythm instrumentation as well as wailing, melodic solos brings a tear to my eye. So when the lone violin enters the fray, to create echoes to the days of ‘Solitude, Dominance, Tragedy’, I’m struggling to put the beauty of this composition into words.
It would be easy for Evergrey to lift the foot off the pedal at this point but unbelievably, the quality remains as high as ever for the final two tracks on the album. ‘Disconnect’ is one of those songs that came from nowhere to completely floor me. It begins in heavy, confrontational fashion before offering one of the most diverse listening experiences on the album. It is progressive in structure, delivers yet another fantastic chorus and underlines beyond doubt the ‘cinematic’ tag that has been applied to this record. Zander’s keys are huge on this song, creating depth, atmosphere and a truly epic quality that I love.
It is then up to the title track to close out ‘The Storm Within’ and it does so in majestic fashion. Those cinematic credentials are pushed to the limit one last time as I’m vaguely reminded of ‘Visions’ from ‘Recreation Day’ through the overall vibe and feel of the song. Quietly considered one of his favourite compositions to date, it isn’t hard to see why as the album ends on a note of vague positivity amongst the pervasive gloom and melancholy that precedes it.
You might dismiss the preceding 2000 or so words as the inane ramblings of an obsessed Evergrey fanboy. To an extent, you might be right. And I can live with that if that’s your conclusion. However, whatever you do, don’t dismiss ‘The Storm Within’ in the same way. Give it your full, undivided attention and maybe you too will consider this album to be Evergrey’s finest hour. Will it even replace ‘In Search Of Truth’ as my all-time favourite album? Watch this space. What is certain however is that Evergrey’s majestic blend of heaviness, melody and emotion means that ‘The Storm Within’ is nothing short of a bona fide masterpiece. All hail Evergrey.
The Score Of Much Metal: 10
EVERGREY - Distance (2016) // official clip // AFM Records
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