Like the previous two releases by the band, it’s hard to explain this new release by Zeal and Ardor without explaining how the band first got it’s start.
Manuel Gagneux would post on 4chan, asking people to combine two genres together. He would then make a song blending the two styles, as a challenge to himself. When someone posted black metal, and another posted n***** music, he could have gotten mad, but instead, he ran with it, and asked the question, “what if American slaves embraced Satan instead of Jesus?”.
The result was a song in 2013, a demo in 2014, and a full length in 2016.
Two albums later, Zeal and Ardor sounds like no other band. The heaviness, instrumentation, and darkness of black metal combined with the soul and power of negro spirituals, not to mention the influence of some industrial music. They were able to confront a part of history that wouldn’t feel right by almost any other metal band. And despite the racist parts of black metal brought in by NSBM bands (National Socialist Black Metal), Gagneux said there was a lot of similarities in the two styles fueled by rebellion.
But the year 2020, brought something else to the forefront, during the COVID 19 pandemic. While the world was in lockdown, the murder of George Floyd brought protests, civil unrest, and frustration. And while deaths of black people by the hands of white cops was something that had sparked controversy in the past, the lockdown and social media took it to heights it had never seen before. The world took notice, and protests happened everywhere.
Emanuel wrote a batch of songs in response to what he was seeing, and knew that it had to be its own thing. It wouldn’t fit with the new Zeal and Ardor material he was working on, and yet, Zeal and Ardor had to be the metal band to talk about it, like they were with slavery.
This become Wake of a Nation, and the artwork said it all; two police batons creating an inverted cross.
The album starts with “Vigil”, and the piano ballad element sounds like a complete transformation before their quintessential sound comes in on the chorus. It does not hide, or shy away. It directly starts out:
You took all we had away You’re quick to call it sick But we’ve been damned to say “I can’t breathe, it’s a cellphone Please don’t shoot, I need to get home I’m on my knees begging please”
So you’re just following orders They just keep falling on us How many more will it last? Why not just take all of us?
Due to its intense nature, I can see this one becoming not only the favorite of this EP, but a standard in Zeal and Ardor setlists for years to come.
Next is “Tuskegee” which is about the infamous Syphilis Study from 1932 to 1972. 600 African American men were observed for untreated syphilis. 399 of them were diagnosed with it, but were never told what they really had (they were told they had “bad blood”), they were never treated despite syphilis becoming treatable by penicillin in 1947, they did not receive the free health care they were promised, and were given placebos and other ineffective treatments. They were never warned of the symptoms, or the fact that it could be spread to others. 128 of them died to complications, 40 wives had contacted it, and 19 children had it passed on to them.
You can see why this is such an angry song, compared to the sadness snd frustration of the first one, and we quickly see both sides of Zeal and Ardor’s arsenal. This contains some of the best black metal shrieks and low growls in the band’s short existence. It also ties to what we are currently seeing with vaccination rollout, as communities of color continue to struggle with trusting healthcare officials after so many instances like this one. An informative, and hard hitting song.
“At the Seams” keeps a steady rock beat as it goes back and forth between a two piano note ballad feel to it’s heavy black metal counterpart. The softer parts show the diversity of his singing voice with harmonies snd some nice lows. The heavy moments feel like the climax of a post rock song. It even has spoken German at the end saying:
“He told you he couldn’t breathe For eight minutes A scream in the dark”
Before letting out an appropriate bloodcurdling scream to finish the song.
“I Can’t Breathe” is a minute long interlude with real soundclips from protests, news reports, and cellphone footage on top of an industrial rhythm and some emotional wordless vocals. My only complaint is that it comes at a weird place, when I feel it would have had more effect at the beginning or end. This goes straight into:
“Trust No One”. Probably the most similar song to their past two releases, it has the call and response elements of the clean vocals, then switches to black metal, for the remainder of the song. It is sludgier than “Tuskegee”, and reminds me of Deafheaven, who must have rubbed off a bit on their tour a few years ago.
The final track is the title track, which sees the call and response at its most complex. This is all done over some NIN bass/keyboard tones, and is heavier than any song with hand claps should be. The layering is incredible, and again, it could have been a great opener, but is interestingly placed as the closer.
My problems with the album are solely with the length and track order. Almost every song feels too short. Some could have benefited from another verse or chorus. Some could have benefited from an extra section. Some could have benefited from switching locations. But that said, every song brings something special to this release. They all could be done live and will enhance their already excellent live show. And maybe that’s where these songs will really flourish. But this EP as a whole leaves me wanting another song at least. The material is good and worthy of praise. And I’m sure there’s so much more that the band could have said.
I guess, as is the case with most EPs, it will hold us over until the next release. But I also think it was a very smart move to get it out as quickly as possible to be with the times as they were happening. It is a time stamp, and will always elicit emotions upon each re-listen, as we are transported back to the spring and summer of 2020.
I would love to see the band tackle more material like this, but even if they don’t, this was a powerful release, and one that shouldn’t be forgotten. We are fortunate that Zeal and Ardor took it up to themselves to say something for the metal community during these trying times, and release an album in the name of George Floyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and so many others.
The newest album by Manchester Orchestra draws attention to its uniqueness with its album artwork. From the bright pink to the computer generated element, it continues the surrealistic element of its previous release’s artwork, bringing the black and white scheme to a more modern feel.
The music does that too.
Manchester Orchestra has expanded their sound with every release, and have definitely matured as well. Their debut feels dated, from its Polaroid album cover, to its simple production. But the band has always been driven by singer/guitarist Andy Hull’s sense of melody and unique turn of phrase in his lyrics.
Mean Everything to Nothing continued this sound, Simple Math showed its improved production with a greater focus on layering, and Hope and Cope showed the two sides of the band, the hard rock (almost sludgy) interpretations and the stripped down acoustic interpretations of the same songs.
A Black Mile to the Surface was their most cohesive album, with a flow, a mindset, and a purpose. This took their live shows to the next level. Big production, expanded lighting, and some of the most powerful and clear mixes I had heard in years. They utilized this mentality, for their next release.
This album feels like the most pop, produced, and mainstream sounding thing the band has ever done. This might be an instant turnoff for some people who will accuse the band of selling out. But with repeated listens, you realize, there is a lot to uncover.
The album was inspired by the death of a family member, and deals with acceptance, the transition of body and spirit, the afterlife, and hope. This may not be instantly apparent. Despite its more electronic focused sound, simple chord progressions and structures, and familiar techniques with vocals and keyboards, this album doesn’t immediately jump out at you in terms of catchy choruses. Andy’s usual unique lyricism isn’t as obvious either.
The band has expressed that like a movie, it is supposed to be listened to in one sitting. And because of its concept album tendencies, lyrics, themes, melodies, and ideas are repeated. That explains why it initially felt blurred together.
But their previous album had great flow and still had a strong sense of individualism for each song! So why wasn’t this jumping out at me yet?
I knew it sounded good, but after a listen, couldn’t remember any hooks.
This is because the band deliberately wanted to avoid the individualism of the songs. It truly is the opposite of its previous release. Only in understanding the flow of the album, do the themes and catchy melodies reveal themselves, and that is when the album is most enjoyable.
Starting with the big opening of “Inaudible”, the church like vocals sound huge, especially when the rest of the band comes in. This feels more like the beginning of a play, rather than a movie, and transitions into the darker “Angel of Death” which starts with the kind of wordless vocals you’re use to on the radio these days. The driving rhythm hits a big chorus, and reminds me very much of one of my favorite bands, The Dear Hunter.
“Keel Timing” is the funkiest song the band has ever done, and let’s the infectious groove be its main focus. “Bed Head” builds off of its rhythm and melodies while returning to the darker tone of the “Angel of Death” verse. The industrial and electronic tones, high harmonies, and chorus have gotten stuck in my head over and over since first listen. Definitely a highlight of the album.
“Annie” follows with a simple delivery, and brings the album down for its gorgeous first ballad “Telepath”. A short acoustic driven piece, this might actually be the first melody that sticks in your head upon first listen.
“Let it Storm” starts as a ballad that while it doesn’t get heavy, has a profound full band hit in the chorus, while “Dinosaur” has an electronic vibe that reaches a hard-hitting climax towards the end. “Obstacle” follows suit of “Let it Storm” and it’s clear there’s a deliberate reason that the album starts heavier and darker and ends softer and more beautiful. It represents the transition of life, and the acceptance. It strays from the questioning, doubt, and fear, and has a nostalgic certainty. It’s absolutely beautiful.
“Way Back” continues this and lulls the listener, not to sleep, but more like through a trip in the clouds. And this all sets up the final “The Internet”, which reminds of their previous album closer “The Silence”. While it never reaches the same climax of that one, it see similarities in melodies and lyrics, as well as it’s airy and twangy guitar tone. It ends with an allusion to “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”, something that has made appearances throughout the album.
It’s a fickle album in who it will impress and who it won’t. People who like the band already will like it with repeated listens, and people who like pop music will like it, as it is their most accessible album to that group. But to certain fans of rock who have not gotten into them yet, this might not be the best choice of an introduction. The mainstream elements might be a turnoff, and they might do better to come back to it after they’ve experienced previous albums (Cope and A Black Mile to the Surface for the rock and metal fans, their first two and Hope for the acoustic or indie crowd).
That being said, there’s enough to digest here that it is a rewarding album with repeated listens. It is fun to connect the dotes in terms of shared lyrics and melodies between songs. There’s enough to appreciate in terms of beautiful melodies, production, and thought-provoking lyrics. And these songs are gonna feel huge in a live setting.
It may seem repetitive at first, but I implore you to give the album another try if it wasn’t for you on first listen. It might not be the catchiest album they’ve done, but it is an excellent step for the band in terms of pushing themselves and will reward them with acclaim and popularity in the long run.
With the COVID 19 pandemic a few months in, and scattered great releases coming from Katatonia and The Ocean, I said to myself…
“Where is Godspeed”?
The post rock band has always been a perfect soundtrack for the end of the world, alongside the absolutely crushing and most devastating moments by Japanese outfit Mono. And despite their lack of lyrics, they have found a way for their music to convey strong political connotations, whether through soundclips, song names, artwork, linear notes, or even images projected behind them in a live setting.
And a global pandemic, plus political turmoil, racial tension, classist division, among everything else we experienced in the year 2020 seemed only too fitting for what Godspeed has been saying all along.
But Godspeed didn’t emerge to gloat, because…. when you’ve been right all along about devastation, it doesn’t make you feel any better. It doesn’t make the situation itself any better.
True, most of the music on this new album was actually written before the Pandemic was even a thought for the average citizen. In fact, the last time I saw them, they played what was then known to us as “Glaciers” and “Cliffs” (thanks to diehard fans online). And what I can remember of these songs that amazing night in Los Angeles was how melodic they were. They provided more introspective moments than the chaotic but brilliant songs that they played from Luciferian Towers with Patrick Shiroishi on saxophone. And it’s wonderful to finally hear them on album form.
This is the 4th album in a row by the band to feature a similar format: 2 long songs and two shorter songs (or 2 melodic songs and two drone tracks, since what’s short for them is still longer than anything most bands can release). This has been their track list of choice since returning from their hiatus. Depending on the mood of the album, the format can provide comfort to the listener like in the beautiful hypnotic repetitiveness of their previous release, or it can provide some bleak and powerful releases such as on the two before that one.
This time around, it doesn’t have the anger that the band is able to achieve in their most punk rock moments (as far as post rock goes). It reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s famous quote:
“This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper”.
Fans of early Godspeed will be happy to notice two things right off the top:
1. Multipart song names (representing the different parts or “movements” to borrow the term usually used for classical music). Sure two songs on their previous release were multi-part. But for Godspeed fans, the longer a song’s name is, the more they like it.
2. The first song starts with the use of field recordings, something that has been lacking on the recent releases by the band.
After a few minutes of the soundclips, a distorted violin comes in, almost like a political march gone wrong. After fading out for a while the band comes in with what will surly be an iconic moment for them: “Job’s Lament”. The buildup of guitar and bass before the full band joins is nothing short of brilliant.
This jam session goes straight into “First of the Last Glaciers” which is heavy but extremely melodic. The band is really showing their hard rock skills, incorporating it amongst all the tones, effects, and droning. They even show off some odd time signatures in this section which is a great step for the band. More than just the ups and downs of normal post rock, the band continues to challenge themselves all these years later, while still paying tribute to the sliding guitars that were prevalent on their debut. The song ends with a minute of bird chirps and gun shots. When it’s all over, you can’t believe how fast 20 minutes can pass.
“Fire at Static Valley” in contrast is 6 minutes, and showcases the melancholic side of the band. Almost like the sad realization of your dreams dying or nightmares coming true, it is a swan dive into harsh realism when compared to the driving rhythms of the first song. Haunting, nostalgic, and similar to things we’d expect off of Lift Your Skinny Fists or Yanqui U.X.O, it shows that the short songs on this album are not gonna be easy endeavors, but that they are just as crucial as the longer ones.
The second long song also starts with a soundclip, this one of a voice and static. Similar to the first song, after about two minutes this is broken up by the bass, and then a distorted guitar and a violin. This haunting melody is repeated while the drums slowly build up like an orchestra getting in tune, or a rhythm finding its way.
Once it gets going, it continues the eerie vibes of the previous tune, giving off those old, classic Godspeed vibes. This goes on till the 11:22 minute mark, when the song goes from the “Government Came” section to the “Cliffs Gaze” section. The song briefly drops out before introducing its new melody, which is among the most positive sounding moments the band has ever created. Like a celebration amongst the darkness and the mourning, it emerges and completely changes the tone and pacing of the album.
It gives the album a full trajectory from its low points to its high points. The full experience of the human soul if you will. As Rod Serling would say, “between the pit of man’s fears, and the summit of his knowledge”. That’s where this album lies. Church bells bring the song to a close, almost around the 20 minute mark.
The album is closed with a 6 minute and 30 second piece called “Our Side Has to Win”. If the previous songs show their rock side, their melancholic side, and their uplifting side, this one shows their knack for classical music. Somewhere between an orchestral piece and a string quartet, it is the perfect closing music for a film (to quote Radiohead). After everything you’ve heard, it slowly fades away, and lulls the album to a perfect close.
While it might not be the most experimental album the band has released, I can definitely see it becoming a fan favorite. The melodic passages provide the band a wealth of material in a live setting, in a discography that is already hard enough to concise to a 2 hour setlist. From start to finish, it seems clear and focused. Every second has meaning, every section serves purpose, and every piece plays well with everything that came before it and came after it.
Some fans might want Godspeed to have emerged from the pandemic with the darkest album ever. Some fans would have wanted Godspeed to blatantly wave a flag that says “We Told You So”. But Godspeed is too classy for that. Instead, they come to provide a message of hope. They instead chose to say with this album:
“Yes, we see what’s going on. Yes we know that times are tough and things look bad. But yes there’s going to be the other side of this, and we will all see each other soon”.
And from a band who has always preached of the apocalypse, it couldn’t be more comforting to hear this message loud and clear. Especially since they just announced a world tour for 2022.
I recently reviewed Evergrey’s previous release, The Atlantic, in anticipation for this one. While that was another solid release from one of the most consistent bands in metal, it did leave me with a slight worry:
Were we about to see the final step in a complete transformation of Evergrey?
And by this I mean, were the days of experimentation and melodic ballads gone in favor of this heavier sound?
True, Evergrey has always been a heavy band, and each album has brought something new to the table, but The Atlantic chose to focus more on the de-tuned sound. You could argue it also saw a resurgence of keyboards that we hadn’t seen in a while for the band, but I couldn’t shake this feeling. The lack of guest vocals, or completely soft moments made it feel slightly one dimensional in their discography, and I always leave the album wanting…..
However, the release of Tom’s Silent Skies album with Vikram Shankar showed Tom could still belt out the ballads. In fact, that album almost makes you wish that some of the songs from it had combined with The Atlantic for the ultimate Evergrey album. But I guess I shouldn’t complain about MORE music right? That’s just my OCD.
The reason I start this review this way is because both albums seem to directly influence this latest release.
After three albums of Tom looking into himself, finding strength, and making two huge transitions in his life (divorce from longtime spouse Carina, and re-marrying), Tom has crossed The Atlantic so to speak, and this new album is representative of his fresh start. We are thus treated to the heaviness of The Atlantic mixed with the emotional depth of the Silent Skies release.
Album opener, “Forever Outsider” doesn’t feel like a typical Evergrey opener. They’re usually a little more drawn out. It’s been a while since they get right into it, like they did with Monday Morning Apocalypse. And it’s infectious hook is subtle. Might not grasp you the first time, but after a few listens, you’ll be walking around and humming it. When released as a single, I was worried that this song as opener was a bad sign. Luckily, I now see it’s purpose.
“Where August Mourns” does fall into sounding like a typical 2nd Evergrey song. They always like to provide a groovier song after making a statement with the first. The electronic sounding keyboards and bass tone sound amazing, and already provide great diversity from the first song. Another brilliant chorus and another blistering guitar solo from Henrik Danhage.
“Stories” is the first major surprise. A ballad?! Already?! Clearly, I worried for nothing. Tom’s voice over Rikard’s piano always feels like coming home after a long journey. The full band and distortion does eventually come in, and the chorus took me a while to appreciate, but the major chords, bluesy guitar solo, and tapped harmonies are the kind of experimentation that I was looking for. Clearly, we’re on the right track.
“A Dandelion Ciper” might not be one of my favorites on the album, but after “Stories”, the guys are allowed it. This song goes back to the style of the first one. The guitars almost sound like djent, and the keyboards sound like 80s electronic and goth music. So I guess I can’t really complain. Even if it is one of the more generic sounding songs on this album, there’s tons of tones to discover beneath the surface upon repeated listens.
“The Beholder” was another song released early, and is probably the biggest news of the album: guest vocals by James Labrie of Dream Theater. it has the groove of the 2nd song, and it’s no surprise that the keyboards sound like something off of a James Labrie solo album. The chorus is soaring, and the duet is the stuff that dreams are made of. James’ delicate touch compared to Tom’s soulful delivery adds great contrast, before they sing in unisons and harmonies.
This leads us to… a second ballad?! We’re really cooking now! “In the Absence of Sun” gives me Fates Warning/Redemption vibes, possibly a direct influence of Tom’s time in the latter. It also has a melody in the chorus that reminds me of an Evergrey classic; “Harmless Wishes”. Whether this is intention or not doesn’t really matter. Like “Stories”, it utilizes the soft moments and heavy moments so well, showcasing not only their dynamics and transitions, but also Tom’s ability to adapt over the changes. It also has an interesting solo that might be the closest Evergrey gets to doing a Slayer solo.
“Eternal Nocturnal” starts with a driving rhythm before an interesting key change and a chorus that reminds me of their song “Passing Through”. This was another chorus that took me a while to appreciate, and while it’s not one of my favorite songs on the album, there’s no denying the Iron Maiden like dueling guitar solo extravaganza. The transition back into the final chorus is also a part that had me scratching my head at first, but I find myself complaining less and less.
The title track is one of the heaviest songs the band has ever done, until it gets the to the chorus, which has a nostalgic element to it. We are hearing melodies that feel like Recreation Day era Evergrey, just with Gojira playing underneath it. It also has one of the more memorable guitar solos with its dissonance, and its dive bombs.
“You From You” is the third and final ballad on the album, making this one of the most melodic Evergrey albums, despite the modern heavy metal approach on many of its songs. Fans of Tom’s moments of fragility will love this one, as he sings “I can’t save you from you“. Great vocal doubles on this one, and another brilliant blues guitar solo.
“Leaden Saints” has a great intro and a Symphony X like element in the background, but one of my least favorite chorus on the album. I feel like it’s purpose was to bring things back up after the ballad, but also before the final song does it’s job. Maybe it might grow on me like some of the others. I love the guitar work during the chorus, as well as the solos and riffs. Good, but more of the same on an almost hour long album.
Finally we end with “Run”, which might not be one of Evergrey’s most exciting choruses, but a fitting song to an album about escape. It’s got a unique keyboard tone and an anthemic chorus. It reminds me of the way Kings X closed Dogman with “Pillow”. A simple chorus that anyone can sing along to. Not the most interesting song on the album, but leaves you feeling hopeful… powerful.
It may not be a perfect album. It may not even be close to one of Evergrey’s best. But 12 albums into this bands career, they continue to stick to their guns and do things their way while adapting with the times. Each album has its own feel and attitude. They continue to experiment with modern tones, adding a heaviness not seen on early albums. But it’s good to know that as they experiment, they never lose their melodic touch. You can always expect blistering solos. You can always expect catchy choruses. And as Evergrey fans, we couldn’t possibly ask for more than that.