It's strange how when you look outside of what's familiar you can be pleasantly surprised. Last year, through a random email, I was exposed to the quite spectacular debut album from Italian band Xternals. If they hadn't emailed me and asked me to do a review for them, then I'd have never been exposed to their sheer brilliance.
It sounds narrow minded but I never associated Italy with great Metal bands. Normally when you think of great Metal bands they come from America, UK, Scandinavia or central Europe, most people don't look elsewhere. Until now.
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In the next couple of months there is due to be an influx of bands from further east. Basick Records are testing the water with the very promising Skyharbor, all the way from India, but today, we're here to talk about one of the first Metal bands to make it out of the UAE, Dubai based prog-merchants Absolace.
Being one of the first bands to break out and reach a wider global audience, there's clearly a lot of pressure on these boys. It's just as well 'Fractals' is a big fat slice of amazing.
From the opening chug of 'Sirens' to the last chords ringing out on 'Closure', Absolace treat you to wonderful and considered music. The finest thing about them has to be the voice of Nadim Jamal. Seriously, he has to be one of the most expressive, soulful singers I've ever heard front a Metal band.
He reminds me a lot of Mikael Akerfeldt from Opeth, the clarity in his voice is amazing, the melodies are subtle, smooth and when he drops some harmonies in there he could stop a riot. I defy you to listen to lead single 'I Am, So I Will' and not fall into the lilting, rhythm and melody of the vocal line. It's effortless what he can put out.
The band can get loud as they like behind him and he can still sing softly and quietly, never drowned out, never away from your focus. Just take the opening verse of 'Chroma Mera'. The drums pound away, the synths and the guitars start to build up but Jamal just sings softly, sweetly and you almost forget that there's a band playing.
But there is a band playing. A very good band. An excellent band, if you will. Musically, Absolace are superb. I compared them to Porcupine Tree for good reason.
There's Metal influences at play, but they aren't the heaviest band in the world. In fact, if you take Dream Theater and just knock the heavy down just a touch ('Dichotomy' being the exception that proves the rule), you've got a good indication of where Absolace fall into the musical world.
The composition on this album is superb. It sounds like every note, every timing change, every dynamic shift has been pored over with obsessive attention to detail. For all you guitar nuts out there, I can confirm that there are tasty riffs in abundance. I'll get to those later though, because the most interesting part is how they weave clean guitars into the soundscape.
'Wade 2.0' is one of their more ambitious tracks. The intro fuses sampled beats, clean guitars, Jamal's voice and traditional middle eastern melodies and formations. Jack Skinner's clean guitar chimes away in the background, fitting between the samples perfectly. Then the build up starts. The live drums come in and Skinner gets to unleash with a blues-tastic, wah drenched guitar solo that builds up into a riff Mr Petrucci himself would be proud of.
The most interesting thing about the album is that Absolace continually play with the dynamics of their songs. Almost every song shifts between heavy and light at least once before the first chorus. Well, when four out of ten songs are above seven minutes long, it's kind of necessary but it also shows the level of care that's gone into the songwriting.
Take 'The Fall', which opens with a heavy wash of distorted guitars before dropping into clean, lilting melodies for the verses. The same goes for album opener 'Sirens', a chunky, sleazy riff develops into a wash of clean guitars when the vocals come in. With the length of the songs, it's essential for these shifts to hold the listener's attention and to give each song it's own identity.
When things get heavy, oh they get heavy. The mathematic chugging in 'Α|Ω' is straight out of the Meshuggah song book, while the seven string thud of 'Dichotomy' is ripe to get a live audience bouncing. Skinner really does get a lot of room to experiment and play what he wants so the variety of sounds is very refreshing and very welcome.
Lots of prog bands have keyboard players, in fact it's almost a prerequisite these days. Not many approach the electronic things like Kyle Roberts though. He knows when to back off, when to let the band be a four piece Metal band, but when he comes in, you know you're in for something different.
Take the whirling synths at the beginning of 'The Rise', just two notes, jumping between the speakers, sitting underneath Jamal's vocal line. It's subtle, it's quiet and it's simple. It's also bloody effective and hypnotic. It remains present for the first couple of minutes, almost like the perfect underscore to the rest of the band.
'I Am, So I Will' has the most subtle little synth under the verses, it's easy to miss entirely, but that is part of the charm of Roberts' contribution to the band. He is almost always in the background, underlining every single thing with an extra layer, harmony or texture.
Of course, he gets his times to be explicit, like the intros to 'Chroma Mera' and 'Wade 2.0' and he really does think outside the box when these moments come up. Like I mentioned before, 'Wade 2.0' has a break beat running through the intro which bounces off the live drum beat right through till about halfway through the song, when the guitar solo starts. It's really interesting listening and not your average keyboard effort most bands feature.
Disappointingly for the most part, the bass gets washed out through the thick, almost scooped guitar tone, which is a shame because when you can hear him, Ben Harris is a phenomenal bass player. I mean really outstanding. In 'Chroma Mera' Harris gets his funk on with a wonderfully crackers slap line while hand drums frame Jamal's stunning middle section. You can primarily hear Harris during the clean sections, where he moves away from what the guitar does to play around with riffs and melodies.
During one of the quieter seconds of 'Α|Ω' he moves around under the guitar, taking the lead reigns and playing a really interesting riff, both musically and rhythmically. It's quite criminal that he's not more audible throughout the album because when you can hear him, he really is something special.
When it comes down to the drums, Absolace have have clearly found a middle eastern Mike Portnoy. Greg Cargopoulos is one of the most versatile drummers I've heard for quite a while. He pounds out some incredibly complex beats and patterns against complex time signatures and intricate arrangements all the while making it sound effortless.
He also has to cope with the rapidly changing dynamics, like changing from soft to loud on a penny during 'The Rise' or bouncing off the break beats in 'Wade 2.0' but what I like best about his style of playing is how unconventional he is. He never gets stuck in the trap of rapid, long running double kick patterns, he always makes it sound interesting and never repetitive.
Absolace carry the reputation of a nation on their shoulders into the west. Well, with 'Fractals' they'll have no problem showing the world that Dubai knows how to rock and hopefully they'll open up the floodgates for their contemporaries to make waves globally.
'Fractals' is a stunning album, full of amazing songs, beautiful moments and absurdly good music. Absolace are primed to take the world by storm and it would be absolutely criminal if they didn't get every single thing they deserve.
Buy this album. Seriously, buy it and support one of the brightest stars in the Metal world.
2: The Rise
3: I Am, So I Will
4: Chroma Mera
5: Wade 2.0
6: Shape And Form
7: The Fall