Wednesday 12 June 2019

Ihlo - Union (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 31 May 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

Debut albums recently came up in conversation because there have been bands who truly nailed it on their first attempt. That conversation started with Van Halen, who became so influential that it's hard to realise how original that first album really was. My choice for best debut of all time would have to be Marillion's Script for a Jester's Tear, because there's so much there, it's all spot on and it ran utterly against the trends of the time.

No, Union, another debut prog album, isn't going to make second on that list but it is excellent stuff. Ihlo (no, I have no idea how that's pronounced) were founded in London in 2016 and, if I'm reading correctly, they won't be debuting live for another couple of weeks, almost an entire month after the release of their album. That seems odd to me, but it helps to highlight just how new these guys are.

The point is that they don't sound new at all, though their influences are clearly newer than the old school. They aren't trying to channel Marillion, IQ and Twelfth Night, let alone Genesis, Yes and King Crimson; they're more influenced by Leprous, Tool and fellow Brits Tesseract. The approach is for keyboards to not merely set the tone but to also take the lead and deliver melodies, while the guitars take a percussive role, combining with the drums to provide an even more powerful beat. Vocals are clean and alternative.

What this means is that everything is texture and the title track sets that goal in motion immediately. It's mostly up tempo, in your face stuff but it also takes time for a quiet section with soft vocals over minimalist piano enhanced by pulsing keyboards. Each of the textures are enjoyable but they also contrast very nicely.

Reanimate emphasises that percussive take on proceedings by providing highly repetitive, albeit slightly complex rhythms with drums and guitars while the keyboards float and the vocals explore. They're just as alternative here but there are early sections that are more nu metal. Maybe that's why this is my least favourite track on the album, even though it was their first single. I like the second half a lot better than the first. It gets more emotional and interesting.

From there, we get different takes on these approaches, but in better form. I honestly think that the album's sweep is to start decent and then keep on getting better until it wraps up with fifteen spectacular minutes of build and exploration that constitutes Coalescence. Each song has better cohesion than the last, a better sense of growth and a more patient outlook on life. The middle parts of Starseeker are a fantastic time for us to sit back and reflect on what we've heard and where it's going to go.

Starseeker is really good but Hollow is better. It's a lot more restrained than anything before it, but it knows exactly when to stop that and launch into something more overt. It's beautiful, immersive stuff and Andy Robison dominates on two fronts: his keyboards and his vocals, which move from calm to soaring. Triumph, the shortest song on offer at just under five minutes, is a good companion piece but it doesn't add anything.

Parhelion builds gloriously. It starts well but finds a real groove and has a blast exploring it; then, after a brief interlude, it shows how much more it can do. It ends beautifully too, leading the way into the epic that will finish off the album. Parhelion tells us that we're almost home again but a fifteen minute track separates us from that, because nobody wants to leave at this point. Coalescence builds even more gloriously than Parhelion with truly awesome escalations, a catchy midsection ten minutes in and a strong finale.

May hit me hard with great albums but June hasn't followed suit until now. I've only listened to this twice thus far but plan to stay with it. For now it's an easy 8/10 because four of the seven tracks are absolutely top notch, sit back and relish in the experience material. What's odd to me is they don't count the title track and the single in their number. Maybe I'll grok them later but, for now, they're hardly poor additions to an otherwise fantastic debut.

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