Thursday 26 November 2020

Scardust - Strangers (2020)

Country: Israel
Style: Symphonic Progressive Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 30 Oct 2020
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Wow, did this one take me aback! I only got a few songs in and had to start again just to take stock of what I'd just heard. Scardust are an Israeli band who began life in 2013 as Somnia but changed name a couple of years later. They play symphonic progressive metal, but that doesn't remotely cover all that they do.

For instance, this starts out really operatic, with presumably the entire band providing a choral backing for lead vocalist Noa Gruman. Then the music joins, very technically, with violins and crunchy guitars and who knows what else. Remember the beginning of Yes's Roundabout with all its careful interplay between instruments? Well, Overture for the Estranged is kind of like that. For its entire six minutes. There's a spotlight moment for every member of the band both forwards and backwards and a further one later on at length. It's like a demo reel: everything Scardust can do, all wrapped up in one easy to consume bundle. And that's just track one.

Things settle down a bit from there, but not a lot. This is technical stuff all the way through, with all the band members trading solos often, not just guitarist Yadin Moyal and keyboardist Itai Portugaly. The bass of Yanai Avnet blew me away more than once. It's going to take multiple listens of every song to just to fully grasp what these folk are doing. There are plenty of hints at the versatility of Queen, but each song is like Queen squared. Complexity and technical ability clearly matter here and just as much as melody and groove.

Break the Ice, for instance, shifts quickly through Queen harmonies to purest theatrics. This could be a song from a Broadway musical and Gruman's voice would be up to that on its worst day. She's crystal clear but versatile enough to move from kid-friendly Disney saccharine to soaring Phantom operatic and still wrap up with some serious R&B runs. The musical theatre feel is echoed by the fact that the music seems inherently there to support her on this one, with only the solos excepted. This darts and weaves whenever her voice needs it to, but always at her bidding.

The biggest problem Strangers has is that there's just so much here that it's easy to get overwhelmed. A song like Concrete Cages, for instance, is an obvious highlight with its often dominant hurdy gurdy, it's soaring Robert Plant style vocals and a singalong chorus. But there's so much to unpack from this song that it would be viable to write a review this length about that one song alone.

Focusing only on that one would miss out the way that Scardust can shift from Queen to Therion in a single line. It would miss the fact that not all the vocals here are clean, with Gruman going effectively harsh on Over for a while; given that I think everyone contributes backing vocals, I have no idea who does that in harsh fashion in songs like Tantibus II, but's thoroughly effective. It would only skirt the fact that this whole album is wildly theatrical. While Gruman isn't the most accomplished singer in a harsh style that I've ever heard, it's a rare one that gets so much emotional range out of it and I can't name another one that can shift from harsh growls to soaring opera in a heartbeat.

It would also miss the other genres that are trawled in here. The folk music in Concrete Cages is only one sound there, just as metalcore is only one sound in Over and smooth jazz only one sound in that song's flipside, Under. The backing on the latter sounds like an inner city church choir from a random underdog feelgood movie, which would make the segue into rapped vocals natural, except that these rapped vocals are angry and end up verging on hardcore shouts. Oh yeah, this album is versatile. The choir on Huts sounds like a younger one from a high school but it doesn't turn the song cutesy.

At this point, after a couple of listens, I couldn't even hazard a guess at my favourites here. Overture for the Estranged is a gimme and so's Concrete Cages. I might thow out Addicted as a third, but I can easily imagine every song here waxing or waning in my esteem on further listens. There's just so much to discover within them. One key note would be that I especially adore the interaction of instruments when Noa Gruman takes a well deserved break for a while, but she's arguably the most critical piece in this puzzle and she takes the band in so many directions. It's hard to truly comprehend that the voice on Break the Ice and Mist is the same one on Over and Under.

Quite seriously, the most emphatic negative I can hurl out about is that this album will simply be too much for some potential listeners: too much of everything. They'll get lost and give up. Of course, it's fair to say that the most emphatic positive I can hurl out is exactly the same thing, because this is an album that can be explored for a long, long time without finding all its treasure. I may well up this to a 9/10 but I need more listens. And I need more words.

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