I liked Soen's fourth album, Lotus, a great deal when I reviewed it here at Apocalypse Later a couple of years ago, but it sounded a little too much like Tool to allow me to entirely buy into the hype that I'd heard about them, which was considerable. Their argument that Tool is a genre as much as a band only went so far in my book. Well, they're back with another album that moves them on stylistically again. There's definitely Tool here again, but this particular album doesn't sound like Tool, which means that it's another step forward for a band who are notable already.
So what does it sound like? Well, my first impression was that it sounds huge. The production comes courtesy of Iñaki Marconi, who also produced Lotus, while the mix is credited to Kane Churko, who is so busy nowadays that soon that name will carry its own gravitas, rather than being subtitled "son of legendary producer Kevin Churko". It all sounds crisp and clean but vast. Each instrument sounds big, except the bass of Oleksii Kobel, which is utterly lost in the mix, providing texture but nothing else. The drums are big enough to bury everything else but the guitars are big too and the vocals likewise.
For three songs, it sounds alternative and progressive, alternating heavy machine gun riffs from both guitar and drums with soft, emotional sections. This is metal, even if Metal Archives won't let them in for some reason, not just because Cody Ford's guitars are often heavy and Martin Lopez's drums often fast but because the whole album is emphatic. It's like they're performing in underlined bold type on heavy sections and merely bold on the softer ones. Even if we knew nothing about Soen and tuned our radio into the softest, quietest section of the softest, quietest song here, we'd still know it was going to ramp up to something powerful soon enough.
There are softer songs here. Illusion highlights just how much Soen are influenced by Pink Floyd and, to be fair, Floyd's disciples, like Radiohead. Even when Ford launches into an obviously Dave Gilmour influenced solo with the band supporting in often recognisably Floydian fashion, it still isn't quite a Floyd song, because they're all finding their own identities, especially Ekelöf, who is clearly forging a firm style of his own.
Some of what he does with melodies and held notes does sound familiar, but not from anything metal I can conjure up. I can't place who he reminds me of, beyond Eric Woolfson of the Alan Parsons Project and David Draiman of Disturbed, because there's someone else eluding me. Whoever it is, Ekelöf is as dominant here as the mix doesn't want him to be. The more I listen to this, the more I find myself not listening to the guitars as much as I'd usually do. I'm listening to him.
I like this album but not as much as I liked Lotus. I think I realised that when I got to Dissident, which does some of the things other songs here do but mixes it up even more. The beat is more unusual and the Tool influences come back to the fore, but the transitions are subtle and fascinating. The drop out of Tool as genre and into delicate prog for a quieter midsection is majestically precise but deceptively loose. It also ramps back up well and the second half of the song is perhaps as great as this album gets.
But that really made me wonder about everything that had gone before and, while there are no poor tracks here, none come close to matching Dissident and I think that's because, Illusion aside, they put a sort of template into play to restrict themselves and that's the song that surpasses it. Everything is four or five minutes and change, featuring both of the two contrasting styles, before it gives way for the next one word titled song that does the same thing in a slightly different way. Sure, they do it all really well, but the more we play this, the less varied it seems.