Monday 29 March 2021

Turbulence - Frontal (2021)

Country: Lebanon
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 12 Mar 2021
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Lebanon is not likely to be the first place on anyone's tongue when thinking about the cutting edge of progressive metal, but Turbulence are inventive and tight and honestly deserve to see mention along with any other names in the genre you can come up with. And yes, that includes Dream Theater, which surely has to be a favourite of the guys in Turbulence. I liked this a lot more than I did the 2019 Dream Theater.

It's a long album and, sure, there's something about the genre that leads to that sort of disease but it can be a fun disease. This runs five minutes over an hour, with eight songs that range from six and a half up past eleven, if we ignore the soft keyboard interlude called Dreamless that clocks in at under three. That isn't an instrumental but the vocals are as soft as the synths. It absolutely exists to break the mood set by Madness Unforeseen before we roll into Ignite. What's important to note is that it's not a long album that feels long. It doesn't feel short either, but I was never bored and never felt that it outstayed its welcome, even on a seventh or eighth listen.

As if to highlight the band's ambition, Frontal kicks off with that eleven minute piece, Inside the Cage, which is an extended instrumental workout between vocal bookends. It's intricate stuff but lively and engaging too, with Omar El Hajj singing in clear and not notably accented English. If there's anything odd here, it's that the keyboards aren't obvious until they get the lead for a section. There's a really interesting sequence at the midpoint, that's part Tool and part Dream Theater, two stylistic approaches I wasn't expecting to ever hear at the same time.

As you might imagine for a progressive metal band with a Dream Theater fetish, everyone here is on point throughout, however intricate this gets. Mood Yassin is that keyboard player and he starts out Madness Unforeseen with a wild keyboard solo. A number of these songs are elevated because of his work and he's rarely absent, though he does drift into the background at points, to allow the others their own moments to shine, which they do.

El Hajj's vocals are clean, but there's a section of more shouted vocals on Ignite, all the more abrasive for coming quickly in a song following a keyboard interlude. I'm guessing they belong to guitarist Alain Ibrahim, who also produced the album. He's more notable for his guitarwork though, even if some of that is surely Anthony Atwe's bass instead, such as during the middle of Perpetuity, where I think that has to be a bass rather than a downtuned guitar. The rhythm section's other half is Sayed Gereige on drums and Perpetuity is a great song for him too, because it's so utterly varied and off typical rhythm.

As for that guitar work, many of the riffs are emphatic and staccato, but there are also many quieter melodic sections and the solos are frequently delightfully restrained, unfolding with a Dave Gilmour mindset that less isn't just more but that the right note played exactly right is better than a hundred that aren't. There's a great solo in this vein seven minutes into Inside the Cage, where the stretching of notes sounds like a glassblower creating something artistic out of liquid glass. That isn't the only way they unfold, but they're the best ones. I dig the more effusive solo midway through Crowbar Case too, but it's nowhere near as memorable. There's a Floydian vibe early in Faceless Man too, though it would never be mistaken for Pink Floyd.

My favourite instrumental section may be late in A Place I Go to Hide, which is alternately heavy and funky, utterly intricate moments punctuating the simple ones. I wanted that to last longer but, hey, I mentioned that is a 65 minute long album already, right. They can't extend everything! What's telling to me on this front is that this feels like a well rounded album. There are prog metal albums where I'd really like it if the vocalist just went off for a pint so his colleagues could jam, while there are others where I'd like the extended instrumentals to quit for a while so the vocalist could sing. Frontal finds a very good balance between the two and that never seems strained.

Talking of types of progressive metal band, most of them are known for their technical chops (with a few who aren't and whose ambition easily outstrips their talent), but some have a commercial edge to them, ensuring that every song has a hook to it to which all the instrumental wizardry can tie, and some don't, hoping that the music itself is interesting enough to keep us even without hooks. I'd call Turbulence the latter but they're a rare example where I wonder if I've categorised them properly. I can't say that there are a lot of hooks here, but the music and the vocals above it are inventive and constantly interesting.

As I mentioned, this isn't a long 65 minutes, even on repeat listens, and I can't say that Frontal ever lost my attention. It's a real highlight for me this March.

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