You might be forgiven for thinking, after a minute of the opening track, that Iotunn are a progressive rock band. The song is Voyage of the Garganey I and it sounds like they've been listening to a heck of a lot of Pink Floyd. Well, for that minute. You might also be forgiven for thinking, after another minute, that that was just an intro and they're really a melodic death metal band. Well, for that minute and a little more besides, until Jón Aldará's vocals switch completely, from death growl to clean and soaring and it's clear that they're all of these things at once and that means progressive metal above all.
Perhaps the key clue was in how clean they are when playing melodeath. They're clearly not trying for an evil death metal sound in any fashion and the result is never brutal. The production is crisp and the guitars aren't downtuned at all. There's death here, to be sure, but, if it was ever what drove Iotunn, they evolved past it. It's fair to suggest that this is a heavy album that doesn't actually feel heavy, as I was constantly drawn to the prog rock side of their sound and its constant melody often distracts from the heavinss.
Aldará has a warm death growl, so it's not too surprising to realise that his clean voice is rich too and it's effortless. He does a lot to impress with that clean voice here but he never seems to be trying too hard. He never has to stretch for notes that are sustained or comparatively high. I'd call out his voice as one of the highlights here, but another thing that's deceptive is how everyone else is a highlight as well. I listened through almost this entire album before I realised that the lack of standout moments on guitar was because the guitars, courtesy of brothers Jesper and Jens Nicolai Gräs stand out all the way through. Pick a random track and skip to a random place and their guitars will be doing something interesting.
And, once we've got past the introductory sections of Voyage of the Garganey I to get a grip on what this band actually do, their consistency takes over. Like the guitars, the songs don't tend to stand out from each other, not because they're not good enough to but because they're not bad enough too. It's quality throughout and only The Tower of Cosmic Nihility really emerged for me as a standout, even if I couldn't explain why. Going back and back, I think it's actually the riffing late on in the track that's so engaging for me, but that's not its own highlight.
These are dense songs with a lot going on in them and it's not easy to grasp what any of them do on a grand scale on a first listen. That applies for Laihem's Golden Pits, which is under five minutes long but it applies all the more as the song lengths expand. This is a generous album at over an hour and three of its seven songs exceed ten minutes: the title track, Waves Below at the heart of the album and Safe Across the Endless Night, which closes it out with almost fourteen minutes of epic composition. While I enjoyed the experience first time through, I enjoyed it a lot more on a second and each further listen has added to my understanding of what they're doing and how well they're doing it.
This is certainly a grower of an album, one to play and replay in order to fully appreciate it, but I'd say that a better way to appreciate it is to walk away for a little while, then come back and play just one of the songs. I did that with The Tower of Cosmic Nihility, being my favourite song from the outset, and it felt all the more vicious in its intro, more emphatic in its drumming and more complex in the way that it builds. It's a gem of a track. The reason this album is so good is that it's not alone. Try that with any of the other songs, especially Access All Worlds, The Weaver System and Safe Across the Endless Night and you'll get very similar results.
I have to go with an 8/10 for this, but it's still growing on me. I have to move on to other albums, but I'll be coming back to this one. They're Queensrÿche as an extreme metal band, with sides of Ultravox and My Dying Bride, and this may well end up with a 9/10.