Tuesday 2 November 2021

Amarok - Hero (2021)

Country: Poland
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 15 Oct 2021
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I have to say that the first thing to cross my mind when looking at this album was that there's a music application on Linux called Amarok, but I don't have it installed right now. Of course, when prog rock bands call themself Amarok, that's not because they use the software either but likely because they liked Mike Oldfield's polarising album of that name. I say likely rather than assuming it as a surety as I'm not hearing almost any Oldfield in the music here. I'd state rather than suggest that the primary influence of Amarok is Pink Floyd.

And that means that Michał Wojtas is a major Floyd fan, because this is emphatically his band. In the early days, it was a duo comprised of him and guitarist Bartosz Jackowski, but it became a solo effort with guests helping out here and there. Only in 2021, with five albums behind him, has it expanded to become an actual band, with four musicians now credited as band members. Surely, however, Wojtas remains the driving force behind Amarok, even if it's a band rather than a project now, and he stamps that unmistakable Dave Gilmour sound onto the music.

This is calm and subdued prog, but it's commercial and engaging. The vocals are soft and melodic but they carry a weight to them that commands us to pay attention, especially with clever turns of phrase such as "I look to explain the unknown reality. The world we could foresee is gone." There's substance here and it's decorated not only by a simple but effective guitar but odd sound effects and evocative percussion taking the place of a traditional beat. That beat doesn't show up for a couple of minutes, when the teasing intro becomes a song proper.

Floyd were always great at creating songs that sound so simple and effortless that anyone could have created them, until we realise what's actually going on and how well crafted they have to be. Amarok are clearly aiming at the same elusive magic and they do an excellent job at it. It's Not the End starts effortlessly but grows substantially to leave us wanting to listen to the song again immediately rather than move onto Surreal and into the album. And Surreal does the same thing. And Hail! Hail! AI. And...

And really, I could end my review with that and you'll either have already bought Hero, knowing that you're going to adore it, or moved on because you know it isn't for you. However, there's a little more that I should mention. Whenever Wojtas brings his guitar into play, he channels not only Gilmour, as obvious a guitar influence as a general musical one, but some Mark Knopfler too. Gilmour is still first and foremost, as is especially obvious in the second half of The Orb, with the notes not played just as important as those that are. The ever patient Wojtas never really speeds up, but the Knopfler comes out for me any time he thinks about it, like on the title track.

The other Floyd note to make is that, just as they were sometimes a guitar band and sometimes more of an electronic one, Amarok follow suit. The Dark Parade is driven by the electronic side with a dark bass joining the fray and that's not wildly unusual here. Often we'll hear the grooves first with the guitar joining in to develop the sound. The Dark Parade actually reminds at points of the Doctor Who Theme, not in content but in the way that it moves in waves, albeit rising and falling much more slowly.

And the result of all this means that this is a very easy album to listen to. I'm sure I could leave this on for a week and never get bored, even though it would become background music that would grab my attention back here and there. However, it's also an immersive album to listen to, one that we can fall into and explore. Every aspect is fascinating, whether it's guitar rock or electronic new wave, a guitar solo in an instrumental break, a narrative section from Marta Wojtas or just a background flourish at a random point. I've already found myself listening specifically for guitar and for percussion and for effects. I could see that becoming a rabbit hole.

I honestly don't know how to rate this because I clearly haven't listened to it enough, even after three times through. I know that I really like it and I'll be listening to it more. I'm struggling to pick my favourite tracks because that's all of them or, more accurately, whichever one I'm listening to at any particular time. So this is easily a highly recommended 8/10 but I don't think that's enough. I think this is my first 9/10 after diving back into reviews post-ALIFFF. It will be hard to move onto my second review for the day because the world seems emptier once this stops playing.

Now, what's going on in Poland that can generate albums of the quality of this one, the Kruk earlier this year and the Fren in 2020? I've found gems, but what have I missed?

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