Monday 30 January 2023

Evergrey - A Heartless Portrait: The Orphean Testament (2023)

Country: Sweden
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 May 2022
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Here's a lucky thirteenth album for Swedish prog metal band Evergrey, who I only discovered two years ago on their twelfth, Escape of the Phoenix. This follows that one pretty closely, so much of what I said there applies here too. There's power metal in here, but the prog metal is more overt. It's elegant too, but of such a consistent quality that it's hard to call out anything as a highlight, as each song gets lost in the company of its peers. The best way to enjoy any song here is to listen to it in isolation, as if it was being played on a radio show in and amongst a bunch of other bands. It's likely that almost any of them will stand out in that context.

What I can add is that there are definitely other genres here. While it's always a metal album first and foremost, there's a lot of straightforward rock here too. I've listened through a few times now and got interrupted twice. Both times, I lowered the volume but left it playing in an instrumental section and came back to it thinking that I was listening to a guitarist's album, the sort of thing I'd expect from a Steve Vai or Joe Satriani. That one of those times was during The Great Unwashed is pretty telling, because the guitarwork on that one is particularly fascinating.

That's understandable, of course, especially for a band who appear to have moved more and more towards prog as they've gone on. However, the other genre that I kept catching here is R&B, which is far more surprising. It's mostly in the vocals of Tom Englund, who's the one founder member left in the band. He appears to feel particularly drawn to vocal runs, those acrobatics you hear singers do on talent shows to wow the judges, who tend to be suckers for singers showing off like that. For the most overt example of this, listen to Heartless, especially the quieter spotlight section that's around the three minute mark, but it's there throughout.

I find it rather interesting because he sings like he's a lead singer, but he's always been a guitarist too and musicians in prog bands of any flavour tend to live for their instruments. I don't recall this being obvious last time out, so maybe he's moving in this particular direction. If so, I wonder what changes it will make to the band's sound, because they don't seem to be softening up otherwise. I wouldn't say that any of these songs are easily translatable to pop music the way that some songs on last year's Battle Beast album absolutely are. Just change the filter on them and they'll sound like a different genre. Change the filters here and you'll have prog metal that's been messed with.

And messed with is a good way to talk about the negative side of the album, something else that I didn't notice last time out. It's not obvious throughout, but more than one track features a vocal that's been digitally manipulated. It's there on Midwinter Calls and especially on Ominous, but it keeps crawling out of other songs too to brush its fingernails over my personal blackboard, as one firm annoyance. I'm talking about autotune or whatever it is that Englund is doing to his voice. He sounds great normally, so I have no idea why he wants to change it into something so frustrating. It's the primary reason why I'm not giving this album another 8/10 and not particularly wanting to keep listening.

The other problem isn't a negative, just a caveat and that's that it's far from immediate. It isn't a bad album on a first listen but it's an underwhelming one. It's better second time through and it's better still on each further listen. Songs are only now starting to come alive for me and I'm on my fifth time through. That means that, while right now I might praise the imaginative guitars on The Great Unwashed and the groove of Call Out the Dark, elevated as it is by some straightforward but highly effective keyboard work from Rikard Zander, I need to listen a lot more to call out real highlights. And that's a tough admission for a critic to make.

For now, this is excellent but highly consistent stuff, in the vein of the last album but with more of a shift in the vocals in directions I'm not fond of. For a change, I want to read your reviews of it.

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