I don't post many reviews at the 5/10 level or below. That's because I have no interest in being yet another hatchet job critic who just slates everything he doesn't like. There's much too much good music coming out now to spend time focusing on the bad, unless it's a disappointing release by an important name that warrants a warning. One rare 5/10 review that I did post was of Anoushbard's debut album, Mithra, but my rating wasn't reflective of songwriting, musicianship or uniqueness, rather of issues with line-up and production, most obviously that they didn't have a drummer and what I presumed was a drum machine didn't work in the slightest and sounded awful.
That left me in the odd position of recommending the band but not their album. The band seemed to be full of good ideas; had an intricate touch on the guitar, surely in part because both members were guitarists; and found a good balance between quiet sections and heavy ones. Once my review was done, I was happy to put that drum sound behind me but I wanted to hear more from the band. Well, fast forward three years and Sherwin Baradaran and Siavash Motallebi are back with a more traditional line-up. They've added Arman Tirmahi on bass and Nima Seylani on oud, an instrument I'm not used to seeing in metal. There still isn't a drummer proper but there's a guest playing real drums and a real producer capturing them with a good quality sound.
And so this is much closer to Anoushbard sounding like they should, which means that this is worth a lot more than 5/10. The question was always going to be how much. Well, this is easily a 7/10 and I thought seriously about a highly recommended 8/10. The guitars still sound great, with some tidy riffing and some elegant solos. The album begins with an elegant electric guitar over an acoustic guitar, which is an excellent touch. The bass is mostly there as a rumble and a depth to the guitars, but the drums are massively improved, so much so that they're exactly what they need to be, with dips into ethnic sounds too.
In true prog form, it all kicks off with a three part track, The Righteous Ardaviraf, which suggests a story about a journey to the next world because The Book of Arda Viraf was a Zoroastrian text from a millennium ago. Musically, it's an interesting piece, with Preparation the calm intro, a folky and proggy track with a clean vocal. There are no drums until a couple of minutes in and then they're a return to the unusual sound I compared to beating a wall with rushes sound on the debut, the one good aspect to the drumming on that album.
Journey ups the ante, making its quiet sections heavier, introducing the drums in traditional metal form and adding a lot of emphasis. It immediately reminds of Orphaned Land but Queensrÿche too and that means tasty songwriting even before the crunch hits fifty seconds in. Suddenly we're in a metal song but it's not content with staying there, mixing it up until the guitar solo at the end. It's wrapped up by Return, which stays with the Orphaned Land vibe, elegant guitars over tribal drums and a host of tight breaks. There's even a choral moment to wrap it up.
While there's metal in The Righteous Ardaviraf, it's far more prog rock than metal. That shifts with the next couple of songs, which are heavy metal with a serious side of up tempo doom. Destructive Spirit (Angra Mainyu) is more extreme, adding a harsh lead vocal in the form of a confident growl that speaks from a position of confident power. It's inherently commanding, especially in lines like "Your soul is mine!", but the guitars back it up. A clean backing vocal shows up eventually and it's a nice contrast. There's more of the same on Tower of Silence (Dakhma), which shines because of an exploratory guitar solo over solid crunchy riffs. There's some fast double bass drumming here but the guitars don't even attempt to keep up and that makes for an interesting effect too.
There are other tracks here, but the one that I'll call out as a highlight, up there with Journey, the second part of The Righteous Ardaviraf, is the title track. It opens with an unusual atmosphere, the oud of Nima Seylani soft and intricate but playing within an ambience that sounds like a sanctuary for birds, somewhat reminiscent of Staff Benda Bilili recording in the Kampala zoo. Once it finds a pace, there are soft, clean vocals and a brief but evocative electric guitar solo. As on Mithra, these musicians clearly enjoy setting up contrasts and the tender Persian oud music stands its ground in the face of crunchy modern metal.
I'm so happy that Anoushbard have managed to flesh out a line-up. Mithra underlined the promise they have as a band but they simply didn't have the infrastructure to be able to deliver that album in the form it deserved to have taken. This follow-up has that infrastructure: other musicians and a strong production. This is what Anoushbard should sound like and they sound very good to me, one more progressive metal band from the vibrant middle east, but this one hailing from a nation that not only doesn't support rock and metal but often actively suppresses it. I salute the dedication it must have taken to make this band and this album happen. That it's damn good is a bonus.