Friday 5 January 2024

Soen - Memorial (2023)

Country: Sweden
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Sep 2023
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I found Soen on their fourth album, Lotus, and I liked them a lot. They've changed since then, with a steady move away from the Tool influence that was overt on that album to something much less progressive and much more mainstream, but still unmistakably Soen. These ten songs are simpler, especially in the bass and drums, but they're still powerful and the hooks are just as strong as ever, which is what this band does better than so many other bands: to maintain a serious level of power whatever they're doing, even at their most melodic. They don't just write hooks for their choruses, they put them in verses too and the riffs support that wonderfully throughout.

The increasing simplicity of the music, which suggests that progressive metal isn't going to cut it as a label for long, if this far, was one of the first things I noticed with this album. Another was its impressive production, which is crisp and clear and makes it feel like metal even when it's shifted down into mere rock music, which it does often, in the way that Metallica really played rock music for a while but it felt like metal anyway because of the tone and production. On occasion, the tone even seems similar. There's a ballad to wrap things up too, Vitals, and that maintains its power as well, even in its quietest moments.

I liked this immediately but not emphatically. It took a while to grow on me, partly because of the general approach that was obvious from the first track, Sincere, but also partly because the song after it, Unbreakable, was so obviously the standout. Everything else seemed to sit in its shadow for a few listens through. However, I gradually realised that, even if those songs aren't as obvious or as immediate as Unbreakable, they're all still damn good songs. And so, from liking it from the outset, this turned into a grower. I was going with a 7/10 until my fourth or fifth time through but it became clear that it's an 8/10. Maybe I'll keep going up if I listen long enough.

It's also a very accessible album. Soen fans are likely to dig it, even though they're clearly getting more commercial. It's telling that the most progressive sections are probably the guitar solos, as they sometimes remind of Dave Gilmour, especially on Hollowed, Sincere and Icon. However, Pink Floyd did the same thing that Soen are doing, gradually moving away from progressive to mainstream, so "most progressive" here isn't really particularly progressive. However, it's wide open as to the rest of the potential audience. I can see alt rock fans and nu metal fans liking this, for a start. The path to this sound seems obvious from Floyd, Opeth or Metallica, but also from Disturbed or Pearl Jam, perhaps even Creed.

Much of that is because they calm down a lot for verses. Songs will kick in hard with big metal riffs from Cody Lee Ford and often surprisingly slow drumming from Martín López, but whenever Joel Ekelöf is ready to sing, those riffs strip away or calm down so the vocal melodies stay paramount. Violence is a great example but it's far from the only one here. It makes it easy for us to dig light moments as well as heavy ones, especially as the power is always there regardless.

I say Ekelöf because he's the lead vocalist here, as he's been since the band was founded in 2010, and he's becoming the strongest aspect, if mostly because the complicated passages of songs on previous albums that kept us paying attention to bass, drums and even keyboards generally aren't here this time out. That gives Ekelöf even more focus than he already had as a stellar singer, but he shares that spotlight on Hollowed with a female voice, delivered by Elisa Toffoli, who's Italian but carries a subtle Celtic lilt at the end of phrases. It's not really a duet, because they alternate their vocals for the most part, but both shine on this one, surely the most emotional song here.

It's Hollowed that has the most overtly Pink Floyd inspired guitar solo and it's Memorial after it that has the most overtly Metallica inspired riffing, but it's not a heck of a lot of songs that send me leaping at comparisons. Does Incendiary shift into Alan Parsons Project territory? Sure, I could throw that out, but there's not a lot here that sounds like other people.

Put simply, this sounds like Soen to me, even if they're still evolving their sound with each album, and that's an especially refreshing thought because, while I thoroughly enjoyed Lotus, I heard it as a Swedish take on Tool. I heard that obvious early influence much less on 2021's Imperial, as it sounded like Soen but with Tool often coming to mind. Here I had to stretch to find Tool moments. This is the first Soen album I've heard that sounds almost entirely like themselves.

And now I need to stop listening to Memorial, because I must be on my tenth time through now. It keeps getting better and it's only the fact that Unbreakable remains unchallenged in my mind by anything else here that I'm not thinking about a 9/10. All these songs are excellent, so an 8/10 has to be fair. The question is whether that's enough or not. At this rate, the next album, perhaps due in 2025, may well be right from the outset.

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