Thursday 9 May 2024

Vanden Plas - The Empyrean Equation of the Long Lost Things

Country: Germany
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 19 Apr 2024
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I've heard a lot of Vanden Plas on Chris Franklin's highly recommended Raised on Rock radio show over the past few years, because he's a big fan of theirs, but they're another band who released a debut in the mid-nineties, when I was too busy with real life to focus on new rock and metal, and they didn't cross my path when I found my way back. They're a German band, from Kaiserslautern near the French border, and they play a highly commercial brand of progressive metal that's just as ambitious and complex as we might expect but fundamentally rooted in melody. This counts as their eleventh studio album and their first since The Ghost Experiment, which came out as a pair of albums in 2019 and 2020.

There are six tracks here and they're all strong, but a few listens firms up that they can be ranked relatively easily. The best are the longest, Sanctimonarium, which runs just over ten minutes, and March of the Saints, the epic of the album that wraps it up at almost sixteen. Next are the shorter tracks, My Icarian Flight, The Sacrilegious Mind Machine and They Call Me God, which sit in the six to nine minute range. Finally, there's the opening title track, which is the weakest of them, rather surprisingly.

That's because it's not really an opening song, just an opening track. It's a kind of an intro, but an odd one that lasts eight minutes, which is longer than two of the five actual songs. It's truly more of a sampler, running through what those five songs are going to do later in the album. Most of it unfolds instrumentally, with the vocals kicking in with what feels like a chorus and turns out to be from the closer, March of the Saints. The second line is the title of the song. It's enjoyable but it's not particular coherent because it's inherently a patchwork piece.

My Icarian Flight is a coherent prog metal song and it builds well, but it's quickly overshadowed by Sanctimonarium, which is where the album truly finds its feet. The Sacrilegious Mind Machine, on the other side of that epic, suffers in the same way, being a highly enjoyable song that we'd praise in isolation, should we hear it on the radio, but clearly losing out in comparison to the song that it happens to be next to on this album.

Like everything here, Sanctimonarium features elegant melodies over a punchier backdrop that I read is heavier than Vanden Plas's more recent albums and more like what they did on their early ones. I'm certainly interested in checking out their 1994 debut, Colour Temple, based on that note, to see if it holds true. That backdrop falls away somewhat during verses to emphasise the vocals of Andy Kuntz, which is an approach I don't always appreciate but is done so well here that it's almost a textbook in how to do it right. There's a wonderful calmer section four minutes in that features a flurry of activity nonetheless.

What else is new here is the keyboard work of Alessandro del Vecchio, the session player who's on pretty much every album released by Frontiers nowadays. Vanden Plas have rarely changed their line-up, Kuntz and the Lill brothers, guitarist Stephan and drummer Andreas, have been in place since the band's formation in 1986, while bassist Torsten Reichert joined as long ago as 1990, four years before their debut. However, Günter Werno, their keyboard player since 1990 left in 2023, so Del Vecchio has joined in his stead.

What I'm reading suggests that Del Vecchio has followed Werno's lead relatively closely, with the slight exception that he favours older keyboards. Certainly I'm hearing plenty of seventies organ on Sanctimonarium in the time honoured Jon Lord style, along with the more modern equivalent. He certainly doesn't favour that approach exclusively, so it's more of a delight when it shows up, a section on The Sacrilegious Mind Machine lovely behind rhythmic guitarwork. I believe the strings on They Call Me God are really his keyboards mimicking strings, so he's certainly staying varied.

The Sacrilegious Mind Machine and They Call Me God are excellent second half songs, enough so that I can't really choose between them. Initially, I easily favoured the latter, even though its first half plays out like a melancholy ballad, starting soft with piano, those keyboard generated strings and a half-whispered vocal from Kuntz. He escalates joyously in the chorus, emphasising just how good his intonation play is and Stephan Lill ramps things up midway with a searing guitar solo. On further listens, though, the former keeps getting better and now I can't pick between them.

Of course, I'll pick Sanctimonarium and March of the Saints over them every day, because they're absolute gems that underline how Vanden Plas only get better with the breathing space to grow their songs. The riffage here is more reminiscent of Iron Maiden than on earlier songs. There's a gorgeous drop in intensity six minutes into the latter and an impeccable ramp back up, this time in two stages as a sort of tease. Eventually, it returns to some of what we heard on the opener and it works far better when it's the ending of a longer song that's already been substantially developed.

So this isn't a perfect album, but it's a damn fine one. I initially rated it 8/10 because of the three tiers of quality, but ended up increasing that to 9/10 when I realised that the "lesser material" of My Icarian Flight, The Sacrilegious Mind Machine and They Call Me God really constitute a trio of 8/10 songs. Their two longer compatriots warrant 9/10s and they're twenty-five minutes between them. Only the opener really lets the side down and it's hardly a poor track. So 9/10 it is. If you're one of those Dream Theater fans who wishes they'd spend more time knocking out catchy gems in the Pull Me Under vein than extending their instrumental workouts, you should check out Vanden Plas. They may well be your new favourite band.

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