Progressive metal isn’t an easy place to be. Let’s face it, much of the world of progressive metal is a tussle between an old guard of old fans (the Neanderthals of Metal) who really like bands that sound like Dream Theater, Queensryche, and so forth, and then there’s kind of everyone else. It’s disparate, difficult to define and often pretentious as hell with little logic as to what is in fashion with which group. This is the natural outcome of genrefication, in my opinion, and part of that is a question of where a band can actually progress to. You’re either not heavy enough or you’re too heavy and you never please anyone. Few bands ever really manage to fall outside of these well-worn ruts in the road, but there are some fantastic bands in those ruts, Above Symmetry is one of those bands.
Above Symmetry (formerly Aspera) is not like much of the progressive metal that’s coming from Norway (which is where they’re from incidentally), but instead they sound a lot like Symphony X. This will not be the last time I say that, because Above Symmetry sounds like Symphony X. Like, almost exactly like Symphony X. The music is great, heavy and riffy. The band is tight, with great keyboards and a lead guitarist that is just a hell of a player. The guitars and keyboards work together really well and are balanced out by a very excellent rhythm section. Like Symphony X, the writing is intelligent with excellent transitions, good dynamic movements, beautiful choruses and solid hooks litter every song. The choruses are amazingly catchy and will definitely get stuck in your head, and yet the arrangements of the songs are still progressive enough to make you feel nice and superior to your buddies who listen to non-prog bands. On top of all of that the record is beautifully produced, done by the marvelous Jens Bogren (Opeth, Ihsahn, Symphony X, etc.), everything is neatly organized, tight as hell and the tone is really fantastic.
OK, so what are the problems? Well, I suspect that you probably already sense an issue. When the band’s bio says that the band “quotes bands like Pagan’s Mind, Pain of Salvation, and Symphony X” it’s actually a really nice way of saying “Above Symmetry sounds like progressive metal, you know, progressive metal like you’ve heard before.” And while this is good in some ways, it feels comfortable, it also draws the listener back from the tracks thinking “Huh, don’t I know that riff?” Another major weakness is the vocalist. Unlike many progressive bands, singer Atle Pettersen isn’t a straight up bad vocalist. Instead, he’s a poseur. His performance on the record is spotty because he is at his roots a talented, choir boy singer who is trying his hardest to sound rock ‘n roll. Something his voice doesn’t have, and something that makes him a unique voice in my opinion. In a genre overrun with Rob Halford, Bruce Dickenson and Geoff Tate wannabes, Pettersen has a clean, clear voice that is strong and recognizable without needing to fake balls. Unfortunately, for whatever reason he has decided that in order to be a rock vocalist he has to have a wail and it makes him sound weak and silly, not tough and strong like he intends.
Another interesting point, which drops this record down a bit for me, is that the lyrics are not good. The Steve Harris School of Lyrics Writing is apparently still open in Scandinavia and whoever is writing the lyrics for Above Symmetry has taken all his notes directly from these guys. There is no subtlety, hardly any poetry and nothing remotely new or interesting in them. Lyrics in metal tend to range between the unfortunately bad and the passable, rarely ever being good, and for Above Symmetry, a reading list of good poets and lyricists might be in order. To be frank, I can understand why so many power and progressive metal bands have begun writing thematically (stories, concept records, etc.) because this record which seems a bit more personal, is really just filled with rock cliches.
In the end, however, Ripples indicates what I see to be a bright future for this band of Norwegian youngsters. This is their debut record and they make a really good show of it with catchy tunes, smartly written tracks and they’re tight, tight, tight. One hopes that they begin developing some personality, working on convincing their vocalist that he isn’t Russel Allen and keeps fighting on. These guys have a bright future ahead of them if they can keep it together.
[Disclaimer: This record is a re-issue of Aspera – Ripples, but the band has changed their name. I like these guys enough to re-post this so that people know that it’s coming out, but it’s the same record, so I just re-issued my review.]