Unlike other genres, power metal isn’t one that I can freely delve into – I need a little consideration before I lunge into that fray of fromage. Having spent most of my adult life in front of a classroom full of students with inevitably big ideas, patience is not a virtue I was born with but one I have since earned by iron and blood. The kind of patience that allows me to sit in wait for an album with a little more crunch; a little more progression à la Symphony X, Borealis or Kamelot. France’s Adagio are another fine addition to that list. Eight years between releases, and many a lineup change later, the now six-piece have returned with fifth LP, Life, to espouse their progressive symphonics anew. Guitarist and composer Stéphan Forté explains the band’s sabbatical as a commitment to doing the material justice, further describing Life as a contemplative journey through human emotions. Complex stuff. A little too complex.
Let me begin with explaining just how frustrating Life is – the album, not the existential quandary… Adagio are clearly exceptional musicians more than able to produce a singularly high quality from their respective instruments. Unfortunately, they also have a tendency to do so all at once. The album begins with its longest song and title track. In just under ten minutes, we are affronted with a concoction of dramatic orchestration, staccato rhythms, layers of keys and eastern strings – hell, there’s even a hammond organ in there somewhere. It’s a lot of instrumentation to absorb, especially when the material has a habit of throwing cohesion out of the window in favor of excess. Fortunately, new addition, Kelly “Sundown” Carpenter (Civil War) – familiar to fans as the band’s once live vocalist – makes for a high-water mark in Adagio‘s history of interchangeable singers. Reminiscent of Doogie White with the occasional bite of Russell Allen, his vocal lines match the melodrama inherent in the music whilst commanding the listener’s attention with ease on the admittedly fine choruses.
The choruses actually contribute significantly in making so much of the verse/interlude structure appear so disjointed. They are definitively epic and relentlessly memorable and as such, it’s hard not to long for them through the inflated tumult. “The Ladder” strips down some of the bulk and adopts some heavier riffing and urgent keys until making way for another uplifting refrain. So far so good. Eventually, however, comes the break for another needlessly bloated bridge, extending the song past its natural end. Characteristically, much of the album reminds me of Savatage‘s Gutter Ballet, a record all prog metal owes a musical debt to. Savatage are an institution and one which elicits an almost Pavlovian response from me – possibly because they never made me ask the question to break all metal hearts: does it djent? Sadly, it seems Adagio does. “Subrahmanya,” named for the Hindu god of war, is one of the record’s heavier cuts. In an attempt to compound this, it’s littered with overtly modern djent riffs. The chorus is, yet again, a saving grace, but its hard to get past the dull guitar work, even when faced with Forté’s extravagant soloing.
The band have clearly made a concerted effort to expand in both horizon and audience; the addition of violinist, Mayline, as full-time member is indicative of such. She fills her spot admirably, adding extra bombast to “I’ll Possess You,” in all of its Symphony X glory. This makes for a welcome reprieve from the added helping of djent that abjectly ruins the preceding track, “Darkness Machine,” which would have been brilliant without the onomatopoeic hell shoehorned into it. Much of the album’s latter half is diluted but the hard rock ballad, “Trippin’ Away,” deserves special mention and throws yet another genre adventure into the mix. Independently it works, but, again, does nothing for the fluidity of the record’s whole.
Life is an incredibly galling experience. There is a clear core of exhaustive quality but it’s insistently dressed up in so much costume jewelery that it’s hard to summon the will required to persevere and strike it rich. That said, Adagio have delivered their most developed album to date, albeit overly so, and one that hasn’t yet priced me out from keeping an eye on their career. I hope their next release not only comes without the lengthy absence but also fine tuned with a little more sense of self. Until then this remains the very definition of a mixed bag.