Every Angry Metal Guy has a soft side, right? Not necessarily. I think lots of angry metal guys sort of lack soft sides, at least when it comes to music–which is a shame, because they often miss very musically interesting records that are being put out by other bands and musicians throughout the world. Sure, I agree that the majority of what pop music has to offer is pointless, unentertaining drivel that hurts me somewhere deep down inside… Regardless of the state of pop music, though, every once in a while you stumble onto an artist that somehow manages to bridge that gap between the angry, stubborn four year-old who just wants to hate things that don’t fit into his very small view of the world and your inner connoisseur who is willing to set aside those judgements to just enjoy excellence when confronted with it.
Vienna Teng doesn’t just bridge that gap. Her new record Inland Territory is so extraordinarily good that I feel compelled to proselytize on its behalf. So instead of hiding in stunned silence in my closet listening to her music, I’m going to be forward about this: this is the best album I have heard from 2009. I have heard a lot of music and Inland Territory is easily the best.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have, in fact, been a big fan of Ms. Teng’s music since I heard her first album Waking Hour roughly 6 or 7 years ago. At the time, she was on a small label and the record was produced to be piano rock. The songs were good, and while there were superb moments—I’m a huge fan of “Unwritten Letter #1” and “Eric’s Song”—the album was immature, even if it had a precocious grace. Still, the record is marred with skippable moments and unsophisticated arrangements. Since then I have had the honor of watching her develop, hone her craft and move from a precocious but unformed singer-songwriter to a subtly sophisticated artist, able to use instrumentation and clever lyrics to tell stories and build melodies that carry an emotional weight and depth that I have rarely encountered before. While Warm Strangers may have even been spottier than her debut, Dreaming through the Noise turned the corner and developed into an album that I still can’t stop listening to.
Inland Territory moves within different territories, musically, expanding even further into the musical unknown that Dreaming through the Noise had. The opening track, “The Last Snowfall,” is almost a funeral dirge, whereas “In Another Life” is a ’20s jazz throwback. “Stray Italian Greyhound” is a pop song that is just right, while “Kansas” aches its way forward, with haunting melodies and evocative lyrics. The whole record flows smoothly between styles, themes and feel. And yet somehow, where on other records this would feel strange or disconnected, Vienna‘s voice—figuratively and literally—are so strong that it unites songs as different as “Kansas” and the playful (but deep) “Grandmother Song” into a workable format. With her lush orchestrations, beautiful harmonies, excellent lyrics and subtle progressiveness (think Kansas), Inland Territory hits all the perfect notes.
I’ve often wondered why Vienna Teng isn’t more popular like a Tori Amos, for example, who even many metal guys admit to liking. Frankly, it blows my mind. I think that musically she is easily a match, and I think she writes better songs and lyrics (also she pronounces words correctly…). But unlike Tori, who seems to wear her heart on her proverbial sleeve, and who often seeths with angst, Vienna is a lyrical chameleon who can write dark songs, but also writes swelling themes. She deftly shifts songs, feelings and emotions in order to build the themes that paint different facets of the human experience; a full range of emotions and moments. Another reason, I think, is that she isn’t nearly as “avante garde,” which is something that I really appreciate. Inland Territory, for example, is a particularly interesting record musically, but she still writes music that is essentially pop. Damn good pop at that, but nonetheless pop.
But for you metal guys (if you’re even still reading this), I must confess that this isn’t going to be everybody’s cup o’ tea. Sure, she writes pop songs, love songs and has never written a song about evisceration or Satan (or Oden for that matter). But if you’re interested in progressive music at all, along the lines of newer Anathema, the Damnation record by Opeth or Porcupine Tree, I think there’s a lot for you on this record—and on her other ones. As a classically trained musician and as a self-proclaimed prog fan, Vienna writes deceptively progressive music, often forcing one to take time to actually sit down and count out time signatures to hear that she’s using rotating time because it works so smoothly, for example. She writes excellent songs and imagines fascinating landscapes and if you’re honestly interested in varied, progressive and ecclectic music, look no further than Inland Territory.