Debut releases are weird; you never can know what you’re going to get. Sometimes debut means one-man black metal who just discovered GarageBand. Debut can mean hidden talent of Lethbridge, Alberta unmasking themselves for a world unprepared. Or it can mean a group of already-established musicians getting together and deciding to try something new. So it is with U.K.-based Ark Ascent and Downfall, their debut release. Featuring Rogue Marechal (ex-Shadowkeep) on vocals, Andrea Arcangeli (DGM) on bass, and Michael Brush (Sirenia) on vocals, there’s a whole bunch of talent here. One Jack Kirby rounds out the sound with guitar work that reminds me pleasantly of Mob Rules. Though Ark Ascent is billed as a progressive metal band, I tend to think of them as leaning more towards traditional heavy metal with touches of Kamelot-esque power metal in the form of synths and catchy riffing.
If you want a quick snapshot of Downfall, you need not look much further than “Sanctuary,” the album’s primary advance track. The song boasts a clear production, heavy rock riffing, catchy synth work, and a strong balance between upbeat traditional metal work and its dismaying subject matter. The album follows the story of the last human survivor of an apocalypse, hurtling towards his, and humanity’s, inevitable end. Not that Ark Ascent would let such a grim dose of unreality bring down their musical mood, though the sobering moments on this album are all welcome. Interlude tracks like “Closer to Heaven” and “Ascension” showcase a softer side of the band, with acoustic guitar and piano work that helps to ground the music and offer welcome breaks from what might otherwise be a repetitive sound.
Most of Downfall follows a fairly straightforward template: the choruses are huge and catchy affairs, most songs are upbeat and energetic, and Marechal navigates vocal duties with a distinctly progressive flair, dipping into falsettos for moments that are meant to be especially impactful. Though Ark Ascent manages this style very well, the best songs on the album are the ones that break the mold. “Innocence Lost,” for example, incorporates acoustic guitars in a sobering slow number that doesn’t quite reach ballad status. “The Aftermath” sees the band embracing prog as much as it can; jazzy pianos, bass solos, and the album’s only synth solo decorate a wild and strangely catchy tune that’s one of the most enjoyable ones here. The peak of the formula breaking, however, has to be the closer, “The End of Time.” The grand, thirteen-minute conclusion is packed with emotion, power, and my favorite chorus on an already chorus-heavy album. It’s the best possible example of the good things that happen when you go forth and try new things.
For the rest of the album, Ark Ascent leans perhaps a bit too heavily on their slightly progressive-traditional-metal-with-a-touch-of-power-goodness template.1 Considering the success of songs like “Sanctuary” and “Darkest Hour,” this isn’t at all a bad thing. And yet, “Darkest Hour” feels a bit more like a chorus with other parts than a “proper” song. This isn’t to say that the rest of the song is bad by any stretch, but the difference in quality between some choruses compared to the rest of the songs they reign over is a bit startling at times, and it makes the fifty-minute album runtime feel a bit longer. The title track is a great example of this; the riffing and verses just don’t do anything for me, but damn does that chorus get me. The crowning exception to this would be the aforementioned “The End of Time,” except that it has a pretty amazing chorus too – it’s just that the rest of the song justifies most of its thirteen-minute runtime as well.
Still, having choruses that are “too much better than the rest of the songs” is far from a terrible thing. Ark Ascent have crafted a straightforward, fun, and at times emotional debut. I can hardly complain about catchiness, right? After all, I do keep listening. Downfall is an enjoyable album overall, and I don’t doubt I’ll be returning to it sometime very soon — and looking forward to what happens next (you know… after the apocalypse).