Soen – Imperial CD Review

(Preface: AMG Himself reviewed the vinyl master of Imperial last week, and I was supposed to double up on it with him, but since he decided to “Tolstoy” his review my thoughts were relegated to a post-release note. I’m not bitter at all.)

AMG Himself and I come at Soen from slightly different directions. Our overlord fell in love with this band in spite of the overt Tool worship present on their initial releases, and felt that Ekelöf was their secret weapon, a vocalist of sublime talent. For AMG Himself, the band started off near the top of their game and have only gotten better over their first four albums. This writer, however, got on board with Soen because of their Tool worship (and the fantastic rhino artwork on Tellurian), and I felt what was holding the band back on their first three release was, in fact, the vocals. If I had been reviewing the band’s earlier work, my ratings would be a full point lower than Master’s.1 Until Lotus came around, and everything clicked – songs were fantastic (and truly Soen songs, rather than Tool imitations) and Ekelöf really did elevate the material.

This is all a rather long-winded way of saying I am as fully on board the Soen train as the owner of this eponymous blog, and have been looking forward to Imperial as much as he has. I’ve had far less time with the album, but here we go with what may or may not be a wet blanket of reason. Imperial is another strong album; better than Lotus in some ways, yet falling short in others. “Lumerian” crashes out of the gates in a fashion reminiscent of the last couple of Haken releases, but quickly moves from jagged riffing to melodic, layered groove, and when Ekelöf begins to sing his voice transcends the music, emotion and nuance dripping from every lyric. Throughout Imperial I couldn’t get over just how good the vocals are. I’ve mentioned that Ekelöf really came into his own on Lotus. Well, here he goes beyond anything previous, and must now be considered the band’s highlight. He takes over every song with sublime charisma, to the point where I had to force myself back through the album multiple times in an effort not to listen to him.

“Lumerian” isn’t the only great song. “Deceiver” follows a similar template, but augments it with more groove. While those tracks bring some Haken-like metallic chops, the more engrossing songs take a different tack. What rules on “Illusion” and “Fortune” is melody, texture, and mood. The band is playing towards a higher goal than simple prog wankery – much like Katatonia in that regard. When they do so, the results are fantastic. Those four songs, along with the keyboard-centric “Modesty”2, make for an outstanding fistful of melodic progressive metal. But…

The more I listened to Imperial, the more nits I found to pick. The biggest two come in song arrangement and mixing. Half the songs here follow a very similar template, with the metallic opening and the textured, melodic verses along with soaring vocal arrangements. Don’t get me wrong; any two or three of the five similarly-arranged songs would be considered fantastic. Five of eight, though, got repetitive around the ninth or tenth listen. But the bigger issue is the mix. For some reason, Soen decided that Kane Churko3 was the right guy to mix Imperial. That might be true, if you want to sound like Five Finger Death Punch. Like his dad, Churko is a master of the modern metal sound, but his trademark is more aptly applied to FFDP, Ozzy, and Hellyeah than a band like Soen. The Angry Metal Guy went into fine detail regarding waveforms and treble and all sorts of sciency stuff in his novel, and he and I actually viddied about it for a while, but it boils down to personal choice, and mine (for this kind of music) leans more towards Katatonia than Hellyeah.

Imperial is wonderfully executed, and Ekelöf’s vocal performance is going to be hard to match by any band for the rest of the year. He has truly become one of music’s outstanding vocalists. But what can I say? After bingeing on Imperial for two weeks straight, the lack of diversity in the songs combined with the rather stereotypical saturated mix started to rile me up. This is still a highly enjoyable album, but it isn’t the masterpiece I was hoping for.

Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 5 | Format Reviewed: 320kbps mp3
Label: Silver Lining Music
Websites: |
Release Worldwide: January 29th, 2021

Show 3 footnotes

  1. Maybe this is why I’m not the owner of an eponymous blog, though.
  2. Is that mellotron? It sure sounds like it.
  3. Son of Kevin, who was mentored by Mutt Lange and whom along with his dad have become go-to producers for modern metal bands.
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