One of the most exciting things about metal right now is the new life that has been breathed into the modern progressive metal scene. The last decade has brought us a rise in interesting progressive metal and rock with its roots not in the ’70s, but instead in metal, alternative rock, and punk. The musicians from this era still love classic progressive rock, but they’re not producing music based only on that one foot. Instead, modern prog is a diverse, modern, entertaining movement which has given us Haken, Riverside, Pain of Salvation and Leprous—to name the best of them—not to mention the still developing genius of guys like Arjen Lucassen, Steven Wilson and Devin Townsend1.
A band that needs to be added to that list is Soen, and of that Tellurian is proof in kind. Cognitive, which was released in 2012, was the band’s debut and it bore a striking resemblance to the work of Tool and, to be fair, A Perfect Circle. Despite this undeniable likeness, the record was chock full of fat grooves, great writing, beautiful vocal performances from vocalist Eklöf and amazing performances from all the musicians—but especially metal’s best bassist (Steve Digiorgio if there’s any doubt) and one of metal’s best drummers2 (Martin Lopez). I’ve often felt a bit guilty for labeling Cognitive as too derivative, because despite the sound it has been a regular on my playlist since then—and I would hate to be responsible for pigeonholing a band before they had time to develop; great debuts are few and far between.
Soen‘s sophomore offering Tellurian is a clear improvement. The record is a menagerie of the best things about Cognitive, plus new dimensions in terms of performance and writing. Like so many of the best bands, what makes Soen work is the combination of their unique sound—in this case, drum-and-bass-driven music and airy riffing—with the effective use of dynamic songwriting that plays on all of the band’s strengths. Soen does both “heavy, syncopated and groovy” and “delicate and melancholy” with extreme ease. Tracks move smoothly between these two modes, often hooking on Joel Eklöf’s vocal performances to make the transitions work. Top this off with an instinctive understanding for melody, which is displayed in soaring choruses that feel like the synthesis of the heavy and the melodic, and you have a recipe for excellence.
Tellurian is a more progressive record than its predecessor. Moments like the bridge in “Koniskas” and the verse in opener “Tabula Rasa” show off a side of the band that works extremely well—syncopated rhythms, driving melodies and intuitive groove. “Ennui” drops an Enslaved riff to start things off, while “Pluton” reminds me of Leprous‘ move towards chunky, driven rhythms topped with ethereal vocals. Towards the end of the record, “Void” even has a riff at about the 2 minute mark that reminds me of some of the Opeth‘s Blackwater Park Åkerriffing. These bursts of genius and variation are often perfectly differentiated from a bed of tom driven groove, or juxtaposed with epic choruses—one of the Soen‘s greatest strengths.
And while I love the truly heavy moments this record offers, I cannot deny that a huge part of the appeal of Soen is Joel Eklöf’s performance. He particularly shines when the band moves into the lighter—melancholy—material. For me, this is best exemplified by “The Words,” which may be the track that I come back to the most these days. Wandering firmly into Katatonia territory, Eklöf’s performance is heart-wrenching and the composition is the perfect music for shortening Autumn days. Eklöf’s use of harmonies—a style already heard on Cognitive—continues to be something that is both effective and uniquely Soen. These moments of delicate harmonies litter the album—the end of “Tabula Rasa”; the chorus in “Karuman”; the bridge in “Pluton”—and they add tiny moments of piercing perfection that push cerebral music to the emotional plane—and from great to excellent.
If I have to pick a nit—and that’s kind of what I do around here—I have one major complaint. The mastering job on here is far too loud, the record is smashed, and, frankly, it holds the album back. Moments of Tellurian sound pretty muddy—the intro of “Pluton” being one such place—and while it doesn’t audibly distort in most places (it does peak and distort on the bass slide before the chorus in “Ennui,” for sure), the production and mastering here do this record absolutely no justice because it’s flat. Soen‘s currency is dynamics and delicacy, they use heavy highs but also a lot of airy quiet—these both need room to breathe. The use of cello (I think…?) on “The Words” and the clapping at the back end of “Void” and the beginning of “The Other’s Fall” went completely missing, for example, until I put on my reference headphones. “The Other’s Fall” starts with Lopez using congas and none of the broad, beautiful dynamics of finger-played drums comes through. And while the bass on this record sounds pretty good—with new bassist Stefan Stenberg filling Digiorgio’s shoes admirably—a music this bass and drum heavy needs more dynamic range. A DR of 5 doesn’t give any music room to breathe, but it’s especially unfitting for music as dynamic and emotional as this.
It is, I think, finally the fact that Tellurian is so artfully crafted and emotionally evocative that pushes it to the next level despite the audial limitations. As the record slopes towards its conclusion, I am struck over and over by the mastery of the melody and feel that Soen has. These moments of piercing beauty combined with the epic writing, the powerful performances and the next level of heaviness is sprinkled across the record makes Tellurian special. Soen has stepped through Tool‘s shadow and come out the other side—and the light is revealing.