I stumbled blindly onto Subterranean Masquerade‘s brilliant debut Suspended Animation Dreams eleven years ago. It stuck with me for almost a decade, despite no new material appearing from the band. There was a peculiar brilliance to the music, a quirky, avant-garde, orientally-inspired tale from an asylum, that weaved a psychedelic tapestry from an incredible array of instruments, both Middle-Eastern and Western, helped by the massive growl and bronze voice of Paul Kuhr (Novembers Doom.) The creative mind behind this endeavor was the versatile Israeli artist Tomer Pink, who spent the hiatus traveling, and used his experiences to craft The Great Bazaar in 2015, ten years after the release of Dreams. Thankfully, Vagabond came a lot swifter.
Twelve years down the road from the debut, Subterranean Masquerade no longer sounds the same. The psychedelic has lost ground to the Oriental, and the introduction of Green Carnation vocalist Kjetil Nordhus has brought influences from his main gig into the songwriting. The subtle madness and looming shadow have made way for a scene of sunlit clay houses in a strange, vaguely Middle-Eastern land. The record immediately establishes this atmosphere with bright strings and street sounds, as the titular Vagabond greets us on opener “Place for Fairytales.”
One thing I was missing on Vagabond‘s immediate predecessor was the richness of the instrumentation. That issue is soon eradicated here. Something that sounds like a sitar, a dulcimer, clapping, hand percussion, electric guitar and drums, saxophone and piano all appear within the first two minutes, coming and going as the flow of the music commands. They don’t feel artificial or tacked on; on the contrary, it’s a rich, organic composition, an initially bewildering but ultimately effective aural adventure. This was always the strength of SubMasq and Tomer employs his arsenal effectively, moving back and forth on a sliding scale from metal to Oriental.
The songwriting and performances are consistently strong on the front-half of the album. “Nomad” is the most immediately likable as both the most straightforward and the most metal song on the record, making extensive use of rolling bass drums and Eliran Waitzman’s growl, who dispelled my anxiety over Paul Kuhr’s exit immediately with a booming cauldron of a roar. “Kippur” is the most ominous song on the record, right up until danceable synth music washes the darkness away. “Ways” stumbles on the words in the beginning, but recovers with a segue from Gazpacho-like folk music into a roller-coaster of progressive instrumentation. For the most part, the songs barely have choruses, instead of concocting an eclectic train of thought and barreling headlong down the tracks, spilling saxophone solos, violins and string instruments of indeterminate origin.
There is a dip in quality during the second half of the album. “Daled Bavos,” based on a traditional Jewish melody, is a bit too repetitive by its ritualistic nature. “As You Are” opens a smidge too saccharine for my tastes, and while there’s a lot to enjoy about the moody-going-on-bolstering “Hymn of the Vagabond,” it doesn’t feel quite as focused as the first half. My main gripe with the album is the cover of David Bowie‘s “Space Oddity.” It’s been purposely slowed down to an almost doom-like quality and doesn’t incorporate as much Oriental music as the rest of the album. These shortcomings make it drag, something unheard of for the rest of the record.
The production, on the other hand, has always been a strong suit of the band and that is no different here. The master is rich and warm, and though so many instruments come and go, none of them feel out of place in the mix, which is in a Heisenburgian state of simultaneously organic and calculated. This is the first time Tomer has not done the production himself, but it doesn’t feel like the sound of Vagabond is out of place compared to the previous records, and I suspect his input has been substantial.
Subterranean Masquerade was a milestone for me, the first truly underground artist I’d discovered myself, and although it doesn’t feel quite like that timeless debut, nor is it quite that brilliant, Vagabond shows a band who still have a lot to offer the more adventurous among us. Some may find it wanders too much, or consider the amount of Oriental music overkill, but I’m not among them. It’s a little front-loaded, and the covers (song and art) are disappointing, but it doesn’t significantly dent my enjoyment of the album. It takes me on a journey to a mysterious land, a place for fairy tales. Maybe it will take you too.