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Iamthemorning - Belighted CD (album) cover




Crossover Prog

3.84 | 372 ratings

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4 stars Iamthemorning's debut record is my favourite debut album of all time. By a fair amount too. The amount of compositional maturity and uniqueness this obscure Russian duo showed on their very first outing was beyond impressive. Melancholic chamber pop melodies adorned with strings and intricate drumming, all working around the wonderful fingers of classically trained pianist Gleb Kolyadin, who also has a place as my favourite pianist (which is also my favourite instrument, so he could even be my favourite instrumentalist, ever). It's a record I recommend to absolutely everyone, have played over 25 times, and own three (yes, three) copies of. Are we starting to see the expectation that I put on Belighted?

Belighted is still a good album. I think it's impossible for it not to be - the very essence of Iamthemorning's music is something I am a huge fan of - Marjana's sweet and delightful vocals, Gleb's virtuosic and intense piano playing, and the way their compositions flow from melodious chamber pop to some dark and almost heavy art rock sections are all things that I adore in music, and add to what made ~ such a great album. And since all of those things are still here on Belighted, I can't really say that this is any less than a good album.

But. Belighted is not the album it could have been. I'm a bit split on my opinion about this, and how Iamthemorning should have gone about writing a follow up to ~. On the one hand, this is a distinctly different album - it's not just completely rehashing the same ideas as before, it's looking for change and shifting their sound, which is something I respect a lot in music and is always a good sign when trying to avoid the sophomore slump. But, on the other hand, I am not a fan of any of the new elements that they have added to their sound. At all. An attempt to freshen and shift the Iamthemorning sound has, to me, resulted in some awkward and unnecessary elements being thrown on top of otherwise good songs. And thus you see the dilemma, and why so many bands suffer under the pressure of the follow-up, especially when the debut is near-perfect. Drop the new parts and this is just a weaker version of ~ with no change, but keep them and it changes the defining sound of the band in ways that doesn't really work.

But I'm going to stop being negative for a while and talk about what I like about this record, because isolated, and ignoring all comparisons to the debut, there is still more good than bad here.

The second half of this album is when it really starts to come to life, although that's not to say the first is without its merits. From the album standout "Gerda" to the closing of the album we have a string of songs that really start to show the same compositional consistency they had on the debut, albeit to a slightly lower level. "Gerda" is Marjana's best track on this album, containing her best melodies and vocal performances by a bit of a margin. I love the way this track builds in an almost linear way, slowly adding in instruments as it raises in intensity, and the whole way Marjana's voice and Gleb's piano stay strong and in focus. I especially love how lush and strong the strings are in this track, and its a great relief after the sore overuse of bad guitar on this album (which I'll get to in a minute).

This is followed by "Os Lunatum", and if "Gerda" was Marjana's strongest track on this album, this one is the strongest for the string players, especially during the second half with cellos and hard struck violins (and even a fretless bass guitar) all coming in under the atmosphere of Marjana's reverbed vocals. And then we have "K. O. S", which demonstrates the other major player in Iamthemorning's repertoire - Gleb's piano, and despite playing in an awkward (and totally unnecessary) 9/4 time signature, really gets some brilliant lines in, and is the only real time on the album when the piano gets to the level of moments like the bridge of "Inside" off the debut album. This song also feels like the logical climax of the album, in a similar way to how "I B Too" was for the debut, but in a lesser manner. The final crescendo brings in Gavin Harrison's heavy drums for the first time, as well as some guitar that doesn't actually suck that much (for once), but Marjana's vocals don't hit the intensity that they did on "I B Too" and despite some awesome melodies in the first half, it doesn't have a full punch. The album's final track (technically), "Reprise of Light/No Light" is another good one, and completes the run of quality material in the second half as another building, rising track featuring great strings again and a really nice drum part from Gavin.

And the first half? Well, it's not bad, but aside from maybe "The Simple Story" and to a lesser extent "Romance" none of the tracks here are up to the quality of their second half counterparts. "The Howler" has a nice jazzy piano/vocal part for its verse, and "To Human Misery" has a great chorus hook, but both that and "The Simple Story" had better versions released earlier this year on the Miscellany EP.

But all of these good parts and segments get shrunk down when put into context with the debut. Only "Gerda" and perhaps "Reprise of Light/No Light" can even get near the seven or eight incredible songs from the debut. While this album has good songs and some nice moments, getting completely blown away is a rare feat here with comparison to its predecessor. And even moreso when you thrown in the parts that I'm not really a fan of.

For those who don't know the rather impressive story of Iamthemorning's rise to fame, it happened in a rather odd way, through a rather odd group of fans - namely the internet's progressive rock community. Anyone who heard the debut blank would struggle to hear much progressive influence, but it is there in tiny parts during the louder tracks. But for some reason the prog world took them on and branded them as their own, despite the fact that their prog influence was fleeting. The number one album on ProgArchives, multiple features in Prog Magazine, and eventually signing to a (slightly) prog label with Kscope, this in combination with the fact that vocalist Marjana is a bit of a proghead herself, meant that many of us were anticipating a bit of a shift towards true progressive rock. And despite the fact that modern progressive rock is pretty much my favourite genre, I can't quite say that this shift has done their music any good. At all.

The most notable difference is the massive inclusion of guitar on this album - from a couple of distant guest appearances on the debut to a prominent part in pretty much every track here, coming right in with a wall of distorted power chords in "The Howler". And I mean no disrespect to the guitarist himself - the parts are played proficiently and he is no means a bad guitarist, but it does not fit with the music in any conceivable way. Iamthemorning's music is quaint and delicate, and when the dark moments come in they are characterised by the cello and double bass, not the sound of a poorly mixed electric guitar. Honestly, remove the guitar from this album completely and replace its parts with a cello or violin, and I would love this a whole lot more. My distaste for the tones and mixing of the guitar go so far that I actually switched out the album versions of "The Simple Story" and "To Human Misery" with the versions that were on the Miscellany EP. Especially during "To Human Misery", we have the awkward hard-panned guitar fluttering around in the corner during the chorus, and even worse for the hook after the verse when it follows Marjana's vocal line in the distant background.

But it's not just the fact that the guitars sound poor and are mixed very strangely, it's the fact that it doesn't fit their sound. During the aforementioned "The Howler", the entire song feels like Iamthemorning pandering to their newfound rock audience, complete with some irrelevant and annoying samples. But it really becomes evident when you hear how weak Marjana's voice is when she is forced to sing these kinds of songs. Her voice is of subtlety and frail beauty, and the only time it really feels good in the loud sections is with layers and layers of phone-box distortion. During "The Howler" and "To Human Misery" she sounds dwarfed by the loud guitars and drums, like she doesn't belong there at all.

But it's not just the focus on rock and guitars that is a negative on this album, some poor progressive influence starts to seem into their compositions, too. "Crowded Corridors" clocks in at four minutes longer than anything on the first album, but instead of playing a longer, more developing song, they play a pretty regular length track and then just end it half way through. And then go straight into a three-minute piano solo. Now, me two years ago would have got so excited at the prospect of a three-minute Gleb Kolyadin piano solo, but honestly this isn't pleasant at all. Shifting from his usual Beethoven and Bach-inspired parts, Gleb goes full Mozart- meets-Keith Emerson in this solo, and yes it is as atonal as that implies, with unnecessary time changes stacking up and even a feature from a rather gross-sounding organ underneath. And the worst thing about this is that the first four minutes and fifty seconds of the song are absolutely glorious. Not only is it one of the best songs on the album, if they did indeed choose to increase this first half out to eight minutes, in the style of something like "Comforting Sounds" from Frengers, it could possibly even be the best song of their career (funnily enough, the following track, "Gerda", is really a shorter version of the style this song should have followed). It's a beautiful piece, slowly building up in intensity and using layers of Marjana's vocals to create a serene and brooding atmosphere. And then for some reason they choose to end it before it hits any form of intensity, then do a bit of a dance and walk off.

The biggest problem with this album, in the end, is how forgettable it is. There are good moments here and there and overall there isn't really a bad song on it, but whenever I hear it I can't help but think to myself "well, this would be a lot better if the guitar wasn't here and if the compositions were more concise", and then 10 seconds later I say "wait a second, the debut is exactly that." There is no real reason for me to return to this record when ~ still exists. And even moreso, as their label debut, many new fans will listen to this as their first introduction to the band, and this honestly is nowhere near as captivating or exciting as its predecessor and might fail to grab them as that one would. Again, I'm becoming too negative about it simply because of its context. This is a good album. Would I recommend it? Not wholly, but if you're craving some more of the debut's glory then the second half has some great moments. But otherwise, just go listen to that.


Originally written for my Facebook page/blog:

Gallifrey | 4/5 |


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