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Soen - Imperial CD (album) cover

IMPERIAL

Soen

 

Experimental/Post Metal

3.81 | 107 ratings

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lukretio
5 stars Well, here I am, in the first week of February, already holding in my hands what is very likely to become my Album of the Year in 2021: Imperial, Soen's fifth album, is an amazing record that has haunted my CD player since its release ten days ago and will very likely continue to do so for at least a few more weeks. I must have listened to this album at least 50 times already, and I still do not seem to get enough of it. Yes, it is THAT good!

Packed with smashing grooves, soaring guitar solos and incredibly catchy melodies, this is easily the strongest album released by the band so far. And I am not saying this as a newcomer to Soen's sound. I have been following the band since their second album, 2014's Tellurian. Their blend of groovy progressive metal - built in equal parts of technical proficiency and emotional intensity, intricate riffs and melancholic melodies - is right up my alley, given how I feed on a diet of dark, atmospheric prog metal in the vein of Katatonia, Leprous, Riverside, Opeth and Anathema. Yet, until today, my attitude towards Soen has only been lukewarm, at best. I dug what they have been trying to do, but until now I have always had issues with the end-result of their albums, be it for a subpar sound production (their third album Lykaia was literally butchered by the sound engineer), or for a songwriting approach that has always sounded to me as in need of a good injection of dynamics and a healthy dose of fat trimming to craft songs with nothing but their strongest parts.

Imperial is exactly the album I was hoping one day Soen would write. It takes the best parts of their sound and condenses them in to eight, strikingly lean, gloriously dynamic, and instantly impactful tracks, where nothing is superfluous and every single instrument truly plays only for the song. In interviews, Soen's main man and drummer Martin Lopez (ex-Opeth) hinted that this has partly to do with the involvement of Grammy-nominated sound engineer Kevin Churko, who mixed and mastered the album and encouraged the band to remove any superfluous elements that were getting in the way of the song. The choice of Churko may surprise Soen's fans, given his previous involvement with acts that sound quite different than Soen, such as Papa Roach, Five Finger Death Punch, and In This Moment. But they need not worry: although Imperial does sound more modern, more immediate and punchier than Soen's previous records, the album still retains the classic Soen sound. The intricate but groovy riffs and drum patterns are still there, and so are Joel Ekelöf's soaring vocal melodies and Cody Ford's emotional bluesy solos. Yet, everything sounds more compact, leaner, and more exciting than anything the band has every written before.

Ultimately, the strength of Imperial comes down to its truly brilliant songwriting. Its eight songs strike that perfect balance between (dare I say it?) pop accessibility and progressive complexity that elevates the album above most other modern rock/metal releases, not unlike Leprous 2019's masterpiece Pitfalls. It is an extremely difficult achievement to accomplish. Writing hooks and catchy refrains that have an immediate impact on the listener is relatively easy. Combining them into compositions that retain artistic depth and remain interesting after repeated listens is much more difficult. On Imperial Soen miraculously achieve this by packing each song with a myriad of great ideas - be it a clever riff, a groovy drum fill, a cathartic guitar solo, or a memorable hook - without lingering too long on any of them, but moving quickly to the next one, in an breath-taking tourbillion of sounds that leave the listener astounded by its musical richness. This approach gives the songs an unpredictability and spontaneity that keeps them fresh and relevant even after multiple listens.

Soen are also very clever to avoid as much as possible formulaic song structures, by continuously varying the way Imperial's eight songs are constructed. Take, for instance, Cody Ford's solos. How many bands have you listened to where, in every song, the guitar solo falls invariably after the second repetition of the chorus? Too many to count. Cody's solos are instead all over the place: after the chorus ("Deceive"), but sometimes after the first verse ("Illusion"), or between verse and bridge ("Modesty"), or in the middle of the middle-eight ("Antagonist"). It's like Cody is playing whack-a-mole with the listener: you never quite know when to expect his poignant, Gilmouresque lead solos to pop up next. This is generally in line with the compositional manifesto that Soen seem to have followed on this album: to keep the listener guessing what new sound will come up next. Subtle variations to melodies and arrangements, countermelodies played with varying intensity in the repetitions of the chorus ("Antagonist"), eerie, mellotron-like string arrangements ("Modesty", "Fortune"), sudden breakdowns where only Ekelöf's voice and Lopez's emphatic tom fills are left ("Antagonist", "Dissident") - Imperial has it all.

Amazingly, despite their complexity, the songs sound infectiously simple and immediate, partly due to the production but also thanks to the sensational vocal melodies that Ekelöf sings on the album, which contains what is easily his best performance to date, by far. But there is more to this: Ekelöf's voice soars and impresses because the other instruments allow it to do so. There is such a tasteful restraint and subtlety in the other four musicians' performances on this album that was not present on Soen's previous records, where the band was instead following a "more is more" approach. This may disappoint some, as Lopez's drumming is for instance less flamboyant and off-the-cuff than on previous records, but the songs have gained immensely from this newly-found discipline.

Imperial is a terrific release but, if I were to nitpick, the first half of the album is slightly weaker than the second half, which is more varied and contains the most inspired songs ("Antagonist", "Modesty", "Dissident", "Fortune"). Part of the problem is that the first three songs of the album ("Lumerian", "Deceive", "Monarch") sound just a little bit too similar to one another (same tempo, similar structure, similar vibes). I would have perhaps dropped "Deceive" from the trio, as it is probably the weakest song of the record anyway. Another minor complaint I have is that some songs ("Lumerian", "Monarch") do not so much come to an end as simply stop, without fully giving the listener that sense of resolve which is instead achieved on tracks like "Modesty" (that gorgeous line Ekelöf sings in the coda of the song gets me every single time). And, yes, Churko does occasionally exceed with modern production touches that feel a tad forced in the context of Soen's sound (for instance, the processed, hard panned guitars that surface on a couple of songs, or the echoes on Ekelöf's vocals that are perhaps used one time too many).

But these are really minor complaints. Imperial is an impressive piece of art that I consider the highest-point in Soen's career so far. It is as inspired and inspiring as Lotus, but it is leaner, better arranged, and more immediate than that album, and it sounds much better for this. It is one of those records that it is really hard to put down because it sounds so fresh, so dynamic, so exciting that it just compels you to keep pressing "Play" again and again. At times, I have the impression that Imperial contains the material of twenty potential hit songs, just condensed into eight. It is a stunning achievement, which brings Imperial as close to perfection as only a handful of albums I have encountered in nearly 25 years of listening to (progressive) metal do.

[Originally written for The Metal Observer]

lukretio | 5/5 |

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