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4 stars "State of Deception" is the first full-length release in 23 years by cult progressive metal band Conception, the brainchild of vocal powerhouse Roy Kahn (Kamelot) and guitar extraordinaire Tore Østby (Ark). Full disclosure first: this is the only Conception album I have ever listened to, so I cannot make any comparisons with their previous releases, which prevents me from being able to judge the standing of this album within the larger Conception's discography. However, the flip side of my unpreparedness is that I came to this album without any expectations as to how a Conception album "ought to sound", which ? I gather from other reviews I read online ? might have been a source of disappointment for some of the long-term fans of the band. In fact, I approached the album only because I am a huge fan of Khan's vocals and because I consider Østby one of the most talented guitar players in progressive metal (not necessarily in terms of technique, but in terms of compositional ability and creativity).

To these ears, "State of Deception" is an album of lights and shadows ? absolutely irresistible in its most inspired moments, and mildly underwhelming at its most shallow. Fortunately, the lights prevail over the shadows, as we have 5 extremely strong tracks out of 9 songs in total. One of the strength of these 5 songs is their variety. They are all different and special in their own way. We have Kamelot-esque pieces ("Waywardly Broken"), infectious hard-rock tunes ("By the Blues"), dark ballads ("The Mansion"), dynamic progressive-power metal epics ("She Dragoon"), and dreamy but groovy shanties ("Feather Moves"). The remaining 4 songs are not bad by any means, but feel somewhat less inspired, almost like if the band decided to play it safe and only made a half-assed attempt at writing them. The result is that these 4 songs flow away anonymously and without leaving any lasting impression. In truth, the opening duo "In Deception" (the obligatory instrumental/orchestral intro) and "Of Raven and Pigs" are quite good. The latter reminds me a bit of Pain of Salvation, especially the spoken vocal lines on the verse, and features a bouncy guitar riff that catches attention. But the spoken part is slightly cringe-worthy and ruins a bit the mood of the song for me.

Among the best tracks, "Waywardly Broken" is a contender for best song of the album. It has a strong Kamelot flavour, but the main guitar riff of the verse is so exquisitely upbeat that catches by surprise. The contrast with the darker, more metallic riff of the chorus is genius, a great example of why I hold Tore Østby in such high regard. Roy Kahn's performance is also masterful, here as throughout the album. His style and range are incredibly varied, passing from menacing crooning, to more aggressive metal singing, to delicate falsettos, in a continuous change of moods that keeps the songs fresh and interesting from start to finish.

"The Mansion" is a dark ballad that also features Amaranthe's singer Elyze Ryd. The duet between Kahn and Ryd is very enjoyable, although in my opinion the highlight of the song is the masterfully crafted melody of the chorus, one of those melancholic yet epic melodies that get stuck in one's head after hearing it just one time. "By the Blues" is ? well, bluesy! It has an infectious hard-rock vibe that makes it stand out relative to the other tracks of the album. The arrangements are exquisite, simple yet very elegant and with the right amount of unpredictability. In a way, given its inventiveness, this track wouldn't have disfigured on an Ark's album.

The album closes with two fantastic pieces. "She Dragoon" has again a Kamelot flavour, but with a strong progressive undercurrent. The song twists and turns, with lots of ideas thrown in the mix. The chorus is killer, it has a slightly unusual phrasing that surprises and every time makes me want to play the track again immediately after it ends. "Feather Moves" had already been released on 2018's EP My Dark Symphony, and is remastered here for the occasion. It is a sort of anomalous ballad, with a very groovy bass line and drum pattern that form the basis for Kahn's dreamy vocal lines. The chorus is very emotional, masterfully sung by Kahn. There is a great orchestral arrangements and I also like a lot the bass solo section after the first chorus, which definitely caught me by surprise the first time I heard it.

After many listens, I grew quite fond of this album, and I regard it as likely to end up in my top 10 for 2020. However, it took a while before the album "clicked" with me and I could enjoy it. One thing that at first left me cold about the album is the production. It is quite "light". The guitars in particular have a thin, dry tone and sit quite back in the mix, and it took me some time to get used to, as I was initially expecting a punchier presence. But, after repeated listens, I got used to it and now I think that the production actually contributes to giving the album that "non-metal" feel that suits very well some of its mellower songs. But it is something that can catch off guard.

Overall, this is a strong album, that perhaps takes a while to get into but that it grows with every listen and becomes one of those albums that one tends to return to every now and again. My only complaint is that the album actually contains the right material for an exceptional EP rather than a full-length release. As a full-length, it suffers from the inclusion of somewhat less impressive tracks that form nearly half of the songs on display here. But it is certainly a more than welcome return for the duo Østby-Kahn, and I very much look forward for what they will have to offer next (hopefully not in another 23 years!!).

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Posted Saturday, August 8, 2020 | Review Permalink

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