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To-Mera - Exile CD (album) cover




Progressive Metal

3.95 | 139 ratings

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5 stars 4 ˝ years. That's the amount of time that fans have been waiting for Exile since To-Mera released their previous album, Delusions. For such a young band, that can be seen as a long time between releases and unsurprisingly there have been a few changes made along the way. Keyboard player Hugo Sheppard has made way for Haken leader Richard Henshall, whilst founding bassist Lee Barrett left to be replaced by melodic metal band Pythia's bassist Mark Harrington. In that time the band also split from their record label Candlelight Records and have gone it alone and set up their own label in Illusionary Records. Those 4 years weren't completely barren for fans though, the band recorded and self released a 4 song EP, Earthbound, in late 2009 to have a recording from their current line up and get that group of self-contained songs out there.

I remember that at the time I bought Delusions (as well as the bands début, Transcendental) I was about to give up on the "vanilla" Prog Metal style, that is largely characterised by bands trying to sound something similar to Dream Theater, because of the complete lack of creativity evident. Those two albums, then, hit quit hard as their mix of jazz, classical and extreme metal elements set to a loose Prog Metal frame work was something very unique and captivating, offering up constant surprises. Exile very much continues in that vein but this is far from a case of recycling old ideas, guitarist and main composer Tom MacLean has evolved the sound, and his playing style, somewhat. Anyone that has heard the Earthbound EP will have an idea as to how the band have changed since Delusions. The more overt, calmer, keyboard led jazzy sections were integrated into the heavier metal sections on Earthbound, creating a sort of jazz-metal feel to the EP with it being mostly heavy with few of the extended breaks that previously featured so prominently. And that style has continued and been further refined on Exile in many of the metal sections of the album, however those extended keyboard led sections have been brought back as well, but with a far greater breadth of style and sound giving the album a very diverse feel.

Exile is apparently a concept album, though I must admit that at this point I have no idea what the concept behind it is, though the lyrical phrases that stand out the most to me do appear to point to a recurring female protagonist, but it's a fact that seems to be pretty evident in the music. The album opens with a short instrumental piece that features a distinctly middle eastern theme to it (fitting, given the supposed Egyptian mythology that the band name originates from), something that appears again in places throughout the album. From there, the first seven tracks all segue between each other, giving the distinct impression that though they are all individual pieces, they fit together to form a single, whole composition. The odd one out is the final track, All I Am, which acts more of a coda to the album than as a disassociated separate piece.

If I had to describe this album in one word, it would probably be "intense". From it's frenetic, fast paced sections to the calmer, more jazzier or soft rock parts to slow, deeply powerful sections, there's an intensity and passion evident in the music and it's delivery here that is rarely conveyed well in Prog Metal. The ending to Deep Inside probably illustrates this best to me but there are many parts in all the songs that fit well. However, there are moments of levity offered, mostly coming from Henshel's keyboards, that I think rather importantly stop this album from being a tiring experience to listen too.

Production wise, this is an excellent album, particularly when you consider that it was effectively recorded from the band members living rooms. All instruments and vocals are crisp and clear and I'm particularly pleased that Harrington's base has a prominent part of the mix, never once feeling like it might get lost under a wall of kick-drums, guitars and keyboards. It's great opportunity to hear a very talented bassist perform to a very high level, effectively anchoring the songs without falling into the trap of a monotonous rhythm. MacLean's contribution to the playing is rather different to the usual metal guitarist, he offers up the main riffs which lead the songs but seemingly prefers to avoid the full on lengthy solo's that have become a mainstay of the genre, performing only a handful of short, concise solo's that serve to compliment the songs rather than steal the limelight. The short solo at the end of Broken is of particular note as it's in a very different tone to those uesed on the rest of the album and even played in a very different style, for a while I even thought it was a guest solo provided by Adagio's Stephan Forte!

Paul Westwood provides a typically robust, precise and powerful performance on drums in a markedly different manner to that he performs in Black Metal band Fen, but it's Richard Henshel, though, that very much does stand out as the main man here. While his performance on the Earthbound EP was top notch, it feels like he's allowed much more of his personality to flow through here. The moments of levity I mentioned earlier come largely from his more offbeat, quirky moments that are a standard feature of Haken and that he's brought along with him. At first it may actually seem a little jarring, certainly on the first listen, but after a little while it starts to make sense as it breaks up the dark, intense atmosphere that pervades the majority of the album quite nicely. The fact that he's the only keyboardist in To-Mera and has no guitar duties either (at least for now) means he gets to concentrate far more on his synth work and the result is some truly brilliant playing throughout the album.

I've mentioned in my review for Transcendental that Julie's vocals can be something of an acquired taste to some since she has a much richer, slightly huskier timbre than most female singers in metal. As I tend to like more unusual sounding voices, I guess it's no surprise then that I've gained great appreciation for her talents which have matured greatly since the days of Without Face 10 years ago. And so has her song writing, there were a couple of lines on earlier albums that stood out as being a bit clunky but there's no sign of that at all here. In fact she's married that great voice to some very strong song writing and the impassioned performance has been at times a large part of the intense atmosphere. A final mention must be made of the guest performances as well, Marcela Bovio supplying an excellent violin part over the synth strings at the start of The Illusionist, and Stephan Forte of French band Adagio offers a deep, gutteral growl at the end of The Descent.

I've had this album for 3 weeks now (and thanks to the band for the promo, the chance was very much appreciated) and have been listening to it on my PC and MP3 player regularly, not because I feel obliged to write this review, but because I love this dark and intense album. Previous albums Transcendental and Delusions had several great songs on them but they also had a couple of songs that didn't quite match up to their best. That's not the case here, Exile has 8 excellent songs of fairly similar, and very high, quality that makes picking out highlights a struggle, though at a push I'd say The Illusionist, Deep Inside, Broken and Surrender are all exceptional songs. A brilliant album, one that gets me worked up every time I hear it.

sleeper | 5/5 |


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