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Arcane - Known/Learned CD (album) cover

KNOWN/LEARNED

Arcane

 

Heavy Prog

3.89 | 255 ratings

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Gallifrey
5 stars Double albums are honestly one of the biggest double-edged swords in the music world.

When this album was announced, during Arcane's crowd-funding campaign, I was a bit skeptical of its quality. For starters, both the previous Arcane records could have been cut shorter, and as a general rule in prog, the more restrained it is, the less it tends to piss about shredding and key mashing. So Arcane announcing a double album, light/dark, yin/yang themed, with one being long and heavy and epic and the other being soft and sweet, both containing themes from each other and crossing over lyrically. On the one hand, that's nearly two hours of music, and for sure will end up dry as hell and certain to dissolve into at least a dozen dick waving sessions. But on the other, that concept is absolutely awesome.

But I think the success of Known/Learned is almost entirely down to the fact that this is not a double album. This is two completely separate albums, and should be treated as such. Sure, they have overlapping themes and titles and the digipak has this cool ying/yang thing going in the art (bonus shoutout to whoever the printing company is - this is one of the best looking (and feeling) CDs I own), but in essence these albums are their own entities with their own themes and styles and they should be treated as two separate sides of a whole, Deliverance/Damnation style. And I have done this in my listening, never playing both disks too close to each other. And because of that I've split this review up into discussions on both records individually, with a conclusion talking about the double album as a whole.

Side A: Known

For the first three listens of this album I only played Known, and didn't touch Learned. I thought it would be cool to form an opinion on one, then go into the other with some familiarity and expectation. And after those three listens I remember saying 'if this was the only album Arcane released right now, I would already have enough great things to say about it'. Essentially, this album is the follow-up to Chronicles of the Waking Dream, and Learned is just an album-long extra.

Despite the fact that I was one of the crowd-funders for this album and paid for it months before hearing it, I was never really sold on it being great, I really just wanted to support the band. Ashes was a solid album plagued by some poor production and a bit of over-wanking, and even though Chronicles of the Waking Dream did fix those parts for the most part, I would never call myself a big fan of this band, the only thing that really impressed me about that record being Jim Grey's voice. While musically it had good moments, it really failed to grip me beyond 'decent'. Although I could hear them becoming a fantastic band on that record, I absolutely did not expect them to do it, do it brilliantly, and do it with two albums at once.

This album is pretty much everything Chronicles of the Waking Dream was trying to be. The melodies and riffs are stronger, the production is fantastic, the songs don't drag on (mostly), and every single performance is greatly improved. On this album Arcane play a style somewhere in the midst of progressive rock and metal, but keep a distinctly emotional take on it, in the same way a group like Riverside do, but without the melodrama (and that bloody organ). It goes from huge riffs and anthemic choruses to the near-silent beauty of 'Womb', but never loses track of its overall aim, and never spends too long doing one thing.

In terms of negative sides, there's not much that's wrong with Known per se, it just could be a bit better if it absolutely needed to. As with any progressive metal album, there is an affinity to playing a bit more than you need to in solos, and while this does keep itself mostly within reasonable bounds with relatively sensible keyboard patches (there's one in 'Instinct' that sucks though) and solo counts, particularly during the 23-minute closing track it does push a bit past my wankery limit. I really only have one actual problem with this album though, the rest are just nitpick, and that problem is the way that the best song on this album shoots itself in the foot halfway through to become' not the best song on this album.

The first half of 'Selfsame', especially coming out of the solemn and beautifully reverbed 'Womb', is by far the best thing I have heard from this band, and one of the best things I have heard in a long while. 'Womb' sets such a beautiful scene, Grey's voice haunting like he's singing in an enormous cathedral, and when that oh-so-subtle guitar comes in to open 'Selfsame' you know it's going to be gold. The lead melody of this song, whether it's backed by nothing but an acoustic guitar and ambience like its first rendition, or backed by a massive wall of keyboard choirs and guitars like its second and third, is one of the most spinechilling things I have ever heard. It's simultaneously depressing and uplifting, going from solemn to anthemic in the space of a minute.

And then we get the bridge. Sigh. Why is it that the first time (and pretty much only time) Arcane decide to dissolve into some Haken-tier key-mashing and shredding on this album is during the best and most emotional song? Yeah sure, those blast beats are pretty cool and are good for a laugh, but I was crying 35 seconds ago, I don't want a bloody shredfest, I want feelings. But at least it isn't too long before the song gets back to absolutely glorious (Jim's 'give me a voice to be heard' line is an absolutely flawless reintroduction).

To me, this album represents what I think 'standard progressive metal' will sound like for the next few years. Leprous represent the slightly avant-garde and out-there side, Ne Obliviscaris represent the extreme metal side (although their new album isn't exactly consolidating their position), and I feel Arcane, with this album have made an album that is quite simply 'transparent progressive metal'. This album has enough links to classic bands like Dream Theater and Fates Warning in the structuring and riffs to keep purists impressed, but replaces the overwhelming cheese and corniness of those bands with sincere and quite beautiful melody and emotion. If they can keep this up I honestly believe these guys can overtake current poster-boys Haken, whose dorkiness and over-soloing will no doubt fall short to the spinechilling emotion that Arcane pack behind this album.

The overall sound of this album, with a few brief exceptions that I've touched on, corrects everything that critics have against progressive metal over the years. The guitar tones are sensible and well-produced, the vocalist isn't a ball-breaking power metal dude, the compositions focus on emotion and sincerity over technicality and show, and the band knows that it doesn't have to be metal all the time (because despite all I've said about this, only about 50% of this disk is actually 'metal'). I can see Known becoming a modern classic simply because of its style. Compositionally it's impressive but not absolutely brilliant, but in combination with the wonderfully fresh-yet-familiar sound that Arcane have built, makes it into something bigger.

Side B: Learned

As I said earlier, if you treat Known as the 'album', Learned is like an extra-good bonus disk, with Arcane stripping away the metal (but not all of the prog) to make an album of relatively soft songs in the vein of a band like Anathema. But don't get me wrong - I don't mean bonus as in 'a bunch of average cuts from the recording session', I mean bonus as in 'Known is easily enough to be a full album and catapult these guys right into the middle of upcoming prog royalty and this is just a ridiculous victory lap'. If this was released as a side project or from a completely separate band then it would probably also be enough to catapult them into prog royalty, just in a different way.

Although it does definitely feel like an annex, the thing that impresses me the most about this disk is that these songs aren't just soft acoustic tracks, they have flow and structure and even some heavy parts like any prog album, there's just a bit more focus on softer instrumentals. The opening two tracks both could be big heavy Arcane tracks with a few more instruments, but they instead strip it down to let Jim Grey's voice shine through. I love the way these songs build, too, because they're not afraid to ramp up the intensity near the ends, despite this being 'the soft album'. The softer sound also gives the instrumentalists a lot more room to be subtle and mood- building. Throughout the first few minutes 'Hunter, Heart & Home', the piano, drums and bass can all be heard adding their own little touches to the relatively consistent acoustic guitar part. I especially love the little piano melodies that are added into these tracks, in a very post-rock esque way, putting just enough into it to add complexity, but not to overwhelm the main parts.

And that's not the only thing that is very post-rock influenced on this album - many of these songs reach distinct crescendos, featuring longer parts repeating the same chord progressions, adding little parts in as they keep going forward. There are no screeching tremolo-picked crescendocore peaks on this album, but the way the instruments, particularly the drums rise and fall with everything without ever getting heavy is masterful, reminding me the most of New Zealand band Mice on Stilts' longer songs, although comparisons to the softer parts of groups like Anathema are also warranted.

But the real star of this disk is Jim Grey himself, and I honestly feel like the idea behind this album could have been spawned by the band wanting to write material specifically for his nearly angelic soft vocals. 'Little Burden' is one in particular that sounds very much written for him, with his reverbed falsetto of the first few minutes being utterly enchanting. The way they're produced is wonderful too, with tons of reverb and atmosphere reminds me so much of the best countertenors back when I was in the choir. The longest song here, 'Nightingale's Weave' is easily the strongest track, almost entirely because of Jim's voice and the melodies he pulls (that recurring one is absolutely beautiful), but the amazing build from the band is also stellar, even if the song is a touch long.

Honestly, in a similar manner to Known (but for different reasons), the only thing that pulls this down is its length. The only track that truly justifies its length is the opening track, even 'Little Burden' could be cut down - the song's crescendo comes after a bit too long I feel, and when it comes it feels a bit short compared to the build. The midsection of the album, before 'Nightingale's Weave', does lose a bit of momentum in my opinion, with 'Impatience and Slow Poison' outstaying its welcome a bit much, for a song that is based on an already-used motif from the first disk, and 'Known' being an uber-soft track amongst already soft tracks just sort of floats by. That technique worked on the first disk with 'Womb' because all the other songs were heavy. Here, it just becomes an unnecessary interlude in an album filled with interludes. Doesn't stop it from being a really nice acoustic track though.

In the end I guess it's the soft nature of this album that makes it a bit homogenous - all these songs are great, they just need one of the more intense tracks to break it up. Either way, Learned is still a strong disk of subtle beauty, and while next to the first disk it does get dwarfed, for what it is, it's very good.

Conclusion

I think I went a bit overboard in the praise from my closing paragraphs on Known, because I've said pretty much everything I need to say here already. Known alone is a fantastic example of the future of progressive metal, and with the added depth that Learned brings, I think I might have a case of 'oh shit I found my album of the year in January'. But together, the biggest praise I can give this album is that it is pretty much the perfect double album. Last year saw another Australian double album, Chapter & Verse, finding both of its disks in my top 10 for album of the year, but that album had serious problems of diversity within its 90- minute runtime, whereas this is exactly what a double album should be, two albums that compliment each other perfectly, can stand on their own, sound completely distinct and yet aren't all homogenous. Known isn't all metal all the time and Learned isn't all soft acoustic stuff all the time, which is what makes them work so beautifully. That, in combination with the fact that these guys can also write pretty great songs as well makes this not only the best modern progressive double album I have heard, but possibly the greatest double album I have heard, ever.

I feel I'm being way too positive. I'm just in a good mood today. Known/Learned may not be a flawless album, but what really is? There's room for improvement on the next album for sure, but for what this is, this is pretty stunning. Progressive music, we have a new leader.

Known - 8.9 Learned - 8.3

Originally written for my Facebook page/blog: www.facebook.com/neoprogisbestprog

Gallifrey | 5/5 |

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