When reviving older metal marches to the beat of a dead horse
Sweden, encompassing the responsibility as one of the progenitors and breeding grounds for death metal and its many wide-reaching branches, has continued to push the genre forwards, irrespective of styles, time periods and artistic choices. The blending and fusion of stylistic preferences in some renowned contemporary Swedish bands goes from the progressive and artistic Opeth and Avatarium to a more straight-ahead melodic death metal sound like in Amon Amarth. Assumedly, members from all three of these bands should’ve been making waves in the metal universe, so what happened?
Soen have been championing a sort of post-grunge prog metal revitalization through their distinct, written brand of heavy, technical instrumentation and song structure since their debut record Cognitive (2012). It wasn’t really until their latest, 2019’s Lotus, that the band had featured more alt-rock flavors, while still maintaining their progressive roots.
To start, IMPERIAL is definitely a step forward for the band, throwing the listener into an oddly psychedelic yet heavy wormhole of multitudes of inspirations that shaped the sound to begin with. However, the pacing of the album tends to get very tedious right from the start, not to mention the production chops are severely lacking. Showing off a résumé of production credits on Britney Spears’ 2000 hit “Oops… I Did It Again,” as well as bands such as Five Finger Death Punch, Papa Roach and Disturbed, the producer certainly is in an … interesting, to say the least, position to record and produce a modern progressive metal sound.
Unfortunately, the rehashed and out-of-print production sheen is noticeable throughout the band’s playing style and general sound. Right from the get-go, the opening track “Lumerian,” which sounds suspiciously similar to the last album’s opening track “Opponent” in its guitar riff, drum syncopation and song composition, gives off the feeling of restraint.
The production severely hinders in making those head-banging, coordinated chugging riffs really stand out, compressing the high end far into a dynamic oddity, devoid of most life and color. Don’t get one wrong; the elements of the song, which can sometimes consist of canny and lackluster choruses and showcase very tiring and limited vocal melodies and lyrics, are supported by some drab song structure. The poppy, yet dramatic elements of “Lumerian,” “Monarch” and “Antagonist” feature some level of heavy metal tribulation, especially through the following kick-drum and guitar patterns. But giving up on the notion of fleshing out any sections into more alive, compelling passages runs the risk of leaving the listener without much of an impactful or memorable experience.
There remains a formulaic nature to the band, regardless of the more refreshing, subdued orchestral elements of Lars Ahlund’s keyboard and string arrangements, like on the more epic “Deceiver’”and “Illusion,” the latter including a very The Wall-era solo section. However, one can’t help but expect more, as there just seems to be a buildup to nothing at times. “Modesty” just floats around for the most part before reverting yet again to the chorus-reliant song structure and prog-metal ramblings that preceded it, closing off with the bittersweet, symphonic “Fortune.”
For a band that must routinely dismiss frequent comparisons to classic prog-metal bands such as A Perfect Circle, Opeth and Tool, while also harboring no secret for their admiration for bands as diverse as Guns and Roses to Genesis, or Slayer to Ornette Coleman, Soen sound most like a conglomeration of all these influences rather than their own, distinct, independent entity. When the sound doesn’t come off as brittle, dry and cold, the pacing of the album, if not the songs themselves, just can’t offer anything interesting enough to keep someone from coming back for seconds.
Drummer Martin Lopez, one of the bright spots of the album through his fluid yet technical rhythmic prowess, insists that there “aren’t many bands [he’s] aware of who sound like this,” but this isn’t because of some “you get it or you don’t”-type deal. It’s because the bands that played the style that Soen target on IMPERIAL and more were at their artistic peak in the early 2000s before falling into disarray or ridicule.
What made those bands at the time so great and an influence to this day were their refreshing sensibilities, at least to that time period. When reviving older music, one must be cautious to inject modernity in order to progress the efforts of that said scene. We will always feel small walking in the footsteps of giants.