Reviews Column 61: Prog Metal

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The lines between progressive rock and doom metal are in a constant state of blurred flux these days, as servants of the Sabbathian blueprint veer off course into more adventurous territory.

At one end of the spectrum, Italy’s Shabda adhere to a warped re-imagining of the drone evangelism of Sunn O))). Their new album Pharmakos (Argonauta) takes in ragged, voluminous jams and ambient shades of Eastern mysticism, spewing out a hypnotic barrage of noise and skewed spirituality across two sprawling epics. At times wildly psychedelic, at others subtly oppressive; it’s a glowing advert for Italy’s burgeoning avant-garde doom scene.

At the other end of that spectrum, Sweden’s Avatarium are proudly flying the flag for bluesy bombast and refined theatricality. Vocalist Jennie-Ann Smith has a formidable reputation as a blues and jazz singer of great note, and it’s her soaring, versatile tones that lend the band’s second album, The Girl With The Raven Mask (Nuclear Blast), additional layers of charisma and vitality. Led by doom legend Leif Edling (also a founder member of Candlemass), Avatarium are still in thrall to Sabbath, but there’s a progressive aspect present for sure. Fans of Jefferson Airplane, Renaissance and Curved Air will surely succumb to these songs’ vibrant mixture of sonorous drama and mellifluous groove. It’s progressive heavy metal that aims for the stars, and it’s wonderfully absorbing stuff.

Across the pond, Pseudo/Sentai are clearly hell-bent on conjuring fresh madness from well-worn strains of math rock and bug-eyed prog. New album Bansheeface reportedly took five years to make, and it’s not hard to hear how: with shades of Shudder To Think, Upsilon Acrux and The Mars Volta, it’s a dizzyingly inventive and original piece of work that only occasionally dips into metal’s aggressive depths, but that will delight fans of Mastodon and Mr. Bungle in equal measure.

Superficially, France’s Novelists may seem to be just another band breathlessly pursuing the djent/tech-metal bandwagon, but their debut Souvenirs (Arising Empire) is a master class in succinctness and sharp songwriting, those familiar polyrhythms and (poly)riffs wrapping themselves around shrewd melodic ideas and plenty of snarling oomph. It’s bright-eyed, invigorating stuff and the band’s crossover potential is unquestionable.

Similarly, Shumaun’s self-released and self-titled debut breathes new life into the same flagging subgenre, with songs like Ambrosia and Miracles Of Yesterday bringing symphonic bite and pop sensibilities to the modern prog party. Founder member and frontman Farhad Hossain has a knack for penning incisive melodies that soar beautifully across deceptively intricate undercurrents that veer from Muse-like bombast to polished elegance worthy of Peter Gabriel or Duke-era Genesis. Head to shumaun.com to investigate these mercurial scamps.