Joel Ekelöf looks incredibly zen. The Soen frontman is sitting in what he calls the “Japanese house” in his back garden, Swedish sunshine peering into the bright room as he slowly puffs on a cigarette. His video call with Prog is taking place in July and it looks like he’s enjoying a perfect summertime in Stockholm.
“It was very warm in June, but it’s a bit windy now,” the singer calmly states as he gazes past the camera. He breaks into the smallest of smiles. “You’ll never get a warm summer in Sweden.”
Prog and Ekelöf have only been talking for a few seconds, but he already strikes as a constantly composed person. He speaks in short sentences with a serious yet quiet tone. His demeanour is the polar opposite of Soen’s music, which is a particularly high-energy and bombastic form of prog.
When the five-piece’s formation was officially announced in 2010, they were a supergroup of established players with a sprawling and melodic style many happily compared to Tool. However, in the decade since, the band have legitimised themselves as a full-time force and chiselled a soundscape very much their own.
Soen songs nowadays condense the majesty of heavy prog – the soaring vocals, studied riffs and mighty, crescendoing choruses – into episodic form. Their sixth album, Memorial, is a concise collection that could theoretically find radio success. The songs are powerhouse calls to arms marching along using iron-clad rock riffing, Ekelöf’s commanding vocals and arena-ready choruses. The longest track, closing ballad Vitals, barely scratches the five-minute mark.
Ekelöf likens Soen’s musical evolution to that of Genesis, one of his favourite bands, and one whose career famously grew more direct and pop-minded as it progressed. It’s easy to imagine Soen as the modern but heavier rock equivalent.
“I’m also a fan of the albums that Peter Gabriel made [after leaving Genesis in 1975],” Ekelöf says. “They were a bit more straightforward as well. But I also think that the old albums have really good, strong songs with strong emotions. That’s the core to everything, which is much more important to me than technicality. I miss those kinds of great songs and great songwriting nowadays.”
To that end, Soen began to push in the opposite musical direction that they perceived the rest of the prog genre to be heading in in the 2010s. “We started seeing this crossroads in the progressive metal scene. A lot of bands were going more and more towards art-rock – more technical. We just wanted to preserve that metal vibe: the power and energy of the music. If you go to a Soen show, it’s a show with a lot of power.”
Although Memorial represents a streamlined and simplified Soen that, true to their frontman’s words, clearly places more stock in tonality than flamboyant chops, Ekelöf steadfastly believes they haven’t moved far. “I would definitely say that we are still a progressive band,” he insists. “If you listen to the detail in what we do and the musicianship behind it, it all comes from that legacy, from progressive music.”
Sure enough, the song Sincere opens Memorial in a scramble of off-kilter, progressive drumming before its main riff kicks in. The title track frequently escalates in drama by having oddly timed staccato riffs grow more and more intense, while Incendiary dissipates from hulking metal into a section of Pink Floyd-like atmospherics during its bridge. The end result is an album that, although direct and often catchy, also flies above meathead heavy metal clichés. Memorial is blatantly as smart as it is easily listenable.
There’s a similar intelligence to the lyrics. Memorial is thematically the spiritual sequel to its predecessor, 2021’s Imperial. While that album was a staunch political statement about rising up against oppression, this one is about more quietly understanding the world: not fighting, but considering everything that, potentially, needs to be fought against.
“It’s more about just recognising the situation we’re in,” Ekelöf explains. “We’re in a darker stage in the world than we’ve ever been, especially in the Soen years, so the themes are about what’s happening right now. It may not be in the rebellious way Imperial was – [but] a more mature way.”
Self-distinction has always been the driving force of Soen. The band were founded by Martin Lopez in the early 2000s: the drummer was a member of Opeth from 1997 to 2006, before stepping down for health reasons. Soen were planned as a way for him to finally lead his own project and write his own music, as opposed to his place in the Mikael Åkerfeldt-founded and masterminded Opeth.
“I always had the idea to write my own music and do my own thing while playing in other people’s bands,” Lopez told heavy music blog MetalSucks in 2017. “I felt that that time was the right one to start a band.”
He first reached out to guitarist Joakim Platbarzdis and bass player Steve Di Giorgio, the latter of whom found prominence playing with extreme progressive metal band Death in the 1990s. He’s also known to metalheads for his stints in thrash groups Testament and Sadus. Ekelöf joined last, thanks to Platbarzdis being a fan of his old band Willowtree.
“The first album [2012’s Cognitive] was a lot of exploring,” Ekelöf remembers. “We were trying to find what was us: ‘How can we get our musical inspirations together?’ The project basically started with the match between my way of singing and Martin’s rhythmic, aggressive way of playing, but that was unexpected: I think Martin, making those first demos, was expecting growled vocals.”
The frontman admits that, with much of the band already being well-known musicians, Soen were treated as a novelty when they first formed. “In the beginning, everyone was asking us, ‘Are you a supergroup? Will you do more albums, or is this a one-off?’ We had to answer a lot of questions over whether this band was ‘real.’ We knew all the time, though, that this was real and it would be the main thing we’d dedicate our time to.”
Not all the band made it through the early days. Di Giorgio amicably left to pursue his myriad other projects, now replaced by Oleksii Kobel, and guitars are currently played by Cody Lee Ford and Lars Åhlund. Ekelöf reflects that it was Soen’s second album, 2014’s Tellurian, that legitimised them as a full-time pursuit: not only did it come just two years after Cognitive, but it pushed the band into a prolific schedule of headline tours.
“We started touring more heavily after the second album,” Ekelöf says. “We did one with [gothic metal band] Paradise Lost but, after that, we just started doing our own tours in Europe. Me and Martin especially are very stubborn; we want things a certain way and to be in control when we tour. If you go out as a support, you’re just thrown into something else and have to adjust.”
Since then, Soen have been relentlessly active. They’ve done four further albums in just nine years, while maintaining a rigorous touring lifestyle. All the while, they’ve been refining their fiercely anthemic and infectious style of music. The culmination of the journey so far is a space Ekelöf is happy in. He exudes pride in Memorial, and admits he has no plans for the musical future, preferring to relish the now. Whether or not you believe the Soen of 2023 are prog, their music’s powerful and successful – and it’s bloody good.
“I really like the place we’re in right now,” Ekelöf concludes. “We feel very comfortable here, and I regard this new album as the best Soen album. Some people ask me when we’re going to do another Tellurian, but I don’t think there’s going to be another Tellurian. There’s no point redoing old stuff. What we do next could well be intricate and experimental – but it will never be the same.”