There’s a certain sphere of progressive metal that seems especially adept at polarising listeners.
It’s that heavy, other-worldly, blastbeat-friendly area dominated by Dream Theater, encompassing Devin Townsend (to a point) and occupied by the likes of Symphony X, Ayreon, SikTh. Also sliding in are five-piece Aeon Zen; armed with a hard-hitting, creative cocktail of ‘metal musical theatre’ vocals, sci-fi synths and crushing guitar.
They’re technical, progressive, slightly symphonic, often a bit strange but essentially grandiose. If you’re already suspicious of Dream Theater et al, Aeon Zen may seem hard to swallow. But need this music be so divisive? Based on the creative blend of hard, futuristic chords, quirky subtleties and organic instrumentals here, which echoes Townsend and Petrucci and band – probably not.
On face value we’re greeted with solid, new age-meets-technical prog foundations, laid down with meaty, galloping relish in opener Entity. Some of it is incredibly ferocious (Rebuild The Ruins), some more measured (see The Space You Wanted). Indeed, Ephemera showcases a healthy level of flaming fretwork and propulsive rhythm – with funky hints of slap bass here and there – but avoids becoming a beat-the-metronome exercise. Still, the palette of heavy, progressive and neo-classical shades that emerge is a good degree more exciting – even extending to death vocals in the cracking Remembrance. Previous (concept) album Enigma did the death thing, but here it’s more selectively placed – alongside classic rock guitar lines in the likes of Life? – suggesting that Aeon Zen are mastering the art of colourful heaviness, not dissimilarly to Gojira and (earlier) Opeth.
An advisory word at this point: if mention of death vocals is putting you off your lunch, now might be time for a re-evaluation. Yes, many people just don’t like death metal – in any form – and that’s fine. But the few, carefully positioned tastes of it here, and with other acts in the prog metal world, lend highly palatable ferocity. Embrace the beef, don’t fear it, especially as Order Of The Blind climaxes from (admittedly less promising) angsty beginnings into mighty, satisfying riffery and soaring choral harmonies.
Perhaps the difficulty here is that there’ll be those who claim Aeon Zen’s territory has already been well covered, by the aforementioned bands among many others. Yes, there are moments here where melodies become less commanding, but for the most part Ephemera is a gratifyingly textured prog metal affair – reflective of a band with more than a few ideas and attractive intricacies of their own.