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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Spiral Architect

A Sceptic's Universe

Review by Yoni Bashan

When the band Spiral Architect comes to mind, one can only visualise intense melodic chaos or the impossible pictures of M.C Escher. This relatively new Norwegian metal band that formed during the year 1993 has since its beginnings absconded from contemporary progressive styles which bands like Dream Theater, Fates Warning and Symphony X seem to have epitomized. After listening to the album several times, one can identify the certain key elements of jazz-fusion combined with the powerful metallic tones of the guitar, vocals and bass. These essential elements comprise an unusually unique style of music that I have yet to find amongst many contemporary musicians.

Before perusing this album, I advise listeners to take a long breath in order to stay focussed on the transient odd meters and fast-paced vocals. I noticed that before the start of the first track 'Spinning,' which I can only assume takes its name from the wild imagery of rotating objects and gyrating visions; a short intake of breath is heard. I can imagine this being a type of warning or signal, as anybody about to attempt any kind of tremendous feat, like playing this song, would normally hold their breath to prepare for a most unpredictable rush. Tracks like Cloud Constructor, Fountainhead and Conjuring Collapse are songs that are in constant motion but seem to carry elements of obscure style and flair. Images that come to mind are cracked mirrors and that scene in "Contact" where Jodie foster flies through the wormhole. The pieces have a lot happening within them and many subtleties can be identified. If anyone has been to a place that is always changing with every visit, then I think this is how 'A Sceptic's Universe' should be approached. I can always seem to find something new with every listening.

In terms of composition, Spiral Architect appears to be a band that identifies an image or theme and subsequently writes their music in accordance with it. I personally feel that this album has a lot of depth to it and surpasses much of today's musical standards, which can consist of 2 dimensional approaches to creating music. There is at no time throughout this masterpiece that I felt like a guitar riff or drum fill wasn't meticulously planned and crafted. However, in the odd section that is improvised, I feel there are still remnants of some kind of structure, which would have been elaborated upon. All in all, this powerful music maintains its own unique style and voice and although it echoes the riddling sounds of other genres, Spiral Architect's "A Sceptic's Universe" is an album that should be saluted. I only hope this album reaches great heights with audiences across many oceans, and duly achieves the recognition it deserves. If you are a progressive metal fan and are looking for something new and fresh, then indulge yourself in the majesty of Spiral Architect's "A Sceptic's Universe."

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: The Early Years Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Spinning
Did you hear the swallow of air? The song obviously contrasts texturally. This is interesting because it carries stylistic purposes. One can notice the entire band enter initially in an explosion of energy, but then totally thin out only to rejoin again. I particularly love the pumping guitar of Andreas Jonsson and the lead of Steinar Gundersen. They make continual reference to the riff that introduced us to this song. Not to be forgotten in the song is the bass styling of Lars K. Norberg who with total control and precision thumps out some insane, but by no means inane bass lines. They have a walking feel about them that seems to unify the band at times and will surely impress any fledging bassists out there.
Excessit
An ominous beginning, this then expands into that luscious Spiral sound that we've by now come to appreciate. Everything about this band screams 'erratic', but beyond that one finds complete and total flow, or flux. Nothing stays the same. This song differs from the high-speed up beat feel of 'Spinning.' The vocals of Øyvind Hægeland feel different and sustain longer, with elements of an almost middle-eastern feel in some parts. The track is a little more relaxed in comparison to some of the other cuts on this album, with a bit of Vai-influenced lead playing.
Moving Spirit
Another song with that patented Spiral sound to it. This again feels different, because structurally there is a lot more repetition. It is for this reason that the song is more commercially based, but by no means commercial. The structure just seems to echo the style of modern rock, but with that power-driven edge of the guitars and bass. Indeed, the bass playing comes through a lot more in this piece as a prominent instrument. The tone of its sound is another style shaper of this band and hence it comes through a lot stronger in this song.
Occam's Razor
This is the shortest song on the album, clocking in at One minute and Thirty-Two seconds. The track seems like an interlude, as much of the album up till this point has been fast and in total chaos. A lot of studio effects are used in this song, nice effects like delay and echo. It is a lot more laid back than songs like 'Spinning' and 'Fountainhead,' and adds contrast to the album - a very nice touch.
Insect
Honestly, this is a work of genius. The track is again much more upbeat than some of the other songs and follows 'Occam's Razor' as a much slower and relaxed piece. 'Insect' is going in all directions, all the time. The band is everywhere, but unified. The guitars can crunch on some heavy chords and just as easily cross over to some outrageously feisty licks. I'm extremely impressed with vocalist Øyvind Hægeland who was able to craft his lyrics together with this Machiavellian type song. Unlike so many musicians who can make cool music (like the infamous Malmsteen) but could not write lyrics if their lives depended on it, Hægeland proves a very valuable asset to this band during this piece. Hats off to drummer Asgeir Mickelson's whose work on this album shines even more here than at any other point. There is a tremendous ability in this man who can make a roll sound like a beat; and never repeats himself. His feel and expertise is unmatched by many drummers of the contemporary prog scene, which is something that should be commended. This song is in and out of control.

Cloud Constructor
Guitarist Andreas Jonsson has more of front man role in this song. The song is more rhythmically based because it is a slower song, but not without that 'zany' style of theirs. After a short atmospheric bass interlude, with the help of some guitars that sound like they're being played under-water, the track returns to the style seen in pieces like 'spinning' and 'insect.' This contrast again carries that Vai influence in the guitars that is reminiscent of some of the stuff from 'Fire Garden' and some of 'Passion and Warfare'.
Conjuring Collapse
Some very interesting drumming introduces us to another fast track on this album. In terms of balance, I love how the drums are given more attention in this song. They really contribute to the sound of this band and are like all of the members' contributions, worthwhile assets. This number, through its teamwork really highlights the unity of this band and illustrates their interlocking styles and 'unit' form. I can't say this song differs tremendously from the other standout tracks on this album, but it is fun and a definite eye-opener for any musician out there.
Adaptability
One of my all-time favourites, the opening riff is just powerful and moving. The harmony between the vocals and guitars add a very nice feel to this composition, which sounds a lot different from the rest of the tracks. The string skipping style of the lead guitarist which reminds me of some Petrucci's playing comes through very strong in this one. Particularly cool about this song is the vocal/rhythm guitar interlude. The vocal work certainly shines during this track where he uses a spoken word style approach to provide a contrast to yet another dizzying track. The band uses studio effects like delays, echoes and harmonizing between pre-recorded vocal tracks achieve a fresh sound, and approach to song writing. Combined with the powerful rhythm guitar playing by Andreas Jonsson who accompanies, this interlude provides an insight to yet another angle of the band. Personally, this song should do no wrong in satisfying any serious metal head.
Fountainhead
This one screams explosion with lots of crashing cymbals and ascending/descending guitars. One thing I notice about this album is that by the end of it, each number has its own unique feel and appearance, as though it has a personality. The first guitar solo is quite impressive, but more so is the backup role that the lead plays during the pre-verse. Again, that underwater sound comes through setting the mood for the song. The vocals are a lot darker and sound different, as though sung through a telephone. The gentle chords during the middle of the piece are nice contrast achieving technique, and pave the way for yet another grand guitar solo. The album ends with trance type sounds, as though being woken from a hypnotic spell - lovely.
 
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