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In 2009, a band called Aeon Zen came out with "A Mind's Portrait", an album that, while rooted in what detractors may call 'Dream Theater clone territory'- was impressive enough to put them on the radar for those who heard it. Alongside bands like Haken and To-Mera, Aeon Zen are at the forefront of a British wave to revitalize the progressive metal style into something fresh, exciting and relevant. In what is undoubtedly the band's most consistent work to date, "Enigma" lives up to the promise of their debut. Although they have not yet broken free from the shackles of the progressive metal old guard, Aeon Zen's fantastic blend of musicianship and composition sees them flying leagues above much of what the genre has recently produced. Progressive metallers take note- this is one of the most impressive albums bound to come out this year.
Aeon Zen are part of what I might call (without wanting to sound too clichéd or the least bit pretentious) part of the New Wave of British Progressive Metal. If you've heard the way Haken or Threshold seamlessly blend melody with technical flair, Aeon Zen aren't too far off. Led by multi-instrumentalist Rich Hinks, Aeon Zen are a firm indicator of where the scene is at. The infamously overused conventions of Dream Theater have their place in Aeon Zen's sound, but there is a great attention paid to what's been happening since then. If you look past the breathtaking musical flow, melodies and spacious production, the band's capacity to mix so many sounds together may be their most impressive trait. "Enter the Enigma" is a very fitting overture for the album, seamlessly flowing from the rhythmic pulse of 'djent', to symphonic metal and progressive synth arrangements. From there on, the album flows as would a single forty-five minute epic. Although the Kamelot-esque "Artificial Soul" and single-worthy "Divinity" both function quite well on their own as self-contained pieces, "Enigma" is graced with a number of pleasantly recurring themes and a near-perfect sense of flow.
Aeon Zen also take care to acknowledge the more extreme side of metal that has played such an important role in prog in recent years. When "Divinity" isn't conjuring the cinematic quality of symphonic metal, it is basking in technical death metal territory, although the growls come and ago fairly quickly, so as not to put off the less-acclimated listeners. The album's most triumphant moment comes with "Warning", a slow build up that gives a not-so-subtle nod to the style of a Mr. Devin Townsend. Complete with wall-of-sound production and a soaring lead melody, it's difficult not to think of Townsend's "Terria" or "Synchestra" when hearing it. These nods to the styles of other bands certainly don't end with that either. "Divinity" features a chug and pick slide straight out of the Gojira canon, and there's a guitar solo on the album that I could swear I've heard to some extent before on a Blind Guardian album. Add in some overt Between the Buried and Me influences, and you have a a molten pot of progressive metal with something to offer to virtually every fan of the genre. Most times, I would accuse a band so closely emulating the styles of others of unoriginality at best (or plagiarism at worst), but in the case of Aeon Zen, the way all of these different sounds come together is something in itself. While they may not win any prizes for uniqueness with "Enigma", the composition is what gives the album wings. I would have had doubts if I had heard so many sounds within prog metal could come together into something half-decent. In Aeon Zen's case, they've gone much farther; although the year is young, I'm not sure 2013 will produce another album with such a solid flow.
Lyrically, Aeon Zen do not excel nearly as much as they do on the musical end. Although there is the vague impression of a concept tying the record together, "Enigma" follows a tired trend of modern progressive albums aiming for a more abstract sense of narrative. Although this 'idea-over-action' style of revealing a concept may have worked well for To-Mera last year on "Exile", Aeon Zen do not have the same such luck. Simply said, the lyrics on "Enigma" do not feel particularly relevant, instead feeding off of the genre's 'thinking man' clichés. Fortunately, the vocal standard is held to an incredibly high standard throughout the album. Andi Kravljaca is one of the modern progressive metal scene's most impressive singers, and the inclusion of other singers (most notably Atte Pettersen of Above Symmetry and Rich himself) gives the album a greater vocal range, although none of them sound wildly different from one another. In the end however, Aeon Zen is a band all about the guitar, and reverence of the progressive riff. Despite his youth, Rich Hinks is a monster with the guitar. Contrary to many youngblood virtuosos, Rich's talent with the instrument is multi-faceted; although he is very likely to impress you with his burstfire lead playing, he is just as skilled with the rhythms, and mellower end of his playing. The musicianship is excellent throughout, with Steve Burton's dynamic drumwork standing out alongside Rich for his richly dramatic performance.
In short, "Enigma" is a satisfying progressive metal epic that trims off alot of its genre's fat without losing any of the magic. Really, it was the sense of bombast-for-bombast's-sake that had prog metal floating in rough water for some time. Although Aeon Zen are still well-rooted in the sounds of many of the more innovative prog metal acts, it's rare that I get such a satisfying impression from an album. Originality regardless, "Enigma" is a near-perfect mesh of thoughtful riffs, dynamic musicianship and conscious homages to their influences. Especially considering the band's relative youth, I think we can only expect greater things from them in the future.