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This album has been a long time in the making, and whether out of nostalgia, compassion, or simple lack of willpower, I had originally given it a rating/review that now, after more time spent with the music contained therein, seems undeserved.
The most horrible thing that befell this band since the release of their debut has unquestionably been the loss of Sean Malone. If there was ever a band to be used as a reference in the question of "how important is a bass player?", Aghora is it. Malone's departure has drained the life out of this band and distilled their sound into a typical, bareboned display of "progressive" metal.
Expectedly, the band's focus seems to have shifted entirely. With Alan Goldstein being unable to maintain a sufficiently prominent bass presence, the album has effectively become the Santiago Dobles show. He's a mighty guitar player for sure - he shreds, sweeps, thrashes, and harmonizes his way through these songs with a great display of skill - but all of it comes off as inconsequential because there's rarely anything to be found behind it. The guitars overpower everything in the mix, and no longer do the other band members seem to have any desire to step up and contribute in anything but the most predictable of ways. As a result, the "heavy" portions of a given song generally consist of a typical thrash riff backed by trite double bass runs that sound completely sterile and indiscernible from the thrash riffs and double bass runs that dominate other songs throughout the album. The most blatant examples of this can be found in songs like "Atma's Heave", "Open Close the Book", "Dual Alchemy", "Dime", and "Mahayana". "Atma's Heave" sounds like a really cool song the first time you hear, and it is... but as you make your way through the album (time and time again), you can't help but question how often a band can expect to rehash the same idea and expect their audience to not notice. The spacier and dreamier aspects of Aghora's music have also been reigned in to an extent and watered down in lieu of a more thoroughly metallic presentation. I attribute this completely to the loss of Malone and the reduced role of drummer Sean Reinert - the two of them are nigh unmatched in filling an otherwise typical song with pulsing dynamics and that mystical feeling of something "more" going on in the music than just the music itself. Sean Reinert is able to carry that pathos on some of the tracks he plays on, but one player alone cannot be enough.
That being said, many of the instrumental passages are a step up on account of sheer showmanship. The guitar solos are wonderful, and many of the melodies and harmonies sound amazing, with Dobles showing off a wide range of influences in the school of guitar. Though again, this turns into more of a downfall because there is a lack of balance. Goldstein follows the guitars almost note for note, only occasionally breaking for some slap or fretless interludes (both of which are nice, but rare), and Giann Rubio drums in a very regimented, mechanical style that lacks variety and fails to mesh with Goldstein's bass playing in any notable manner. In the end, you're left with Santiago Dobles trying to keep your attention with guitar heroics, and it doesn't always work.
So what's good?
Sean Reinert is still here - thank your god of choice - drumming on 6 out of 13 tracks. In my eyes, he is the sole factor that keeps this album from degenerating into a soulless husk of self-absorbed metal. His style is limber and organic, serving to infuse life into an otherwise dull atmosphere; his sense of synergy and dynamics keeps the music from grating on the ears; and his cymbal work is as elegant and fluid as ever, providing a free-flowing sense of progression. The drum kits themselves are also something to note - Reinert's sounds warm, full and lush; while Rubio's is more mechanized, if you will... his snare almost sounds triggered when compared to Reinert's - you wouldn't be far off if you said that the kits are reflections of the players who utilize them.
Unfortunately, even Sean Reinert isn't always able to save the music on this disc. Some of the tracks he plays on, such as "Open Close the Book" and "Dual Alchemy", come out so boring and pointless that they may as well have used a drum machine. On the other hand, he absolutely makes my two favorite songs on here, "1316" and "Fade" - the former sounding something like a long lost Cynic track, and the latter coming the closest to resembling the majestic beauty of the first Aghora album.
In Rubio's favor, he isn't all bad. His performance on the 12+ minute title track is nice, and it's right behind "1316" and "Fade" as far as the songs on this album that don't completely suck.
The vocals... meh. Diana Serra isn't any better or worse than Danishta Rivero. She's different, and I'd say it's ultimately going to come down to personal preference. The vocals here don't extend as far as they did on Aghora's S/T, and there's nothing here to rival the wonderful vocal harmonies found on songs like "Kali Yuga" and "Existence"... Diana is more straightforward and immediately appealing, which I suppose will appeal to many people who aren't into high-reaching vocal extension. I saw a line drawn to Marcela Bovio (Elfonia, Stream of Passion, Ayreon), and I think I agree - pretty, soothing, and pleasant... but not much that strikes out and really grabs you.
Overall, my impression of this album has only gotten worse with time. The more I listened, the more I felt an urge stirring deep within to come back here and edit my review to something more appropriate - and here I am. "Atma's Heave", "1316", "Fade", and "Formless" are all clear winners as far as individual songs go, but the album as a whole sort of falls flat.
After almost seven years, they could've put a bit more thought into it.