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The Pieces Seem to Rearrange and Fall Into Place - 94%

UnholyCrusada, August 22nd, 2013

Having truthfully only been an avid metal fan for a little over four years (excluding the horrid days of my mid-high school experience in which I became infatuated with nu-metal and metalcore), I have often found myself ashamed of having for so long turned a blind eye towards so many promising acts, that for some reason or another I never bothered to give an honest listen, despite the praise offered by my peers and other fans alike. It is largely due to this that for the last couple of years now, I’ve made it something of a habit to routinely scour the web in search of new, relatively undiscovered metal bands displaying skill in their craft. Often with very little to go on but a genre, band name, and song titles, I’ve trudged through the depths of the metal underworld on several occasions, never knowing where the winding road would take me until I had arrived. Naturally, many of the artists I have come across, from a multitude of subgenres, proved to be dead ends, either offering music I considered uninteresting, unoriginal, or downright irredeemably bad. Every once in a while however, there comes along a group that makes you go “Why haven’t I heard of these guys before?”, and suddenly all the effort becomes worthwhile in the long run. Ethereal Architect is one of those bands, and if Monolith, their sophomore release is anything to go by, I can’t imagine them remaining under the radar for much longer.

Progressive metal is the name of the game, but of course the usage of such a broad term in the metal community today does nothing to describe the band’s sound. Unfortunately, neither does any one single description or comparison to any one band. Ethereal Architect’s approach on this album draws inspiration from obvious progressive sources the likes of Dream Theater and Symphony X, as do just about every other band in the sub-genre these days. The difference however, is that rather than operating as an unabashed clone like so many others, they manage to mold their own unique identity by incorporating elements of thrash metal, some slight folk and jazzy (both smooth and Latin) influence, and possibly even cop a little bit from System of a Down in the vocal department in a few spots (and not in a bad way either). In essence, the pieces of the puzzle appear familiar on the surface, but are rearranged in a manner that honestly sounds quite refreshing and individual to this one band. A factor in particular that proves to be of major assistance in regards to accomplishing this goal is the excellent display of songwriting present throughout the album, remaining very song-oriented and melodic as opposed to relying purely on flashy guitar and key work. That said, when the instrumentalists do decide it’s time to cut loose, it is done so in a skillfully performed yet tasteful fashion that provides just the right amount of technicality to appease prog fans, while never sounding over-the-top.

Upon reading of the band’s aforementioned emphasis on melody and catchy choruses, one may be tempted to mistake this as a sign of the album being a listening experience void of any crushing heaviness and/or speed. Rest assured, high-octane numbers the likes of Mercury, Final Escape, and Bardo Becoming will easily satisfy the cravings of hungry metal fans longing for a solid kick in the ass. Conversely, the beautifully penned and expertly executed ballads Oceans and Obscura call to mind Opeth’s early soft stuff, especially in the case of the former with its whimsical folk stylings and enchanting piano and acoustic guitar. The latter on the other hand is perhaps the most experimental song on the album, opting for a slightly less peppy, more relaxed mood, complemented by excellent jazz drumming and a serene yet haunting vocal performance that never fails to give me chills.

Aside from the music itself, one of the album’s most compelling aspects is, I kid you not, the song order. Somehow, this band has managed to organize the album’s tracks in a borderline perfect sequence so that the album continually improves in quality as it progresses from start to finish, certainly no mean feat to pull off. Each song featured is seriously every bit as good if not better than the one before it, resulting in a constant uphill momentum that persists over the course of the album’s runtime, with very few if any bum spots present to hamper the steady incline. To demonstrate this point, the second half of the album is inarguably superior to the first, with the best songs bunched together at the very end, almost as if to present a reward to the patient listener who has followed Ethereal Architect on their evolutionary journey over the course of roughly an hour. This is not to imply the first half of the album is lacking in any way whatsoever (quite the opposite), but it’s from Revolutions onward that the band really starts firing on all cylinders.

Of course, by following this logic, album opener Kalinago must thusly be the weak link in the golden chain. While this holds true to an extent (this song admittedly registered as the least impressionable to me upon repeated listens), it is far from being a lackluster track, and serves the role of a relatively radio-friendly but nevertheless solid lead single well. That said, the silver lining here is that by the same logic, if the first track serves as the album’s initial starting point at the base of the mountain, surely the final track must represent the arrival at the summit, and the high-point of the entire recording. So, is it? You bet your ass it is. Submission is a track that can only be described as masterful, and is hands down one of the best progressive metal songs I have heard in quite a while. Starting with a peaceful acoustic segment lasting about a minute, it soon launches into a fast-paced riff-fest complete with ominous keyboards and vocals, as well as some fantastic guitar and drum work (especially in the middle instrumental section), before finishing with the most perfectly fitting finale an album could ask for. All I can say is listen to this one for yourself. It really is that awesome. Hell, even the lyrics are great, and usually I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t care about lyrics that much to begin with.

The album definitely impresses on a multitude of levels from start to finish, although there are a couple of small blemishes present on what is otherwise an incredibly well produced and performed independent release. Obsidian, while certainly a very solid song in all regards, doesn’t seem to contain quite enough musical variety in some portions to warrant a 9 minute song-length (nearly 10 when combined with the Latin outro of Mercury), and as such, the track does seem to drag a little at a couple of points in the middle. The song probably could have been shortened by about a minute at least and it would not have hurt the finished product in any way. Also, David Glass is a very talented guitarist (and keyboardist) to be sure, however at times he begins to show stage 1 symptoms of “Kirk Hammet-crybaby-itis”. While using the sound to a much more reasonable and effective degree than the epidemic’s namesake, it occasionally feels as if he’s relying on the effect a tad too much, particularly in the first few songs, and upon first listen it could give off the impression that he is using it to compensate for inadequate guitar skills (which couldn’t be further from the truth). If Glass can learn to take his foot off the wah pedal a little more often, it would definitely provide a small but noticeable improvement to the already great songs.

To say I’m pleasantly surprised by this album would be a massive understatement. Many already well-established progressive metal acts would have a challenge creating such a solid and consistent release, and to think that an unsigned band from Texas of all places could accomplish this as early as their second full-length really says a lot about the talent displayed here. Monolith is a gem of an album, as remarkable in scope as it is in execution, and while it may not be a perfect release, I’ll be damned if it isn’t too far off. If there was ever a sign of a bright future ahead of a band, Ethereal Architect have got it in spades, and I can only imagine what their next excursion into the progressive realm will bring.

Not very monolithic, even in a progressive sense. - 85%

hells_unicorn, August 21st, 2013

It's something of a longstanding contradiction of sorts, but progressive metal has essentially become a stylized, having a very predictable outcome that cuts against the very nature of its label. Granted, it tends to go with the territory that the big names that paved the way for any style will enjoy a fair amount of emulation, but the whole idea behind progression seems to imply breaking new ground, and that has been more of an exception than a rule, and thus this style essentially exists as a more elaborate and technical variation on the original metal sound. However, there are a number of bands that have been seeking to buck this trend, and one of them hails from the good old U.S., deep in the heart of Texas. But what sort of new ground has been broken on Ethereal Architect's sophomore effort one might ask? The answer proves to be quite surprising, though not something that is terribly out of left field.

"Monolith" functions as both a fitting yet ironic title for this album, given that it clearly articulates a sense of symmetry in its songwriting, yet presents a multifaceted take on progressive metal's eclectic nature that seeks after something with more dimensions that a smooth, rectangular shape. It brings in a sound that is elaborate enough to rival the formative works of Dream Theater and does plenty to outclass a number of their imitators, but it comes in a package that is a good bit more aggressive and, interestingly enough, far catchier as well. The usual foray of mixed meter rhythmic constructs and easy flowing jazz balladry are along for the ride, but the bulk of the interesting elements of this album cross over into the punchy, hard-hitting realm of power/thrash, occasionally conjuring up images of the likes of Anubis Gate and Archetype, but also elements of Gojira and a couple of groovy acts occasionally (without the crappy gruff vocals).

The songs on here don't resemble the meandering or hyper-repetitive drivel of Dream Theater's early 2000s output, but at times rival the heaviness of said albums. Particularly in the cases of high octane cruisers such as "Final Escape" and "Bardo Becoming", there is a beautiful synchronicity of thrashing mayhem in both the riff work and the gang choruses in relation to the largely conventional clean vocal style of Adam Contreras, who sounds somewhat along the lines of a stronger version of James LaBrie, thus being a bit more capable at dirtying things up once in a while. But even when things don't fly out into the stratosphere as on catchy anthems with additional noodling a la "Kalinago" and "Revolutions", the feel cuts hard against the idea that this style of metal only expresses itself with technical showboating and extended jamming. Granted, guitarist David Glass is no slouch when it comes to ripping out a shredding guitar solo.

But for all the surprises to be found on here, there is definitely enough traditional progressive influences to keep this from venturing out into hybrid sub-genre territory such as power/progressive or the like. Arguably the most typical sounding song of this style also proves to be one of the more impressive in terms of songwriting, namely the 9 minute epic "Obsidian". This song kicks off with an instant plunge into keyboard and guitar dueling leads, followed by a more groove driven stomp that leads to an incredibly infectious chorus. There is an extended acoustic ballad section that comes in for a few minutes between the several bursts of lead guitar brilliance, but even this part fits in nicely with the post-Dream Theater paradigm that still shapes the style. Other songs follow this model, including the surprisingly fun and fancy remake of "MacArthur's Park", and all of them simultaneously come off as fresh and harder hitting, largely due to the greater aggression factor.

Anyone looking for a different kind of progressive metal, ergo one that actually shows some signs of progression beyond what was established during Dream Theater's first 5 albums, this is a solid band that will fill the void. It says something about the enduring independent metal scene that it can put out album's of this caliber in relation to its heavily funded and promoted rivals. It's not quite the endless main of notes and rhythms found in various shred projects, including those involving John Petrucci and a host of other instrumentalists, but it definitely offers a digestible yet complex set of songs that can cross borders where many other, stricter progressive acts likely won't.

Originally submitted to (www.metal-observer.com) on August 21, 2013.

Prog metal from Texas that doesn't suck. - 87%

PowerProg_Adam, December 29th, 2012

When listening to new progressive metal bands one often doesn't know what to expect, especially from bands from America. Are they going to be a Dream Theater or Symphony X clone like many bands are? Are they going to be some weird band that just has strange time signatures and music that is completely devoid of any melody at all? Are they not even going to really be progressive metal at all, but instead some sort of mainstream, radio friendly band that just has a lot of bass and a plethora of songs about angst. This is when we get to the band Ethereal Architect from Austin, Texas and their album Monolith. The first thing one will notice about them is that they are in fact quite different in terms of genres. They definitely are not a clone of any particular band, but more of a hybrid of many different genres throughout the entire album. Many would argue that blending many different genres of metal into one band is a formula for disaster, I definitely don't feel that this is the case with this band. And now to begin a track by track analysis of the album.

We begin with the opening track Kalinago. This is definitely sounds like something that would come from a Damian Wilson fronted Threshold. Not overly high, yet rhythmic and very warm sounding vocals. Lots of guitar squeals, very memorable extended chorus along with good backing vocals. My only personal complaint with this track is that although the guitarist seems very competent he seems to overuse the wah pedal throughout virtually all of the solo, which to me always seemed like more or a trick to mask one's guitar playing ability. Later on in the album I will definitely see that this is not the case at all.

Its not often that the second track of an album appears as though a band is already out of ideas. With Mercury it starts to appear so. Very repetitive riffs, which at times almost seems like an Iced Earth riff mixed with something later era Metallica might do. In my opinion, not really a bad song, but definitely one that stands out the least.

After the slight disappointment of Mercury, I was very surprised by the next track. Obsidian begins to take this band to a whole new level. A very somber intro followed by very thrashy power metal riffs with an overlying ghost sounding keyboard riff. The song then breaks into a very soulful, yet technical guitar lead. This song shows what I like most about progressive metal and that is where a song showcases musically what each member is capable of on their given instrument and is given their own time to shine other than one member carrying the entire band. The guitar solo once again begins with a slight use of the wah pedal and I think that the song is going to start going downhill, but instead heads back into the chorus, which is probably the most memorable on the whole album, and then is taken into an acoustic guitar passage with some wind instruments in the background and sounds quite beautiful. Then comes another solo, which I would have to describe as being completely from the heart. Extremely melodic and leaves you excited to hear where the song is going next. By the final verse there is such a climax to the song as it leads back into the chorus at a more upbeat tempo until the song is finally complete. I honestly found myself repeating this track after it finished the first time listening to it. I was extremely impressed all the way through.

The next track displays yet another genre change. oceans, which begins with a very folk-ish acoustic passage almost comes out sounding like a cross between Skyclad and Elvenking. The electric instruments break in for a passage and this is back to the acoustics and folk vocals. Very uplifting song that by the time I finished listening to it I was beginning to feel much happier than I did when I began listening to the album.

Final Escape almost begins as if its a metalcore song. Some melodic guitar noodling into a breakdown riff. And then out of nowhere, pure thrash riff and drums. Then back to the same noodling from the intro while maintaining the upbeat tempo. This isn't something I really hear that often in music, and I really like it. Its essentially a thrash song with clean vocals, then gang vocals, then into a shredding guitar solo. All the way through very unique, and very well done. It even ends with female vocals and a church organ, which kicks into the next track.

Revolutions picks up with choir vocals which builds up rather epicly into a chugging headbang-able guitar riff. This track musically reminds me of something Pagan's Mind would do. Very progressive, yet heavy. My only complaint is that although not even a five minute song starts to kind of drag on without offering much new to the song only about halfway through.

Many progressive metal bands have a song where their weirdness begins to take over. Obscura is that song for Ethereal Architect. Definitely sounds like a newer Pain of Salvation track. Dark and brooding, yet clean vocals that end up going all over the place, on top of an eerie acoustic guitar effect. Kind of a relaxing song, which also kind of reminds me at times of Opeth's acoustic works.

Bardo Becoming leads back to the heaviness quite nicely. More thrashy, complex riffs and frenzied vocal style. This is where I notice that probably my favorite aspect of this album besides the diversity is the use of backing vocals in virtually every song. They build many layers that I'm not sure that vocalist Adam Contreras could achieve on his own. To me this is an art that I wish more bands would utilize.

Every album has to decide the best way to end an album and leaving the listener wanting more. Submission is definitely a great way to achieve this goal. A song that is essentially about working through the struggles that we all go through on a daily basis. Vocals definitely begin to take over here. All the verses and chorus are extremely rhythmic and memorable. Towards the middle comes a very headbang-able, yet simplistic riff that once again is very reminiscent of Iced Earth. Ending the song comes a very melodic guitar lead, which fades away into an acoustic passage until the listener is finally lulled into a state of relaxation.

I was honestly very surprised by this album. There are no virtuoso musicians in this band that make one element more overpowering than the rest. They come off as a cohesive unit of very talented musicians and songwriters. Many bands start to develop their sound to be more their own after a few albums and I expect Ethereal Architect to do just that. I honestly expect to hear pretty big things out of this band in just a few short years. I would give this album an 8/10 if I had to give it a specific rating, although being a progressive metal album, I would expect it to grow on me even more after a few more listens.