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“Progressive” has become a blanket term diluted by various styles and artists while authentic “prog” projects everywhere are caught trending the same overused synthetic frameworks that have popularized the genre since the mid 90’s. What’s happening!? “Progressive Metal” is still alive and thrives; endlessly popular in its candid displays of skill in an epoch where techno-driven sounds and orchestra-inspired drum kits form the norm. But what ultimately is fading once definite lines and what continues to compromise the sheer bad-assery of experimental music is an unseemly low degree of variability: the same glitzy distortion and compartmental structures continuing to prevail under the illusion of musical revelation. In the case of France’s Spheric Universe Experience (SUE) and their 70-minute ‘prog playground’ of a debut (2006), a clear standard for the term was reset as they distinguished themselves an adequate latecomer on the “Prog Metal” scene. Taking conspicuous influence from the likes of deities Dream Theatre and Symphony X, SUE’s sound has it all in terms of that archetypal progressive approach featuring the heavy synth use, experimental time signatures, windy song structures, clean-as-can-be production, and hopelessly catchy choruses that typify the genre’s utmost fruitful offerings. But what separates SUE from the haze is a particularly inspiring French background and while songs are done in English for max appeal this group does wear their heart on their sleeve implementing their native dialect in tracks “The Key”, “Neptune's Revenge”, and “Heal My Pain”, among others, in taking a fighting stance for the mysteriously tame French scene with their follow-up release, Anima.
While the band’s go-to elements do not change from their inaugural “Mental Torments”, maturation from a single-skew, purely statement making debut to a more classic and less capriciously progressive approach is commendable, Anima being the first glimpse of this shift. A more atmospheric as opposed to purely riff-centric approach sees equivalent length songs gilded with a shorter number of better progressions and an altogether more melodious sound favouring deeper tones and fuller-bodied riffs. These arrangements also steer clear of predictable web-like linkages and each track supports a greater flow which ebbs through in a markedly gracious and well-thought out manner. A very listenable and most notably no longer pretentiously complex spectacle of proggy prowess results no less any critical elements that a “Progressive Metal” album should house.
“Sceptic” is first and off the bat one can ascertain the influences in its steady double kick and call-and-response solo sections. SUE’s overarching sound, though comprised at large of such hand-me-down progressive concepts, sound effects and zero-character chug-happy riffs, generates just enough striking eccentricity to ensure a worthwhile listen out of Anima. Supreme consonance between singer Franck Garcia and the band’s distorted sound is certainly one reason why one cannot come to criticize the listening experience provided here, a likeable mix of distorted “heaviness” and overall catchiness taking centre-stage throughout. And though widely appealing in its flawless, flowery production, Anima does not come off as entirely innocuous. “End of Trauma” and “Black Materia” exhibit undeniably apparent signs of epically progressive song writing – indeed, similarly along the lines of the debut but perhaps not as flamboyant as the “Burning Box Gala” – as “World of Madness” and “The Inner Quest” sprinkle prominent power metal overtones unto tasteful chorus sections. “Black Materia” proves an especially impactful closer in what truly is by all standards an incredible instrumental which responsibly balances monstrous progressions with remarkable continuity. The overall arrangement of tracks makes sense and in speaking to SUE’s veteran-like sound, and to the unanimity of newly honed melodic overtones, typifies nothing short of the penultimate “progressive” design. SUE’s candid musical proficiency breeds not only an aesthetic and somewhat unique sound – that is, indeed, saying a lot – but features very well poised lead lines as well as fully orchestrated drum parts that exceed the mere confines of musical accompaniment; all key factors in this album’s terrific listenability. Just don’t expect to find any Petrucci-esc solos in this one. B+.
It can be interesting or annoying to some people to find that almost all the progressive metal bands formed from the year 1995 and newer always name Dream Theater as their main influence, and, in fact, all those bands don't have their own new sound for the simple reason that they are simple appendices or extensions of that American band. That's why I call lots of them the "sons of Dream Theater".
The few progressive metal bands with a different style or sound are mainly the European ones, just like Threshold or Andromeda to name two of them. But France has a jewel in this kind of metal music. I have to confess that Spheric Universe Experience really surprised me. It truly was a breath of fresh air to a metal subgenre which was starting to result boring and monotonous, but this album is in fact one of the best progressive metal releases to date, no doubt about it.
What I appreciate about this band is their independence to stay away from the temptation to sound like all the sons of Dream Theater, as they are able to recreate an original and really enjoyable progressive metal atmosphere (I'm not saying that all those bands suck, because they don't. Some of them are incredibly good, I just criticize just their lack of originality), and this band is something that listeners of progressive metal surely never heard before.
The first song on the album is "Sceptic". Although the first seconds of the song are weak, once the guitar riffs are heard at their finest moments, the situation completely changes and "Sceptic" turns into an powerful and addictive song with explosive and fast riffs, the drums track are impeccable, and perhaps the most impressive feature of this band is the voice of Franck Garcia. Despite his notorious limitations (obviously, he's not one of the best vocalists for a progressive metal band), the vocal range of this man is still unbelievable and for my opinion, he overcomes singers like Damian Wilson or David Fremberg.
I can assure to the new listeners of Spheric Universe Experience that if they liked this song, the rest of the album will be exciting and entertaining to them. If not, I still encourage them to give it a chance; it's completely impossible not to like the whole album. Now, listening to Anima, I realized that S.U.E builds their original intrumental sound based on three main aspects:
1. Their explosive, yet melodic sound of their guitar riffs following the drums in an intense result, very distant from the sound of bands like Dream Theater, Circus Maximus, and etc. Both musicians don't concentrate on creating virtuouso performances, nevertheless the speed of the drummer and the guitarist are truly mindblowing. This can be appreciated in "Sceptic", "Neptune's Revenge", or "The Key".
2. The extreme importance of the keyboard within the sound of the band. It has two roles easily distinguishable: to create some symphonic or atmospherical backgrounds or solos in contrast with the default sound of the instrument, adding the classical formality and elegance to their songs. This is indeed one of the major characteristics that makes this band something unique and it's a rarely found feature in other bands of the same subgenre.
3. The bridges and trances to change from a phase to a newer one are not as pronounced or masterly as the ones performed like, once again I'll say it, Dream Theater or even Symphony X. Nevertheless, the execution of those bridges are clearly good enough to categorize them as a progressive metal band. This feature is present in the instrumental songs "Stormy Dome" or "Being".
As I just metioned, another important thing to itemize is the instrumental songs from Anima. These songs: "Being", "Stormy Dome", and mainly "Black Materia" are masterpieces, and anyone who deems himself/herself a metalhead and lover of progressive metal can't miss them. It would be a fatal error, an unforgivable sin or whatever. "Black Materia" itself shows us who are Spheric Universe Experience in their instrumental sound, so if you're new to this band I highly recommend to you to listen this song first.
To end this review, I'll say exactly the same that I've said before: you can't miss this album. Trust me when I say that you won't regret listening to these eleven songs. These French musicians are something else; they're very different from any other progressive metal band you've listened to before and they truly deserve to have more listeners.
Highlights: "Sceptic", "Being", "Neptune's Revenge", "Heal My Pain", "The Key", and "Black Materia".