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I've sometimes caught myself wondering what it would sound like if someone took highly technical instrumental prog-metal (the kind that the members of Dream Theater release when they aren't playing as a band, the kind that never has a chorus part in it) and sang over it. Most of the time, I convince myself that it would sound completely hideous, because there wouldn't be a singer up to the task, much less a lyricist. As it turns out, I was entirely wrong.
Spiral Architect have done precisely what I've always wondered about, and the net result is that it works wonderfully. They've recorded an album full of instrumental virtuosity, open-ended song structures and time-signature changes that will give you whiplash just listening to them, and then added lyrics and vocals, and blow me down if it's not something I can really sink my teeth into.
Musically, the album is also a standout from the virtuosic-prog legions by featuring a very prominent bass. How prominent? Well, it's quite clear that Lars Norberg as a bassist is capable of performing the role of a lead instrument. While most prog acts can boast a highly talented bassist, Norberg nearly eclipses the lead guitar when he plays, with his melodic runs often the standout on most tracks.
Naturally, the addition of vocals has meant that the long solos we might have expected from a purely instrumental act have had to be junked. After all, this is an album where the longest track clocks in at the 6:30 mark, so brevity is the name of the game here. Still, somewhere in the middle of "Moving Spirit" we are treated to a rather unexpected guitar solo, and there are a few others around. We're not talking about a John Petrucci live special by any means, but in context they work out quite nicely.
And so to the vocals. Øyvind Hægeland takes double duty as vocalist and keyboard player, and delivers some astonishing performances. He's not the kind of vocalist who's immediately recognisable, but his voice is always clear enough to be heard above the chaos of the rest of the band. It often seems to take the role of an extra instrument, adding yet another layer of density to the already complex music assaulting the listener. In this respect, I'd almost be tempted to compare Spiral Architect to the old prog-rock act Yes, whose lead singer (Jon Anderson) sang entirely meaningless lyrics on some tracks just purely to add atmosphere to the music around him.
Words really can't do an album like this justice. From the first to the last note, it's an entirely uncompromising slab of genius. It's very much not for everyone, though. Anyone who thinks of prog-metal as being the place where a-musical wankery is to be found is going to hate this release with a passion, as it's entirely composed of technicality for the sake of technicality. Anyone who expects the approachability of a Dream Theater or a Symphony X - two bands which may not be stunningly approachable, until you hear this - will also be in for a rude shock. This is progressive metal which demands to be heard on its own terms, but those who can approach it in that manner are in for a real treat.