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Although German progsters Subsignal have been assigned to the label of the middling neo-prog style, this band has much more up their sleeve than the typical act of that scene. In fact, it may not be such a stretch to call Subsignal a progressive metal band; after all, their two founding members Arno Menses and Markus Steffen are formerly part of metal powerhouse Sieges Even. Seeking to continue their music together after leaving Sieges, the pair enlisted the help of other musicians, and thus, Subsignal was born. 'Touchstones' is this band's second album, and here, Menses and Steffen have realized the potential of their new melodic aims. To be honest, there were so many prog albums throughout 2011 that- while not necessarily 'poor'- never sought to move me. More often than not, they were albums which went the melodic route with prog rock, using the 'epic' format as more of a gimmick, and replacing technical achievement with bland AOR tropes. What I'm getting at is that while I was practically setting myself up to dislike 'Touchstones' without knowing a thing about the band, they have created a remarkable piece of progressive, melodic metal here. Although 2011 is now over, I suspect that 'Touchstones' would have crept its way up my year end list, had I only heard it a couple of months earlier.
The sound of Subsignal reminds me greatly of modern prog darlings Haken, and their collision of epic progressive metal and softer melodic atmosphere. For those more invested in prog rock terms, both of these bands merge progressive metal and neo-prog together, creating something that manages to sport strong melodic hooks and clean sound without sacrificing the complexity or technical display of the musicians at work. As any fan of Sieges Even could have bet, the musicianship on 'Touchstones' is levelled at a very high standard. The compositions are focused primarily on melody, and while you won't hear the ten minute instrumental indulgences made infamous by Dream Theater, there is never any doubt that these are some of the best musicians in progressive music today. Roel van Helden's drum work was pleasantly reminiscent of Mike Portnoy's wild style. Menses and Steffen get the limelight throughout virtually the entire album. David Bertok's keyboards are the most inconspicuous aspect of the sound, adding atmosphere and depth to the sound, but rarely stepping forth. Although I would have cared for a few more spotlight's on Ralf Schwager's evidently impressive bass work, Subsignal never feels dominated by any ego from anyone.
The songwriting on 'Touchstones' is consistent, although the overbearing length and somewhat singular approach of the album tends to make the songs run together. The eleven minute title track 'Touchstones' earns my vote for the highlight, though. Although it is a fairly long song, the time is used well; those minutes aren't wasted on instrumental noodling, but instead work towards developing melodies and atmosphere. It is here where Subsignal's symphonic undertones come out most brightly as well, with a beautiful symphonic instrument acting in sharp contrast to the otherwise gloomy sounds of the guitar. Barring an album length that could have reasonably had twenty minutes shaved off, this is among the greatest melodic prog/metal albums to have come out in 2011. It's a shame I didn't get around to hearing it earlier, but there's little doubt in my mind that I will be enjoying this album well into 2012.