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An absence of essence. - 59%

ConorFynes, May 26th, 2014

II: Mistral, as the album's name would suggest, is the second album from German proggers A Cosmic Trail. Though I'd never heard of the band or their well-received debut The Outer Planes before this, from what I've heard, the album was enough to get people excited. With II: Mistral, the instrumental blend of atmospheric rock and metal styles is enough to hint at greatness, but I'm left feeling like something's still missing in their sound. Although the weight of atmosphere over traditional technique makes the band's style more interesting than your average instrumental prog band, they've mostly played the execution part safely. It's resulted in a well-polished, but dry product. My feelings are mixed about it, to say the least.

A Cosmic Trail find themselves in that uncertain muddied area between rock and metal. The drums are pretty thunderous and the guitar riffs occasionally entertain a relation to sludge or thrash metal, but there's generally a sense of restraint that keeps the sound from becoming overtly heavy. Comparisons made to their compatriots in Long Distance Calling do not go unfounded; A Cosmic Trail explores a similar niche of instrumental prog and heavy post-rock. Even if the band writes their music with clearcut riffs and conventional guitarwork in mind, A Cosmic Trail have placed a surprising focus on the atmospheric side of their sound. Instrumental progressive rock and metal too-often place the focus on showboating and flashy musicianship, so it's only to II: Mistral's benefit that they have placed a weighted emphasis on composition.

It's arguably the songwriting on II: Mistral that proves to be the most impressive. "Mistral I" does a great job of developing ideas and fuelling a compelling atmosphere; "Cromlech" starts heavy but ends up floating towards post-rock melody by the end. "In Ertia" has got some sort of Agalloch-esque post-metal going on, and "Mistral II" ventures into the technique and finesse of bands like Scale the Summit. I wouldn't go as far as to call any of the tracks here excellent from start to finish, but there are plenty of great ideas throughout the album. The riffs and atmosphere are solid enough, but especially in light of their apparent labelling as a progressive metal act, A Cosmic Trail seem to play it a little too safe more often than not. None of the ideas are particularly wild or unpredictable, and this sort of formula has been taken to greater lengths in the past. The skill is here, but there's a certain level of risk-taking and 'wow' factor needed if a newer band would hope to build hype and excitement in prospective listeners. Unfortunately, I'm hearing none of that on II: Mistral.

As skilled as these musicians undoubtedly are, the album as a whole suffers from what I've come to call 'AC/DC syndrome'. A Cosmic Trail obviously have nothing to do with AC/DC or the Aussie rockers' artistic direction; rather, I mean it in the sort of barebones, restrained way their otherwise heavy music is performed on the record. Everything is calculated and coloured within the lines. The potential risks and variables that might have resulted in some sort of beautiful imperfections have been overlooked or purposefully cast out. A Cosmic Trail's album is free from objective 'flaws' so to speak, but it's come at the cost of sounding sterile. Especially for a band based around atmosphere, this really serves to hold the music back. Ultimately, I think A Cosmic Trail are the sort of band I'd much rather hear live. Technique is important in progressive music, but nowhere near as much as feeling. It's the latter end that's totally missing here.

I'm not entirely sold on what A Cosmic Trail have done with their second album. They're skilled to be sure, and some of the ideas here capture my attention. There's a missing essence of II: Mistral however that keeps me from being too excited over it. The skill and songwriting are both here, but the dry, tame place A Cosmic Trail take it falls far short of the band's potential.