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It’s no one’s fault - 96%

andreipianoman, March 13th, 2020

Alright, let’s talk prog. No djent, no avant-garde, no weird never seen before sonic phenomena but just pure classic prog rock. This one is aimed to tickle the taste buds of all those who get turned on when the immortal prog legends are brought up. If you get hyped when hearing names like Dream Theater, Rush or Yes and are one of those who believe that the true progressive rock and metal phenomenon that once was, is now but a fading memory, then I’m filled with delight to inform you that the legacy continues. Bringing together the creative minds of vocalist Ross Jennings(Haken), vocalist Gareth Mason (Slice the Cake), guitarist Dan Thornton (Ex-HAARP Machine, Ex-No Sin Evades His Gaze), drummer Cameron Spence(Ravenface), bassist Moat Lowe and keyboardist Harrison White, the progressive rock act Novena came together and on the fateful day of March 6th 2020, their jaw-dropping debut full-length effort “Eleventh Hour” drew its first breath into our wondrous world. Being a devoted fan of the eclectic British prog masters that are Haken, I couldn’t allow this new project to slip by me but going into it, I was simply not ready for what this album has to offer. At the risk of being called out by the true connoisseurs of the prog classics for being but a young naive “core-kid” who hasn’t even heard the full Dream Theater discography, I will be bold enough to state that this album revives the full glory of the olden prog days, carrying a level of musical knowledge, elegance and prestige that makes it worthy of being placed along-side timeless legends like Dream Theater’s “Metropolis part 2: Scenes From a Memory” or the younger but equally majestic “Visions” by Haken.

Now I know there are a few old-school Dream Theater devotees that consider Haken and similar younger acts to be just a cheap copy of their unshaken musical heroes and I may be committing unspeakable sins by placing a side-project of Ross Jennings on the same level but I’ll honestly take my chances on that. While none of the musicians in this project stands to win a tech showdown against lord Petrucci and his mates, the compositional diversity, multi-faceted persona and sheer scale of this album easily fills in the gap. At a running time of 72 minutes and with 3 songs past the 10 minute mark, it’s obvious that they’re not playing games and considering that all that time is filled with top-class progressive material that actually makes the lengthy listen seem surprisingly brief, one has to wonder why this talented bunch didn’t come together sooner.

At first glance the album might seem quite scarce on riffs as they focus a lot on melody and atmosphere and there is an abundance of other styles blended into the sound but as you progress through the journey, it gets increasingly more intense and I assure you that with a little patience, all your metal needs will be met. The guitar sound is very full and crunchy, courtesy of great production and some really awesome effects and the way they can blend groove with impact and energy is a real treat. The energetic chorus of “Sun Dance” must be one of the sweetest examples of “groove meets headbang” and it’s bound to make you jump from your seat. While the riffing easily pumps all the heaviness you might ask for, it’s definitely not shy of what any prog enthusiast craves: some tasty odd time patterns and nasty transitions. But they balanced it out nicely, dwelling consistently on some rather straightforward ideas and giving the listener the time and space to breathe before ripping it apart into a mathy mashup of sonic patterns that relentlessly mutate into new forms. And yet, through the complexity of their most spectacular prog moments they always maintain a sublime sense of cohesiveness and flow that doesn’t allow you to get lost or unnecessarily confused. There are more moments of spectacular prog showmanship than you can count and that makes it a perfect listen for those who like to come back and analyze over repeated listens to discover details that might get missed out at first. And they gave a superb sense of direction and evolution to the songs, (particularly the longer ones) that has them growing to an epic scale and even leaves room for some of the nastiest breakdowns you’ll ever hear.

And yet, the taste of culture and refinement in the “Eleventh Hour” is just as high as the bombast and excitement. Songs like the opener “2259” or “Disconnected” clearly evocate a softer, more atmospheric and relaxing component that not only allows you to recharge your energy for when the bangers drop, but also fills your soul with multiple flavors of emotion, from sweet to sour or just peaceful and calm.  In fact, some songs like “Sail Away” or “Disconnected” had me simply lean back and close my eyes to let the beauty sink in. I felt like I could even dose off a little bit. This comes through a sublime infusion of jazz and bluesy elements, displaying incredible instrumental versatility. The smooth touch on that snare and the gentle groovy clean guitar jams create a cool and laid-back feel but it’s that sweet grand piano that really targets the most sensitive vibes. A touch of tension and dissonance distorts the harmony every now and then but it definitely doesn’t jazz up to that point where it loses the melodic aspect.

What I love most about prog epics in general and Novena’s debut is no different, is how the heavy motions of the music come in waves, sometimes colliding with the softer moments while on other occasions making for a smooth and gradual transition between the two. A moment that took my breath away was definitely the first minute of “Lucidity”, kicking off with a lovely piano theme and quickly evolving into a full-band monstrous wall of sound within one minute. “The Tyrant” is also one to admire as the whole 10 minute song comes in waves of soft and heavy.

And let’s not forget the front-men of this epic prog group. Ross Jennings definitely sets himself in the highest level of vocalists in progressive metal with a unique, unmistakable vocal tone that sets him far apart from the norm and Gareth Mason delivers some tremendous, gut-wrenching growls that tremble through your entire being. The level of expression that these two create by coming together with their contrasting styles gives the album an insane contrast of polar opposite personalities, juggling between pure class and unforgiving fury. Ross’s style displays an amazing capability to mold and subtly alter the emotional tone to create some incredible variations of vibe and imagery and he easily conveys a wide array of emotions with flawless technique. By contrast, Gareth doesn’t do much else than to throw you out of your seat and leave you trying to somehow reassemble your mental integrity. And then there’s the multiple moments of vocal layering, clearly reminiscent of Haken’s songs, particularly those on “The Mountain”. I also don’t know who was in charge of all the poetic spoken word moments but they highly elevate the narrative feel of the songs and put an extra touch of drama in there. And who could fail to mention the flamenco, Spanish music infused “Corazón” featuring an unidentified yet seriously talented female singer.

It all rounds down to the colossal 15-minute long closer “Prison Walls” that sees the band pulling off their most intense emotional discharge. Building from a spoken monologue of intense drama into a psychotic, gradual crescendo that peaks in a dissonant flare of overdriven guitar noise with a blast beat, this theatrical opus then makes it's way into a superb, triumphant and epic finale. I will admit there were some hiccups here and there that didn’t exactly fit my personal taste, namely some of the spoken word moments felt a little overdone and the clapping hands part in "Corazón" seemed to me a bit iffy and out of context going into it, though it went really well flowing out.  But honestly, this is probably as good as an imperfect album is ever going to be. I really struggle to find faults since everything from the composition to the performance, emotional content and pure size of it is executed and  delivered at an elite level. This is n example of the highest class of musicianship you can find in the realms of prog and probably a first contender for the Album of the Year game. Be sure to check out Novena’s debut “Eleventh Hour” out now on Frontiers music.

Originally written for The Metal Observer.