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Blind Purchases, part 3 - 92%

Ribos, February 8th, 2010

I know I dedicated my last Blind Purchase review to Metal Haven, Chicago’s soon-to-close metal record store, but I’d be doing this EP a great injustice without some form of such dedication. I bought this enigmatic little disc in the same trip as the one I got Trance of Mine’s album, and much for the same reason: the artwork intrigued me. Secondary to that was the fact that the drummer had the awesome name of Jan Axel von Blomberg. You might know him better as Hellhammer. At the time, I didn’t, but the name Hellhammer wouldn’t have meant anything to me either. As before, we all had to start somewhere. I still don’t really know why JAvB is involved with Winds, since it’s so far out of his usual style, but best I can tell it’s due to his ties to Carl August Tidemann in Arcturus.

This band, though, sounds nothing like Arcturus. As virtually every other review will tell you, Winds plays a slow, contemplative, and damn-near peaceful sort of progressive metal, influenced heavily by the Classical era. Note the capitalization: this isn’t “neoclassical” in the “look at how fast I can shred through scales and pretend to be cultured” approach popularized by Yngwie Malmsteen and friends. This features the sort of melodic flow and mild forms of counterpoint used by Mozart and Haydn. There is some Romantic period influence, but virtually nothing beyond Beethoven’s 3rd symphony, which acts as a borderline between the two periods. The resemblance is not accidental or a stroke of stylistic luck (as is often the case with “neoclassical” metal bands); Carl August Tidemann has videos out there in which he explains how the various scales come together and interact in the music. In short, this music is far more thought-driven than passion-driven, as you’ll often find in thrash or black metal.

This does result in a sort of emotional alienation in the music, make no mistake. But to criticize it as soulless, sterile music misses the point entirely. The lyrics on this EP, as implied by the artwork, involve a soul-searching journey for truth and meaning about existence. In a way, it’s akin to a less-depressed sort of Winterreise as written by Schubert. Something sad has happened to the narrator – probably someone close to him has died – and rather than wallow in self-pity and despair, he seeks to understand the meaning of life to make sense of it all. It only makes sense that when the narrator distances himself from his emotions, the music should follow suit. Interestingly, this is Winds’ most personal release, with the full-length albums moving into even more abstract philosophical pondering of the universe.

This release, in fact, is quite atypical of Winds’ sound. Sure, you’ve got the same group of harmonies running amok, the same instrumental elements are all there, similar tempos are used… but as a whole, it comes off as a bit darker and even a little heavier than the full-lengths that would follow. This might very well be intentional. Notice that all the album covers for the LPs feature a bright source of light amongst the shadows, but this EP does not. At best, the figure’s head offers a small mote of light in the darkness, but it illuminates nothing. This is a philosophically embryonic album, offering more questions than answers. It seeks enlightenment, but does not find it. The albums to follow begin with an enlightened foundation, and push those boundaries further. Prominence and Demise then begins to deconstruct that enlightenment, but that’s for another review.

So how does this philosophical building reflect in the album’s sound? You’ve got more unresolved harmonic dissonances here than on, say, The Imaginary Direction of Time. After the introduction, the songs move restlessly, only stopping to rest between songs. Lars Eric Si’s voice is a bit less confident as well, causing some underlying tension throughout the piece. Whether this was consciously intentional or a result of the band just not yet sure of their direction, the effect comes through.

If it weren’t for the structural similarities to progressive metal bands like Dream Theater and the like, I’d almost say this band wasn’t metal at all. It does not attempt to challenge the listener’s ears through loud distorted walls of sound or 300-mile an hour riff onslaughts. They don’t even sing of torment and pain, be it physical, emotional, or mental. What they do challenge is the listener’s philosophical viewpoint. If you block out the lyrics, it’s a rather pleasant listen with some darker harmonies, but overall not unlike some of the less bombastic Romantic era composers. Schubert’s lieder are a solid example. However, if you do focus on the lyrics, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with the questions and metaphors presented. Even at a mere 21 minutes in length, this can be a difficult EP to wrap one’s head around.

Musically, this album is very clearly thoroughly composed. Piano, guitar, and vocal melodies all intertwine in calculated ways. Some criticism has been given to Si’s vocals, but there’s really nothing wrong with them. He has a very plaintive style, not at all bombastic or soaring. It fits very well for the part of a normal person seeking answers to difficult questions, just as Ozzy’s voice suited Black Sabbath’s atmosphere of doom and gloom. Unlike Ozzy, though, Si is quite capable of carrying a melody. He has a solid tenor range, but what he lacks in shrieking falsettos he makes up for with nuanced lines that naturally fit in the music, but can be difficult to sing. As an analog, look to Rush’s Neil Peart. While there are songs that specifically show off his drumming ability, he will often play understated but complex rhythms and fills that just plain work.

Carl August Tidemann is an impeccable guitar player, likewise understated but bordering on overqualified. Like Si’s vocals, he doesn’t go on fret-burning rampages of Malmsteenesque fury, but to play his parts as fluidly as him requires a skill beyond that of most guitarists. Andy Winter (no relation to Edgar Winter) jams through melody after melody, never content to just sit back and reinforce the harmony. Once again, he doesn’t emulate key-shredders like Jordan Ruddess (you should be noticing a pattern here), but his parts will prove counterintuitive to such players due to his preference for actual melodies over simple scale runs.

These elements make Hellham-I mean Jan Axel von Blomberg’s involvement completely baffling. I can only assume he got bored of bashing the skins at blastbeat paces all the time and joined Winds just to do something different. Either that, or decided that he has to make good on his vow to drum for every band ever. At any rate, he does a competent job with the rhythms, but I can’t shake the feeling that someone jazzier would fill the role better. Double bass rolls are not appropriate for every situation, as is demonstrated. Still, when Hellhammer is the weakest part of a band, you know you’ve got some great musicians.

The songs here are not quite as memorable as some that would appear later, but are still quality material. Mirrored in Time is my personal favorite with that opening piano lick grabbing your immediate attention and guitar solos left and right. Bloodstained and Sworn is the other highlight here, but it takes a little longer to get going. The first minute and a half is a bit lame, but once that guitar solo kicks in, the rest of the band wakes up and decides to actually start the song. Again, the other songs aren’t quite as memorable, but you don’t feel like you’ve wasted your time listening to them.

In terms of blind purchases, this was certainly one of my better ones. This band is consistently great, and the EP definitely left me wanting to find more of their music. If you want Winds’ best, Prominence and Demise is probably your best bet. But if you’re like me and happen to find a copy of this release at a decent price, you’d only be doing yourself an injustice.