The term “supergroup” is something that gets thrown around often these days, especially with side projects between members of other well-known bands cropping up right and left, but every now and then, one really lives up to its name. A new collaboration of progressive metal musicians, who are well-known in their own right, have come together and released their debut album under the moniker Waken Eyes. Founded by guitarist and keyboardist Tom Frelek in 2013 after his former band had gone on hiatus, he decided he wanted to create a new group that had a strong progressive sense that was melodic and contained classical and cinematic qualities as well. The result of his efforts created a truly international band, as Canadian Frelek recruited American bassist Mike LePond (Symphony X, many others), Swede Henrik Båth (Darkwater, former Harmony), and German Marco Minnemann (The Aristocrats, Joe Satriani, Steven Wilson, others) to help realize his vision. Their many collective years of experience bring forth a very mature debut album in their first offering, entitled Exodus. And at over 80 minutes of music, it has a lot to offer.
The opening track, Cognition, begins by hearing the sounds of birds chirping and kids voices as they play outside, but then ominous keyboards enter with some tom rolls, then adding bass, and topped with keyboard melody for its dark introduction. The piano enters with its main theme on rolled and then arpeggiated chords, playing solo for a while as the other instrumentation drops out momentarily, and when they reintegrate slowly, a new theme continues with the inclusion of guitar carrying the melody with some nice triplet action. The song begins to pick up heaviness at this point and then at the 2:45 mark, the cinematic elements kick in with the orchestral string section picking up the pace and are then joined by a bombastic low brass addition. The music then becomes more measured with a martial beat that masterfully segues into a key change and shredding melodic guitar solo, which then drops to only the bass groove with some ethereal keyboard and light percussion. This entirely instrumental piece, though the shortest song on the album, is actually a quite lengthy four-and-a-half minute introduction for the next piece, Aberration, which is a hefty eight-and-a-half minute piece in length, though it moves along quite nicely. It carries on the themes from Cognition, making it hard to really separate the two songs from each other and could easily have made one long track. Crashing into the beginning with some double kick drum, guitar-driven melodic interpretations, the vibe shifts once again to the piano joined by a beautifully executed bass solo that extrapolates on the main chord structure. After nearly another minute and a half of additional musical introduction from the first track, Båth’s vocals finally make their appearance with the first verse in a comfortable low range, followed by a guitar-led interlude into and after the second verse. The chorus kicks in with much more drive and vocal force that stay present for a good couple of minutes, and the song continues to meander through several melodic structures with various changes in rhythmic styles as well as with melodies and counter melodies both vocally and instrumentally. Another guitar-led interlude follows with a soulful solo, and it winds down to a brief echoed and lightly played re-imagining of the main motif and builds again through the scale into the modified chorus again, and ending the piece with a beautifully harmonized but a capella ending of the lyrics “someday, I’ll be found.” These two songs are quite progressive in their structure and are a uncompromising introduction of what the listener is in for on this album.
Deafening Thoughts starts off with a slower, band-driven opening, drawing out the chord structures by rhythmically and melodically playing the progressions singularly. After about 45 seconds, the introduction shifts to orchestral strings that pick up the pace with some syncopated 16th note rhythms alone until joined with the first verse vocals and the rest of the band re-entering and paralleling the orchestral motif about a minute in. After the first verse is introduced, a guitar-led soloing over the strings and some adlibbed vocals drop to guitar alone into the first chorus. The vocals on the chorus on this song particularly brought to mind the similar timbre and vocal stylings of Zorgatti from Myrath, with soaring melodies and the music maintaining the drive and energy throughout the chorus as the guitar segues into the second verse. After another brief instrumental interlude, the song shifts into a channel with new melodies and increasingly shredding guitars that segues into a lengthier instrumental segment that becomes very driving and chugging in nature that again differs from the previous portions of the song, taking the listener through quite a musical theme park ride. It begins to bring the listener back to familiarity as the another chorus re-enters but the amusement park ride isn’t over yet as the next solo interlude changes again with a difference in style that is more circus-like and waltzy in nature, with more staccato emphasis on the beats in the rhythm as well as the melodic structure changes keeps the listener guessing. The climbing chromatic guitar soloing during the segment works its way into a repeated chorus as the song fades away after the introductory motif is reprised in the outro of the song.
The first single from the album, Back to Life (watch the lyric video below), begins with an articulated guitar line with light percussion, and a clip from Martin Luther King, Jr. helps to introduce the song, saying “You have heard that it has been said, cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil in the universe…you can do that by love.” Immediately afterward, the first verse enters with an easy beat and melody and builds into the first chorus with heavier instrumentation and the jump in octave on the vocal melodies. After a piano segue, the second verse begins with a more energetic style in the vein of the chorus. The second chorus resumes, and then it transitions into a bridge that has a different vocal melody and style that reminds me of the melodies and harmonizations similar to the Beatles or the Galactic Cowboys that is different from the rest of the song, but is really quite nice to hear. This style is carried over into the guitar-led solo break before reprising two more choruses. The outro is a similar bookend to the introduction the same melody played – though on piano rather than guitar – and closes out with continued soundbyte from Martin Luther King, Jr. from his poignant sermon on “Loving Your Enemies,” given on November 17, 1957 in Montgomery, AL where he says “…that the more we hate, the more we develop guilt feelings and we begin to subconsciously repress or consciously suppress certain emotions, and they all stack up in our subconscious selves and make for tragic, neurotic responses. And may this not be the neuroses of many individuals as they confront life that that is an element of hate there…so love everybody. Hate at any point is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center…yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization….because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.”
Palisades starts off with a lengthy instrumental featuring all the instruments at various points. It starts off with guitar alone with a continuous arpeggiated melody, soon joined by keyboards, then drums and lively walking bass line in the third strain of the introduction in a brisk 4/4 time that has some off-beat syncopations as well as holding a solid rhythm on the beat. It drops to some brief guitar chords, and then with a burst of energy with a heavier instrumental introduction with a guitar solo, punctuated by the rhythm and heavy on-beat snare. The tempo picks up thereafter with some quick kick drums underneath the bass and rhythm guitars keeping thing even-keeled under the guitar solo work. Other than some monosyllabic vocalization, the first verse vocals don’t enter until a nearly good 3 minutes into the song. The first verse remains driving but tempered, and here Båth’s vocals are more in the range and timbre most people are familiar with from his previous work. The shorter chorus sneaks in after the verse, with a more syncopated and edge on the beat than the verses. It is then followed by an instrumental interlude into the next verse and chorus, back in the more driven, on-beat tempo. A new bridge comes in after the second chorus, continuing to build with higher vocals, and about halfway through the second instrumental break, the feel changes from the driving 4/4 beat into the syncopated rhythms in a double-time feel like the beginning of the piece with a brief reprise of the chorus and outro vocals. The instruments fade into leaving keyboards only, playing out the melancholy melody on a string pad alone. (Listen in the video below)
The sixth song on the album, Cornerstone Away contains a nice duet with vocalist Kristine Bishop, who shares the vocal duties with Båth. Starting off with a flange effect on the opening guitar strum, the first verse begins with Båth singing over continued acoustic articulations, with an extended electric guitar solo leading into the second verse, sung by Bishop. The main chorus afterward are sung by both through the melodies and harmonies as the song continues to build in intensity into the following bridge, ended by a great vocal release from Båth. The song’s instrumental break with a lively guitar solo ensues soon after, and the similar vocal themes re-enter following the solo, alternated by Båth and Bishop and then together in a pleasant duet. The song shifts in style, however, at about the five minute mark when the guitar changes from the electric soloing to some dissonant chord distortion soon joined by LePond‘s bass with a Morse-code-like sound and precision with the unusual and syncopated rhythms, further complicated when Minnemann‘s drums join in. This grows in instrumentation and the strange rhythms work together until the abrupt end to the orderly yet angsty instrumental outro. This song, though edging on the repetitive side, seeks to find the truth and the absolutes in the uncertainty of life in its lyrical content, and is nicely performed as a duet in this particular arrangement with Båth and Bishop.
Still Life is the only instrumental on the album. It begins with a lone clean guitar opening with a melancholy melody after which a distorted guitar follows with a counter solo to it, both of which fade into strumming acoustic chords over which a new electric guitar solo plays. it circles around again with the same kind of instrumentation, but the drums enter without fanfare as the song continues with the soulful guitar solo(s). It ends again with the lone guitar motif that is began with. The song overall is not very long in comparison to the others, at only 4:42, and is a song that is melancholy and bluesy in its tone and melody. The instrumentation is relatively simple yet effective, and focuses mostly on the melodic instrumental lines.
Arise is a moderately lengthy eighth track on this album, but the time goes by fairly quickly with its winding path of nontraditional components. It begins with a guitar melody accompanied by piano, but about 40 seconds into the intro, an onslaught of sound enters with the other instrumentation, and the piano becomes much more aggressively played. This song is hard to summarize in standard terms because it doesn’t really follow the typical song structure and there are recurring elements that maintain continuity but there are subtle changes that keep them from being completely repetitive, such as adding lines or changing the lyrics as the motifs resurface, winding through verses, bridges, choruses, and channels like a roller coaster with varied intensities and moods to match. The vocals are typically in the upper range during most of the song, and the bridges contain some wonderful harmonies. The channels that appear later in the song are slower compared to the strong drive of much of the rest of the song. One portion that I would actually like to highlight is the lengthy instrumental interlude starting about halfway through the song that takes a breather with strummed guitar and prominent bass solo, later switching to a featured guitar solo with strong bassline underneath, and later featuring keys with a return to a guitar solo, all held together with relaxed percussion for about 2 full minutes. The channel portion returns and is repeated twice sung over a muffled and altered spoken monologue original to the song, that contains the real message and moral to the song – overcoming the powers of darkness with the spirit of light, arising and overcoming difficulties and not letting them keep you down.
Across the Horizon starts off at a moderate tempo instrumentally for the first 30 seconds, but then kicks into a higher gear after the initial introduction. The vocals for the first verse don’t even enter until almost 2 minutes into this 8 minute track. After the first and second verses, in common time, it drops into strummed chords on the guitar with bass accents, and then starts back energetically into the next section that changes into 5/4 time. It changes back to 4/4 in the next channel with the titular lines and segues into an instrumental interlude led by a guitar solo. As it segues into the next verses, the instrumentation shifts again from being moderately driving and heavy to minimal accompaniment with guitar strums and some very nice paralleling on the bass of the vocal lines. The drums resume subsequently as a slow build develops into another blistering instrumental break into the last verse, again in 5/4, with an uplifting ending as another guitar solo returning to the common meter plays the song out with the main theme to a sustained fade.
Exodus is the album’s namesake pinnacle and magnum opus, and closes the album out at nearly 20 minutes long. It begins with a strings keyboard pad as a melancholy theme is played on piano with arpeggiated chords, giving it an ambient introduction. The guitar comes in after about a minute and half with more arpeggiations, and about 2 minutes into the piece, the bass delivers a classically melodic solo, which brings that portion to an end. Accentuated with a loud, deep drumbeat, a musically new portion begins with the guitar fading in with a new riff that is fast and precise as well as tightly kept within the scale and paralleled in rhythm on the bass and drums, shifting in to a Beethoven-inspired section as the guitar solo continues to introduce the song with the rhythm section quickly in tow. It eventually slows down to a sustained fade that allows for the first verse to enter are a four-and-a-half minute instrumental introduction to this track. Three more verses continue, each building upon each other as it enters into a new instrumental break with a more upbeat melody and style that mimics earlier metal styles. It returns to the next verse with the more melancholic melody, more subdued at first and then building again as the section continues, after which is a monologue spoken by a modified voice of a quote by Bertrand Russell, starting off with “Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth…” An energetic bridge then follows with newer and revisited themes continuing through the track and this there is a main shift again a little after nine minutes when we are left with just an echoing piano playing chord changes from the main intro theme, joined softly by an acoustic guitar. This quiet background sets the stage for this main middle interlude with a medley of quotes from well-known people in history, including Hitler, King, FDR, JFK, RFK, and LBJ while there are other soundbytes such as helicopters and artillery also playing underneath the speeches along with the music. After this substantial section concludes, the instrumental portion continues in typical progressive fashion with shifts in style, rhythms, and time signatures until the vocals enter again around the 13 minute mark. The vocal lines are smooth and sustained over a fast-paced rhythm that shifts again into a short instrumental segue into the next verse that has yet another change with a 6/8 feel instead. Then a more hushed tone begins the following verse with ambient strings/synth for weighted effect with a big ending with great emphasis and build “take back this life” and back into the main motif during the last verse and a decelerando finishing out the song back to the ambient and ethereal piano chord arpeggiation that opened the song, coming back full circle.
Exodus is a hefty and ambitious debut album for a new collaborative effort by an international group. The combined experience and musicianship of those involved automatically bring it to a level far beyond most debut albums, and will be hard to exceed with subsequent albums if they choose to do so. Musically, this album merges the strengths of all the members involved. Henrik Båth‘s vocals really shine on this album. Those who are familiar with his higher range typically heard on the earlier Harmony and Darkwater albums will be in for somewhat of a surprise, but really a treat because there is such versatility in his voice on this album. Mike LePond’s basswork is exceptional, as always, complete with executing complicated lines, paralleling many other instruments (and even voices), and crafting beautiful melodic solos that shine at the appropriate times often when the bass is relegated to the background. Marco Minnemann’s drums are no less impressive, as would be expected of his renown in that area, and he handles the constant time signature and tempo changes with ease as well as the variety in dynamics and complexity as each song needs. Tom Frelek’s vision for this project, of course, must be highlighted with his foundational contributions to all of the songwriting (music and lyrics) as well as handling all of the complicated and varied guitar and keyboard parts as well.
As an overview, the songs on this album are all relatively long, averaging nearly 7 minutes a track (not counting the last 19:49 minute song), but one thing that speaks to the mature and pleasant songwriting is that the songs do not seem as long as they actually are. The fact that they feel shorter than their actual play times, to me, signifies that they are not belabored or too drawn out unnecessarily. Their compositional structure, as well, does not follow the standard song road maps, which I believe adds to their interest. If you don’t enjoy lengthier songs with varied song structures, then this album may not be for you. However, for progressive rock/metal fans who are fans of Rush, Dream Theater, and the like, it will easily find its home amongst their family.
Topically, this albums tackles archetypal themes such as love, internal struggles, war, good vs. evil, and faith are the topics for the songs on the album, and the overarching theme of the album is dealing with fearlessness in some way, managing struggles in everyday life and eventually overcoming them. It also focuses on finding hope despite times being difficult or dark. Exodus has a lot to offer, and I would consider it a must-buy for 2015’s new musical offerings – it is that much worth the risk banking on this new project to add to your collection.
Lyric video for “Back to Life”
Video to “Palisades”
Follow Waken Eyes on Facebook.