Album Reviews

Withem – The Unforgiving Road

Well, as no surprise to most anyone, Norway has no shortage of bands – and good ones at that – which only makes the competition more fierce to rise up even to be noticed in the metal world.  Enter relatively new band Withem, to whom I was introduced via ProgPower USA in 2013 when their humorous promo video was shown to announce their unexpected selection to play at the following year’s festival – even before their debut album had yet been released!  Talk about the promoters’ faith in the potential of a new band, I was able to see them play live in 2014 with an impressive performance of their debut music as a result.  Now, after two years’ time, Withem has taken their time in releasing their second album, The Unforgiving Road, on their newly signed contract with Frontiers Records srl.

The core personnel of the band still remain, with Ole Aleksander Wagenius on vocals, Øyvind Voldmo Larsen on guitar, and Frank Nordeng Røe on drums.  At the time of recording the debut album, they did not yet have a permanent bassist on board, so Seventh Wonder‘s Andreas Blomqvist handled the bass parts on The Point of You, but subsequently the band auditioned and selected bassist Miguel Pereira, adding him as their newest member since late 2012.  Another development, just after their performance at PPUSA in September 2014, founding member and keyboardist Ketil Ronold unexpectedly left Withem and therefore the band enlisted the help of keyboardists Espen Storø (former Circus Maximus) and Neemias Teixeira (Sigma Project) as session musicians on this new album until they find a new permanent keyboardist to join the band.

So, as the band handled several changes over the last couple of years – for better or for worse – they have forged ahead to produce their next album.  With quite a bit of positive reception to their debut album, the question remains if they are able to keep the momentum going.  Analyzing the tracklist of eleven new songs will help us determine the verdict about The Unforgiving Road to see if it’s a path we want to take with them.

…Intro is the aptly-titled first song, and is indeed the introduction to the album.  It is a short two-minute track that acts as a prologue to the album, starting off with an old organ playing melancholic chords in an almost dirge-like fashion.  Vocals enter about halfway through in an ethereal, dream-like delivery continuing the melancholic theme to its ending resolution.

Exit is the first full single on the album as well as the first music video shot by the band (see below).  Starting off with a chunky, downtuned riff that is an abrupt shift from …Intro, it jumpstarts the album with an energetic track that gets the blood pumping.  This piece isn’t as deceivingly straightforward as it may seem, and the song structure is not exactly typical.  It starts off with the first verse, but as it goes into what would be considered the chorus, the tone of the track drops considerably to only vocals, piano, drums, and a bassline of octaves to carry it forward in a more tender approach.  However, the guitar re-enters about halfway through and proceeds to transition into a djenty-like segue into a new channel and another round of the choral stanza.  After a bridge, the guitar solo leads into the middle instrumental interlude with plenty of rhythm backup when a different kind of bridge stanza appears, including the line that features the inspiration for the album title.  With a drum buildup under a bass-led melody with guitar chords, it enters into the djenty instrumental segue leading to a second verse as heard more at the beginning of the song, while the chunkiness of the riffs continue until the end of the phrase.  The closing verse shifts to primarily vocals accompanied primarily by piano through this section while closing out the song on a more classically elaborate and moving delivery, in contrast to the more energetic, aggressive, and upbeat beginning, as the last chords ring out into oblivion.  This song has a flavor of some Dream Theater tastes but definitely retains a definitive Withem trademark.

The third track, In the Hands of a God, opens with an extended instrumental introduction with a steady, moderate, yet assertive beat with double kick drums and running scales during the melodic theme on guitar that enters later in the introduction.  As verse one begins, it scales back with synth chords with significant support from the rhythm section.  A slightly edgier bridge follows with low-octave range vocals that are a highlight of Ole’s range with a strong presence of keys and the eventual instrumental segue into the chorus with a flurry of runs within all the instrumentation.  During the chorus, there is a soaring lead vocal with a more prominent feature of layered vocal accompaniments like a small choir to accentuate the choral melody.  Rather than the natural continuation into a second verse, a new channel enters with some different themes, while including the second half of the former bridge to connect it with the next appearance of the chorus.  Leading into the instrumental interlude, this groovy section features a relatively brief guitar solo, which transitions into another iteration of the bridge and chorus.  The final stanza shifts to 6/8 for a brief lilting rock beat that is a nice change of pace although it soon after returns to 4/4 after only 8 measures. This piece ends with the recurring line “This is not the way I wanted this to be” as the finale for the piece that echoes the sentiment of the song about regret and leaving the aftermath of the decisions needing some divine intervention for any kind of positive resolution.  This piece has a lot of progressive elements within, including the time signature changes and syncopated and complicated rhythms throughout that keep the listener’s interest with sonic twists and turns.

The Pain I Collected, the fourth track, is the first single released in advance of the album (see the lyric video below).  Starting off with a chunky guitar riff to start, it shifts to a paralleling melody shared by the guitar and keyboards, and then splits to the guitar carrying the riff underneath while the keyboard changes voices to a sci-fi theremin-like tone playing the melody while also maintaining a harpsichord accompaniment underneath the melodies as the drums and bass keep the foundation solid with on-beat as well as syncopated rhythms. As the first verse enters, it shifts a bit by being more laid back with chords from the keys with an easy drum rhythm and bass paralleling the vocal lines, but about halfway through, the aggression picks up and leads into a driving bridge with layered harmony vocals.  The chorus enters seamlessly from the bridge with a continued drive entrenched in a solid 4/4 tempo though there is a competing quarter-note triplet line in the bass that gives it a push-pull effect that resolves later as it goes into the instrumental interlude.  Lead by a bass segue solo line, the extended guitar solo commences thereafter with a fair amount of both melodic lines and arpeggiated lines (sometimes paralleled by the keys) until the introductory riff resumes to reintroduce the second portion of the song.  The second verse has an off-beat drive more akin to the second half of the first verse, and continues to be quite chugging with some light-fingered keyboards interspersed as a counter embellishment to the rest of the instrumentation, one of several instances on this piece to feature synth embellishment throughout with several voices that give the piece texture and a bit of whimsy throughout the on point and metronomic foundation of the other parts. The bridge to a repeated chorus with a belted vocal finale and reprise of the opening riff to bookend the song’s closing.

The fifth track, Riven, has such a beautiful opening theme that begins immediately with tender vocals with an unlikely pairing of piano and bass as accompaniment and later highlighted in a beautiful duet to include chord playing, tapping, and harmonics.  After this lovely introduction, the song shifts and the beat picks up in a light upbeat groove while a soundbyte from Charles Stanley plays over the music, where he speaks about forgiveness and the difficulty of doing so (found 11:55-12:33 in the video clip).  A guitar solo picks up after the speaking ends as a prelude to the rest of the song, and the first verse begins with a light beat from the drums and the keys, picking up a notch in the second half of the verse.  The chorus becomes more soaring – especially vocally – as it continuously builds throughout the song, though it still remains balanced and upbeat while not being overdone.  An instrumental interlude commences thereafter with a guitar solo echoing the main theme of the song and shifts again into a channel that lifts mostly from the very first immediate vocal line of the song.  This segment is deliberate and stretches the rhythms further into a more moderate octave.  With a brief guitar solo link into the second channel, it has ever so slight changes from the prior stanza in lyrics and music, and adds another line to bring it to a close as the introductory motif with the piano and bass duet reprising for a touching ending.  This piece’s structure is different than a typical rock-metal song outline, which causes it to fall more clearly into the progressive category, but it is done in a refreshing way that makes it accessible and works well for this particular composition.  This song is very reminiscent of Circus Maximus‘s style, and would be a great introduction to the album for those fans.  It is a powerful and poignant song, touching on a topic that is personal and sometimes difficult to acknowledge, and probably my favorite track on the whole album.

C’est la Vie is the longest track on the album at just short of seven minutes long.  It opens with a lengthy instrumental introduction, first more ethereally with a focus on synths and string accompaniments, but the moderate groove soon enters and a melodic guitar solo based on the song’s main theme carries the intro for about a minute into the song before the first verse enters with bright vocals and chords that are undergirded by a moving bassline that keeps the energy flowing.  The rhythm picks up as the verse continues but becomes more moody and ethereal moving into the first channel with some variation in the vocals jumping octaves and showcasing Ole’s lower range.  The second channel, however, starts to dig in more grittily both vocally and instrumentally, but resolves after the forthcoming instrumental segue into a more smoothly, harmonically layered pre-chorus that sets up the instrumental into the catchy chorus.  The instrumental segue, however, returns to a downtuned riff that differs from the main motifs of the song and sounds almost half-time with the suspended drum rhythms in comparison to the previously more complex rhythms, but gives the song further texture. The primary chorus then enters after the pre-chorus, with its appealing melody that is more uplifting in timbre and tone.  The downtuned instrumental segment reprises again as a segue to the second verse, which this time features amore prominent keyboard line throughout.  However, in another twist of the path, a very classical piano feature leads the way into a brief guitar solo in the last musical interlude.  This piece ends with a triumphant choral finale, with a bent into the minor key for a significant but slightly darker ending.

The seventh track, The Eye in the Sky, starts off right off the bat with the vocal beginning with the band – no introduction needed – with the central recurring lyric to the song: “We ride down the memory lane/will our dreams come alive?”  The instrumental introduction occurs after this initial proclamation in an upbeat melody that has some throwback elements to it.  Verse one starts off lighthearted and a bit musically whimsical, but starts to flesh out to a thicker and steadier foundation with a lot of soaring vocals known often in Ole’s delivery.  This song is only four minutes long, and briskly goes through its more straightforward segments, moving swiftly into the reprise of the opening line and into the hooky chorus.  Before you know it, the second verse and introductory line into the chorus have already cleverly flown by, until it meets a new channel of stanza that shifts from the other main segments of the song in a lower octave and new melody, after which the main chordal elements of the song returns for the 16-bar guitar solo, ushering the final moments of the song with a modified chorus and a vocal ending that stops the piece just as abruptly as the vocals did starting the song.

Arrhythmia is a song that is short, sweet, and to the point.  It is a harder-driven song that relies strongly on the beat that is very evident beginning with the thumping bass, off-beat push from the drums, and fantastic keyboard lines that demands the listener’s attention right away.  As the first verse comes in, it is carried primarily by the keys, but the full instrumentation comes in about halfway through the verse and into the brief chorus.  As the second verse continues, it is more chugging in nature than the first verse as a whole and captures the groove-driven moderate yet pushing tempo of this particular track.  Segueing easily into the catchy bridge/pre-chorus melodies it edges into a headbanging heavy riffing instrumental interlude directly afterward that is highlighted at the end by a technical yet melodic bass solo incorporating descending and ascending scale lines.  After this is an interesting juxtaposition of brief alternations of the chorus and relatively short guitar solos in a chorus-solo-pre-chorus-solo-double chorus pattern that defies the usual extended instrumental sections with elaborate and lengthy solos.  The last chorus follows the same chord patterns, but things are kicked up a notch with traveling basslines and double time kick drum adding extra flourish and push to the end of the song while the keys and guitars hold down the solid chord changes as the vocals soar to the triumphant end.  This song is relatively short and straightforward, but there are still some proggy elements throughout, including subtle key changes throughout this track that are barely noticeable, but always coming back to the parent key. (Listen to the official audio below)

In My Will starts off straight away with a driving riff incorporating a more unusually heard bass-led embellished melody at the forefront of the introduction. The beat becomes more laid back yet groove-driven though the tempo remains moderate in the first verse with easygoing vocals.  The pre-chorus follows with the titular inspiration of the song as well as manages the mood that the song communicates, stating that “I can promise you one thing, in my will I will leave you everything.”  The chorus follows thereafter with the main motif of the song that is generally in the mid-range vocally but has a few peaks and valleys occurring over the solid foundational groove.  It moves swiftly into the second verse, pre-chorus, and chorus cycle followed by a guitar solo that is melodic yet incorporates runs based on the song’s main theme.  The chorus is again featured after the instrumental segment, and then the piece is neatly wrapped up with a pre-chorus reprise with slightly different lyrics delivered in a low register to designate the shift of tone stating that rather than leaving everything in the will, now “…I will leave you nothing.”  Overall, this short three-and-a-half minute song has a smooth feel with a bit of a classic influence, but other than a few embellishments, it stays mostly in the pocket with more emphasis on the vocal melodies.

The last full-length track on the album, Unaffected Love, shifts gears from the moderate tempo and feel of the previous track, and rather than being short and straightforward, the progressive elements show much more prominently.   There are many parts to this song that don’t particularly follow in line with a typical song structure, making the analysis more challenging but interesting.  The listener is in for a sonic tour taking the scenic route as the song begins with a synth-heavy introduction that starts off with a growly organ and syncopated guitars and rhythm as it shifts from 4/4 into 3/4 with a shredding keyboard solo.  It returns to the 4/4 time signature in a more suspended approach in the first stanza, which evokes the visions of space where it slows down a bit with ethereal keys underneath this portion as the lines are sung about dreaming about the stars.  Afterwards, an instrumental segue begins that features a prominent bass solo including tapping octaves and mordent runs, morphing into the second stanza that picks up the pace audibly with more groove to the foundation while the third stanza is more syncopated in its rhythms.  Stanza four shifts the style yet again to a very marcato on-beat push, differing from the off-beat syncopations heard in the previous stanza.  The fifth stanza shifts again to having a very thumping groove to it, and another similar instrumental segue as before appears again with a similar bass solo being featured to carry it through to the reprise of the second and third stanzas.  The song then morphs into a new transitional segment that is drum-focused with a shift into a prominently tom-focused groove with hi-hat off-beats that is very rhythmically easy to get into and then leads into a guitar solo that is a little more of a bluesy take on the main theme which then returns to a reprise the fifth stanza and shortened second stanza.  The mode changes yet again as a modified first stanza makes its appearance as the song begins to come full circle.  The song ends with a brand new sixth stanza that finishes the song and the stanza with the titular line, “I feel true unaffected love.”

Outro… is the again aptly-titled closing song to the album, and is a parallel piece to …Intro.  Though the key voice is different, it still holds the melancholic sense throughout the song.  At just over a minute long, it is instrumental only and carries a melodic line in the treble clef rather than incorporating vocals, and ends on a major chord resolution as a more uplifting finale to the album.

The Unforgiving Road is a loose concept album following a girl who runs away from her dysfuntional home and follows her experiences out in the real world until she finds her way back home.  Even though this thread can be followed throughout the album, it also reflects experiences anyone can identify with as they either want to explore whether the grass is indeed greener on the other side or if looking at the flip side can put things in perspective, however difficult it may be in current circumstances.  It deals with existential, relational, and life themes that are universal, which also makes it an accessible album thematically as well as musically.

This album, though considered progressive metal, has its moments of straightforward riffing with fairly moderate tempos and lack of extended song lengths, which makes it very accessible to fans across metal subgenres.  To be sure, there are progressive elements and some instrumental acrobatics, but oftentimes they are subtly included rather than showcased so they can be identified by the listener with a fine ear, but would not alienate others who don’t like to get bogged down in overly proggy quagmire.  Their influences such as Dream Theater, Symphony X, and fellow Norwegian bands Circus Maximus and Pagan’s Mind can be heard throughout their sound, but their style is definitely their own.  In addition, the more logistical aspects of this album are sound.  The mix, recorded and produced by Withem‘s guitarist Larsen himself in his own Lionheart Studio, is very good on the album, where all the parts can be heard clearly and nothing seems to be buried underneath an unbalanced mix.  The artwork by Mattias Norén is also very striking and fits the album well.

Each member of the band is at the top of their craft, and weaved together create a cohesive tapestry on this album.  They all have their chance to shine at various times during the songs, but more often each member is found working as a team to produce the well-oiled machine that is Withem.  Their time spending writing this album collaboratively and continued performances together over the last few years shows in a continued maturing of their sound as they settle into their musical identity and group chemistry.  Røe provides a very solid foundation for every song in ways that are not over the top, yet he holds down the rhythmic fort very convincingly and sometimes even unassumingly.  His rhythmic partner in bassist Pereira works well dually together with the strong on-beat drives that a song requires, but they are equally as precise with the syncopated rhythms that are difficult to match in tandem but they do so quite effectively.  It was also nice to hear Pereira’s original contributions to the music on this album, especially during times when his appearances were outside of the box in terms of typical bass influence and style that added some flourish and finesse in just the right places.  Larsen‘s guitar work is also solid in terms of managing both the rhythm parts that range from being easygoing to downtuned djent-like trenches that give some teeth to some of the songs.  In addition, he easily and fluidly handles the solos that sometimes form simple melodies from the main themes or can be more progressive and embellished, though his style is not having extended soloing for the sake of showing off despite that could be very easy for or even expected of him to do.  Wagenius‘ vocals continue to be on point, and he showed powerful as well as tender deliveries throughout the album as well as within one song to match what was needed either musically or thematically in each piece.  It seemed that his range was more utilized on this album where he sang more mid-range portions and showcased his deep low register more often as well, which I particularly appreciated.  I would also be remiss if I did not also credit the keyboard contributions from Storø and Teixeira, whose talents gave a lot of texture, context, and interest to each piece with their own interpretations of what each song needed.

As with many bands going into their second album, the “sophomore slump” is typically a concern by groups and fans alike who may fear that it won’t live up to the debut album that they had all the time in the world to prepare as well as continuing to live up to – and potentially exceed – expectations.  The Point of You was a solid debut album that gave a great foundation upon which to build.  As a result, The Unforgiving Road used it to springboard into their next iteration as a band, and it shows their musical cohesion as a group after more years of writing and performing together.  This process of working together and maintaining high standards for themselves along the way has proven this album to be a worthy follow up to the debut.  This is an album that improves upon marinating with multiple listens, hearing new discoveries each time and developing a deep appreciation for the nuances within each song as well as the open accessibility of the songs upon first listen.  For those who were already Withem fans, this album is a definite to pick up without fear of disappointment, and for those new to Withem, this is a great introductory album for this band’s ever-growing exposure into the prog metal scene.

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