It has been three and a half years since Denmark‘s premier progressive metal band, Anubis Gate, released their last album, Horizons, to much acclaim. Not long after its release, work on their next album began, but it became a new labor of love that took a good amount of time to marinate and be brought forth and served to the world at large. Entitled Covered in Black, Anubis Gate’s long-awaited seventh album has now made its presence known with returning members Henrik Fevre (vocals, bass, saxophone), Kim Olesen (guitars, keyboards), Michael Bodin (guitars), and Morten Gade Sørensen (drums). As indicated by the title and brooding cover art, this album shows another side to this multi-faceted group, taking the listener through a darker journey that is vulnerable and cathartic. The band does not rest on its laurels, but continues to morph as they need to express where they are at the time the album is being made. Make no mistake, the well-established Anubis Gate sound still remains, but Covered in Black establishes its own sound that sets it apart from its predecessors, just as each of their albums has done over time. So what has Anubis Gate brought for us this time?
There are ten tracks on this album, but embedded are two trilogies of tracks – one trilogy is laid out in consecutive tracks and the other one is split among separate songs in the tracklisting. For the sake of simplicity, I will group the trilogies together for easier continuity among the rest of the standard tracklist order.
Psychotopia is the opening track and starts out dissonantly and ominously for an ear-catching beginning to this darker album. Kicking off with downtuned guitars, it sets the tone for this tune, and the kind of plaintive vocals in the verses also seem to communicate the sense of hopelessness in the song’s theme. After the main chorus – which has some reminisces of A Dream Within A Dream from Horizons – is a beautiful instrumental interlude with solos from cello and double bass, leading into an emotional and dissonant piano solo with acoustic guitar accompaniment that further illustrate the song’s melancholy, followed again by a short cello/bass duet played beautifully by Anne Vilain (cello) and Hanne Havndrup Jensen (bass). The instrumental continues after that with a full band entry with electric guitar solo merging into a section that is the polar opposite of the simple strings from before with all stops let out and all hands on deck with blasting guitars, drums, piano, and bass with a controlled busyness that almost communicates a mania to counter the strings’ earlier depressive representation. With a brief pause, the chorus resumes full steam ahead, continuing with the kind of organized chaos that the song uses to parallel the emotionality of the theme. Working in the mental health field myself, I find this song intriguing, as it captures the idea of a “utopic” psychiatric society that may seem good to those who made it, but not necessarily for those to live inside of it.
The second, third, and ninth tracks comprise the first trilogy, entitled The New Delhi Assassination, The Combat, and Operation Cairo. The theme across these songs are loosely based on the fine line of reality vs. fantasy and the parallels between real life and the gaming worlds that people get lost within. These songs delve into Middle Eastern influences – as might be expected from the songs’ titles – that have not appeared so prominently for a few albums and is very nice to hear again. The New Delhi Assassination begins right away with percussion and sitar, setting the Indian scene right away. Soon after enters soprano sax, which has an uncanny resemblance to a duduk to set the stage further. Later in this lengthy, mesmerizing introduction, it builds up with the sax taking the melody in the upper octave while the full band enters, amping up the song into its most full-blown segment. It drops down again as the verses begin primarily with percussion and some brass and sax accents, but the focus is on the vocals, which use an Eastern pentatonic scale base that further the flavor of the song. The final stanza picks up the pace again in the last few seconds to segue directly into The Combat (see the music video below). The music is more straightforward and the Middle Eastern style has disappeared and is more driving with an uptick in the tempo. The chorus really stands out on this track, with its syncopation and ability to glue together what musically would typically make no sense otherwise. It has many, many layers of vocals with dissonant harmonies against a key that is hard to pin down throughout the song, but in the Anubis Gate way, they make what should not work sound great and even “normal.” The riff during the instrumental segue after the second chorus is catchy, followed by a beautifully placed channel that differs from the rest of the song. A modified chorus returns as the song plays out with an eventually faint ending with piano and Spanish guitar that can ever-slightly be heard. Operation Cairo, the last song in this “trilogy,” starts more ominously with a single keyboard patch acting as a drone underneath the entry of the guitar that is masterfully played to sound like the Muslim call to prayer over the loudspeakers, as one might hear throughout Cairo, setting the scene in the Egyptian stage this time. This introduction continues for a good minute and a half until the full band enters thereafter, continuing with another modal scale to enhance the Middle Eastern sound throughout the verses. The chorus diverges a little, however, still fitting the song but providing a new sound for the listener at the same time. After the third chorus, the song drops out to just a sparkling synth effect with some light percussion in the background, when a new verse with muted vocals begins – this time back to the same musical motif from the verses of The New Delhi Assassination, bringing the trilogy full circle as the Operation Cairo story comes to an end with ever increasing tempo and re-entry of the Cairo motif and chorus in a masterful weaving of song themes together. This collection of songs I would say are my favorites among the whole album.
Too Much Time is the fourth track on the album and could easily be considered the 70’s prog inspired tune of the album (reminiscent of the style of their cover of Pink Floyd’s Sheep from their 2013 EP). It is very synth-oriented, and like the lyric from the song, this track takes the listener on a “roll on a coaster ride” musically. Being seven and a half minutes long, there is plenty of room for varied styles to show themselves, starting off with a prolonged progressive synth introduction before the full band enters nearly a minute and a half into the song. Soon after, the first verse enters, but falls back to being nearly a capella with chord pads underneath that slightly build throughout the verse, soon giving way to an acoustic guitar passage. The second verse continues with a more traditional band accompaniment which builds going into the B verse. Things stay driving at that point but shift and stay more sustained with a kind of 80’s flavor during the bridge portion, followed by an extended electric guitar solo into another chorus rendition that drops again to vocals only over percussive and synth beats with the full band entering again about halfway through. The 80’s bridge returns again with an extended lyric, which converts to a keyboard solo feature. Soon after this, it drops to another 70’s prog nod with single guitar and synth section, with some acoustic guitar appearing for continued accompaniment into another truncated chorus that is played with more syncopation in this rendition. Thereafter, it fades into some rhythmic beats supporting the final ethereally echoing vocals that simply end the song a capella style after even those beats trail off, providing a starkly simple ending.
The fifth song is A Journey to Nowhere, which wastes no time starting immediately with vocals, skipping any intro altogether. Simply accompanied by keys only throughout the first half of the song, all the way through the first full chorus. The band comes in at that point, and gives a very 80’s pop sensibility to the metal sound and ventures into a shift into the main guitar solo that is melodic but not showy. The chorus returns with the addition of the well-known multi-layered vocals with the countermelody line of “world went wrong within you” adeptly weaving throughout underneath the main chorus lyrics and melodies. There is another short guitar segue into the last two lines of the song, plaintively sung with a vocals driven ending over a light guitar line and pulsing beat, effectively communicating the futileness that the song talks about trying to process pain from the past only to have it be a nonproductive dead end with a need to return to the present and live life in the moment.
The second trilogy of songs is found in tracks six, seven, and eight which are aptly titled Black, Blacker, and Blackest which, as you might imagine, is a growingly dark set of songs that is sadly based on a real story, but has happened to people in all times and places, not just this instance. This trilogy follows the trajectory of one such person enduring abuse as rage builds up over the years that eventually desires ultimate revenge on those who perpetrated the trauma. In the first song of this trilogy, Black starts with a drum-heavy intro with low guitar triple eighth riffage that soon joins in tandem, adding notes to the already established percussion rhythm. This staccato style carries on through the first verse, although the vocal melodies soar smoothly overhead. But as the chorus arrives, a rather pleasant and more sustained melody and rhythm take over in the relatively simple yet illustrative stanza. The more jarring syncopation returns for the next verse, just as the first, and the chorus again returns the same, but with slightly altered lyrics. As the song continues, a lengthy instrumental section begins chock full of guitars – though there is not a particularly shredding solo present, this segment focuses more on the overall atmosphere of the song with rhythms – and a key change to boot. As this section comes to a close, the instrumentation drops out, save for a bit of synth for anchoring, and the vocals echo ethereally as the next verse continues with the drums taking the main lead halfway through with some ambience from the guitars and keys. The last chorus ensues, this time with interspersed multi-layered subchoral lines that complement the established main melody that is an Anubis Gate trademark. The sliding riff returns and fades into the next song that starts with a melancholy yet lively instrumental introduction for Blacker, which is a primarily instrumental song as a whole. About fifty seconds into this track, the flow of the song shifts into a less atmospheric proggy kind of sound to a more intentional metal riffing. About a minute and a half into this second song of the trilogy, the muffled vocals enter with the same verse motif as Black, but with brief lyrics (only 2 stanzas) that continue the story with dissonant a capella harmonies that further musically paint the story being told. In the very last line of these lyrics, the vocal muffling goes away with a strong emotional push forward, as the band enters juxtaposed with the vocal change with a more doomy and dirgy return that taps into the more morose subconscious levels of the song including a heartfelt, somewhat mournful solo. Toward the end of this track, the sliding riff and tempo returns, slightly modified, and concludes with synth rhythms that ends in a single triplet beat that becomes the foundation for the next song’s intro. Some arpeggiated guitar lines enter with the new verse that begins Blackest. The stifled, plaintive vocals of the first verse help communicate that utter hopelessness of the moment. In the body of the song, however, the band roars in with heavy syncopated riffs and offbeat cymbals to go along with the artistically written lyrics, using color to help communicate the emotions that are going on. During the guitar solo in between these stanzas, there is a flicker of optimism that shows itself, but it is short-lived as the former heaviness with the chorus returns. The last stanza returns much like the beginning of Blackest, with muffled vocals over a simple beat that comes abruptly to an end.
The final track on the album is called From Afar, and is aptly placed on the album as a hopeful ending. Even though a lyric (among other themes across the album) lends itself to the album title – Covered all in black – the song is one of hope, where lights break the darkness and are symbolic of salvation from a life that was at the lowest lows and bring dreams to life. Starting with a syncopated electric guitar riff, the first verse shifts gears to acoustic guitar and percussion only with vocals in a lower octave in the first half and upping the octave in the second half of the verse. The chorus soon follows, and is quite catchy and richly layered vocally despite its heavy syncopation (as in the introduction). The style shifts again in the second verse, in the same instrumentation and form as the first with the return of the chorus directly following. There is a lengthy instrumental section that starts off with a guitar-led segment, though not really a solo, but it sets the stage for the keyboards to shine and begin an otherworldy return of a 70’s prog extended solo with a few guitar interjections lasting for over three minutes of this seven and a half minute song. At this point, a new bridge enters with a modified double chorus that plays out the track with the fade out of people talking in a city background faintly to bring the album to an end.
After three and a half years of percolating, Anubis Gate is clearly back in black with an album that continues to communicate who they are at the time they are making it. The album is deep and hits on points yet again that many people can relate to in one way or another, and their musical influences brought together are evident throughout the whole album. Covered in Black is not a carbon copy of their previous albums, but it still resonates the heart of Anubis Gate along with some of their trademarks of lush, multi-layered harmonized vocals, syncopated rhythmic patterns, multiple key and time changes, and thoughtful themes. All of the members shine in their respective ways, and this album was truly a collaborative effort between them with all members contributing musical ideas (much of the music was composed by Kim Olesen and Michael Bodin and the vast majority of the lyrics and vocal melodies were written by Henrik Fevre, all the while Morten Gade Sørensen laid down some very handsome drum parts). This album is a catharsis of sorts, and has been described as a dark album – which it is in many respects, but not without its highlights and bright points. I think it will speak to people on many levels and may perhaps hit too close to home for some. However, that is what music does, giving voice to that which can be hard to communicate otherwise. I personally love the variety of musical styles represented on this album as well as the vulnerability that was put forth in each song. The album clocks in just short of an hour long, and for me, it goes by very fast and thus it seems shorter, almost leaving me wanting for more. If fans are expecting this album to be like its predecessors, then I cannot honestly say that it will be. However, it shows the band’s progression, continued maturation, and openness to create what needs to be made at that particular moment in time. There are clear reminisces of their past throughout the album that longtime fans will pick up on, so Anubis Gate has not gone rogue with something that would not be recognizable as theirs. Their journey continues and we are invited to join with them with what may be their best work yet.