- Album Reviews

Huis – Despite Guardian Angels

We all know I like rock music in its many variations, be it progressive metal, heavy metal, symphonic rock, hard rock, power metal, I could go on forever but, when it comes down to the nitty gritty, my personal favourite is, and probably will be until I shuffle off this mortal coil, progressive rock. But, even the term ‘progressive rock’ can have many definitions and vagaries, take this week for instance, it has been a never ending stream of quality prog for me, first Lifesigns, then 41POINT9 and now, Canadian proggers Huis. All three, however, are very different in the way they interpret progressive rock, Lifesigns having more of a neo-prog edge, 41POINT9 giving a more melodic feel to their progressive rock and, now Huis come at it from yet another angle with a dreamy, ethereal style that mimics progressive bands from the continent like Demians, Flamborough Head and The Windmill whilst also having a touch of their fellow Canadians, Mystery which, seeing as ‘The World is a Game’ was one of my favourite albums of recent times, is no bad thing. Oh, and the fact that the cover of the album is rather impressive doesn’t do any harm either. 2014 has seen them release their debut album Despite Guardian Angels.

Huis (“home doors” in French, and “house” in Dutch) is a five member musical project officially formed by Pascal Lapierre (keyboards) and Michel Joncas (bass, keyboards) at the end of 2009, after an outstanding and inspiring trip in the Netherlands. At that time, they decided to put on tape (read hard drive!) some ideas we had in mind since a long time. Over time, three other talented musicians, William Regnier (drums, percussion), Sylvain Descôteaux (vocals) and Michel St-Père (guitars), joined the band, each one bringing a special touch to Huis’ sound.

Despite Guardian Angels is 72 minutes of superlative progressive music, some might say traditional but, there is enough here to give Huis a definition of their own. Album opener Beyond the Amstel starts with a delicate intro that leads into an extended instrumental section where all the instruments get to test the water, a graceful guitar and piano take the lead before there is a pronounced increase in urgency and the swirling keyboards are joined by a heavier guitar, all bound together by an impressive rhythm section of drum and bass. A short guitar interlude precedes the first entry of the vocals which are perfectly pitched with the rest of the song. What follows is a very good progressive rock track with inserts of guitar breaking the fairly melancholic atmosphere, it certainly got my ears pricking up and waiting to see what comes next.

A pounding intro of drums, bass and keyboards is what comes next on the short but urgent Haunted Nights, a solid, keyboard heavy, instrumental where the guitar helps drive the track along rather than play a starring role. It’s a very catchy track and the keyboards are used to great effect to produce a classic progressive sound, ably assisted by that driven guitar note. The Last Journey has a haunting intro that breaks out into a heavy riffing guitar and strong keyboards before the vocals bring a mysterious feel, almost oriental, to the track, overlaying a pensive guitar note. I get a feeling that we are building to some sort of conclusion as a narrative feel comes through the voice of Sylvain Descôteaux, ever reflective. A powerful guitar solo brings some sort of climactic edge to proceedings but the questioning vocals continue to the end of the song, interspersed with an eruption of guitar and keyboards.

The next track is the first of two instrumentals, imaginatively called Oude Kirk 1 & 2, this one being Oude Kirk 1 (obviously). To be fair, as instrumentals go, this is very impressive, the guitar being the focal point of the track, superbly orchestrating proceedings as it propels everything along, the notable keyboard parts adding to the immediacy of the song but it is always the guitar that is the star here.

We move into a section of 3 songs now that, whilst they are not interconnected, work extremely well together. First up is Lights and Bridges which begins very laid back with a spacy and ethereal keyboard intro that could be straight off a Jean Michel Jarre album, add in the plaintive vocal and it has a heavy 70’s progressive feel to it, all smoke and mirrors. The pace is lifted by an urgent synth/guitar combo and the vocals take on a harder edge only pulling back on the harmonised chorus sections. I love the eerie feel that encapsulates the whole song and the way the vocals segue from more spoken sections to the powerful and well executed harmonies is particularly good. The extended guitar section is a polished and pivotal part of the track which gathers pace to run out to a strong finale.

Next up is my personal favourite track on the album Little Anne, I couldn’t quite bring to mind what the intro reminded me off until the breathy vocals overlaid the dreamy keyboard sound, it is totally 10cc ‘I’m Not in Love’ but worked very cleverly into a progressive track. Heartfelt, mournful vocals bring a sombre mood to the occasion but, this song is a thing of beauty, the mood lifting slightly as the gently plucked guitar raises the gloom. This track is a definite headphones moment, lose yourself in its embrace for 9 minutes and forget your own troubles and woes. There is a hypnotic feel to the way the voice and keyboards work together, to me, it is Huis’ own stamp on a progressive epic, the Jean Michel Jarre comparison comes back when the keyboard takes on feel of movement and the vocal becomes more urgent, this is short lived as the previous sobriety returns and you delve into the depths of someone’s soul once more, all dreamlike and celestial. An impressive piano and acoustic guitar section lifts the mood for another short period before a wistful keyboard note runs out to the end of the song.

The third of this triumvirate is If by Morning which begins with a carefully measured guitar and keyboard, metronomic in its rhythm and then, once more, the vocal skills of Sylvain take over, this guy has a really silky voice, full of substance, that can perfectly convey feelings. Some powerful, scorching guitar licks add even more body to the song, intertwining with the vocal sections amid dreamlike countenances. The track construction is superbly laid out, each instrument giving precisely what’s needed, the lengthy instrumental interlude driven along by a strong bass line, compelling guitar note and a smooth Hammond organ before a gentle piano and guitar are joined by the emotive vocal to lead the song to the end.

The second part of our instrumental duo, Oude Kirk 2 has a lengthy swirling synthesiser intro that increases in volume and force upon moving further into the track. An anguished sounding guitar flits in and out and the song is built upon a solid foundation of the drums and bass. Half way through the song the whole tempo changes, the guitar becomes more compelling sharing the front row with the keyboards before the song comes to an abrupt end.

Write Your Name has a slow and purposeful opening, the solid bass line backing up a searing guitar note. It is rare that you will find a progressive rock album with no reference to Pink Floyd and that doesn’t happen here either. The whole tempo, vocal note, keyboard sound and bass line evoke comparison with classic Floyd of the past but, when it is done as well as this, it is no detriment. The breathy backing vocals add to the ambiance and the whole song moves on with an imperious feel to it.  Things are about to get turned about face though as the cadence increases and that slow, measured approach is replaced by an insistent edge with a stronger vocal and dynamic keyboard. I’m not sure it really works having the track broken into two distinct sections but, the quality of the song shines through.

The next track Salvation begins with a whole different approach to proceedings and is much more a hard rock affair with even a small hint of R.E.M to it in the staccato rhythm and clipped vocal. Don’t worry, we soon crossover back to the progressive world especially with the harmonised vocal refrain which has a superb choral feel to it. I love the gently echoing guitar note that runs through the whole of this section, another clever piece of songwriting from Huis that blends musical styles seamlessly and, when the solo starts it is a piece of magic, the strongest solo on the album, wonderful and moving.  We come to the final track on this admirable debut album, Garden of Dust and it is another favourite of mine, the measured intro with flute like keyboards, restrained drums and guitar gives way to another haunting vocal performance as full of feeling as anywhere else on the album. The chiming piano note and angelic backing vocals just add to the many layers of this song. As the vocal increases in moentum so do the instruments around it, gradually enforcing the melodramatic aura of the track, the crunching riffs and plaintive cries that follow herald a potent ending to the song and the whole album.

After numerous plays of this album I am still finding nuances to the songs that I didn’t hear on previous listens. It is a grower, not suited to the mainstream music ideals of immediacy and the throwaway culture of the world in general. Nurture this album and give it time to express itself completely and you will be rewarded with music that will stay in your heart and mind forever.

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