The last time I reviewed the Bulgarian progressive metal masters Pantommind, I listed them as one of my three favorite products of the Balkan Peninsula. Like the two culinary delicacies which were the other entries on the list, Pantommind are almost unknown elsewhere in the world due to their relatively small label, obscure location, and their infrequent activity. The release of Searching For Eternity six years after its predecessor maintains this status quo. Even if Pantommind’s apparent dissolution renders it unlikely that such situation will improve, their continued stylistic progression, blending the more epic and experimental style of debut album Shade of Fate with the more uniform and cohesive style of Lunasense, a slight evolution into darker, heavier, and more modern sounds, and some reworked material from the band’s 2000 demo Farewell, spans an anthology of their entire existence. Searching For Eternity defines the Pantommind sound and the personal journeys of the individuals involved, from their persistent existential unrest to their uncertain future.
Much of the captivating style of 2009’s Lunasense is left intact. Pantommind’s music, written largely by lead guitarist Pete Christ, is based on the contrast between concrete and abstract, aiming to unite the tightly structured musical composition of metal with the looser improvisation of progressive music and their unique ingredient, the completely free-form design of surrealist art which is keyboardist Sunny X and drummer Drago’s pastimes turned careers. Crunchy metal riffs are overcast with misty synths and delicate, disembodied piano very impressionist in style, designed more to add texture, color and space than melody, as influenced by Kevin Moore on Dream Theater’s Awake and on Fates Warning’s Disconnected. Lyrical content is consistently dark and depressive, its themes emotional, spiritual, and fantastic, often taking place in the dream world, and often written in poetic form but without specific concrete meaning. The words Searching For Eternity suggest fundamental existential questions, the existence of the supernatural, and the search for ultimate meaning as overarching themes. Musically and lyrically, Searching For Eternity sounds as if it was intended to be Pantommind’s final statement, and their painstaking effort to make an album with such an air of finality has led to the greatest album of their career.
Not For Me opens the album with Pantommind’s signature contrast: sweeping orchestration against jagged riffage, and the normally smooth texture of the synthesizer transformed into a Royal Hunt esque intermittent blare, designed as if it was a guitar riff. Singer Tony Ivan possesses the macabre drama of Tony Martin, the exotic phrasing of John Arch, the stratospheric range of 80’s era Ray Alder, and the grave tone of Alder’s lower register seen in his latter days. Although the piece is more straightforward metal than is typical for Pantommind, with Drago’s usually busy drumming significantly toned down, the increased emphasis on guitar-driven compositions and Ivan’s pristine voice works to the advantage of the towering chorus, a negation of the song’s paean to nostalgia. No longer are the days of young love and summer sun for the narrator. He now lives in the loneliness of rainy winter weather.
His introspective spiritual journey is set in motion by the vaguely Oriental atmosphere and luminous keyboard backdrop of the next song Moon Horizons, its densely layered vocal harmonies and synthesizers blanketing the piece with the spectral, lunar atmosphere of Lunasense, so thick it feels like moonlight. Arpeggiated clean guitars in the verses gaze at the indigo evening sky and celestial moon, a sign of hope and longing for transcendence into another dimension. To be set free from this world into the dream world, or maybe the other world. The connection formed between the physical and immaterial worlds is a running theme throughout Pantommind’s prior work, but fully developed on Searching For Eternity. The physical world serves as a portal into the dream world, which can be our personal look into paradise. The journey to attain it, as featured in poetry and literature since the beginning of time, is a lifelong road that twists and turns with seemingly no end in sight.
The intelligently crafted angularity of Walk On derails the smooth introduction in favor of this grim reality. The influence of Fates Warning is powerfully felt in the structure of its two main riffs, one staccato, labyrinthine, and frantic from the use of rapidly shifting speeds, the other deliberate, straightforward, and foreboding from the use of thick chordal structures and harmonic tension, alternately woven together into the backbone of the entire piece. The constant rush of 7/8 meter, duet between the grittier sides of both Ivan and of Cloudscape vocalist Mike Andersson, Drago’s chaotic Mark Zonder style cymbal syncopation, and the enunciation, rhyming and steady cadence of the lyrics and vocals produce a sense of relentless momentum and tightly controlled chaos that depicts the road of life, as “it will wind and turn and twist and bend / through bumps and cracks and rocks and sand,” but time will continue to tick onwards at the same pace, and we will always persist in walking until the end. As the album continues onwards, the band confronts the end of that road: the mental and spiritual torments of mortality.
The nightmarish instrumental fireworks of Hypnophobia are the aural representation of just that, represented by the irrational fear of sleep. Its throbbing bass-driven foundation moves at a blistering pace, propelling spacey lead guitar, manic drum syncopation, and hallucinatory keyboards into a vortex of sound befitting its name. The piano bridge, representing sleep, seems to sound peaceful, but peppers the abrupt manic riffing episodes with the precise melodic and rhythmic dissonance that is the most unsettling, and Christ and Ross surge forward at inhuman speeds with the most demented two-note riff and most possessed single-note lead phrases possible, and sound abjectly terrifying. The piece screeches to a halt on an unresolved piano chord as the narrator abruptly awakens, about as jolted by the shock of waking up as by that of his nightmare. Given the thematic importance of the dream world to Pantommind, interpretations of the piece are vast, but cohesive interpretations could include the fear of the unknowns: death, itself often depicted as sleep, and the supernatural.
Indeed, the real world can be more frightening than our dreams, and the narrator’s nightmare begins in Down to the End, haunted by grief and the forthcoming wake-up call to a life lived devoid of meaning. Pantommind utilize their artistic knowledge to manipulate three-dimensional space by gradually engulfing the opening electric guitar lament with enigmatic acoustic chords, as the narrator seeks an escape from his pain into the dreamworld. But inside his mind are crunching riffs with constantly shifting tempos and time signatures, and a battery of feral guitar solos. The replacement of Peter Vichew from previous albums with the heavier punch of a preceding guitarist Floyd “Ross” Rossen ideally complements the serious lyrical tone and adds to the diversity of Pantommind’s lead guitar work; styles range from Steve Vai angular shred to Frank Aresti fiery shred, Jim Matheos slow and mournful, and Chris DeGarmo epic, each displayed in turn to highlight the emotions changing with the seasons of depression. The storm only clears when the narrator has come to a measure of acceptance, bidding farewell until the next life. Although the deathly specter of reverberating power chords, recurring like tolling funeral bells every so often during the quiet bridge out of the chorus, remains until the hypnotic arpeggio that closes the track fades away, it is that acknowledgement of another, greater existence as the end of the road approaches which not only paves the path to victory over the narrator’s struggles with mortality, but is the greatest of the many great coming of age moments in Pantommind’s own journey.
As the longest tune to ever grace a Pantommind full-length and the song with the title whose metaphysical implications guaranteed the album would not disappoint me, the nine-minute title track, zenith of the album’s spiritual journey, will be most scrutinized. Its shimmering arpeggiated chords accumulate momentum into a triumphant guitar solo whose vibrant squeals, abstract tapping technique, and expressive note bends are influenced strongly by Criss Oliva. The absence of bass or drum foundation for its tremendous sonic energy induces a trance-like effect, transporting the narrator, however briefly, into eternity where time stops. Christ’s emphasis on the final sustained note bolsters the emotional weight of Ivan’s vocals delivering one of the central messages of the record. Just like the wind cannot be caught in a trap, the human spirit cannot be locked up. We can only choose to relinquish it by turning away from the path of spiritual growth and becoming like the animals. The gradual change into a darker tone begins with a modulation of the original arpeggio into a lower, minor key draped over a choppy bass solo that crescendos into a metallic juggernaut with Ivan’s aggressive edge in full force, channeling the styles of Ronnie James Dio and Jon Oliva. The lyrics travel through our darker emotions, warning against the destructive effects of hatred and vice and the need to crucify the ego, and the composition comes full circle with the affirmation of the strength of the human spirit and the existence of an ultimate good that shall prevail over evil. A stately guitar solo marshals the patented slowdown-for-an-epic finish towards the truly epic finish, initially understated with hollow electric chords and vocals lying in the shadows, lyrics and music anticipating and foreshadowing the coming of a new revelation. The band’s manipulation of sonic space and dimensions fills in the final piece of the journey as the majestic chorus is reprised with the uplifting embrace of double-tracked vocals and keyboards.
Few endings to the album could be more appropriate than the reprisal of the Matheos patented solemn arpeggios slowly fading into silence over the repetition of the word eternity, which is eventually sung a capella to close the song, followed by the mysterious closing instrumental Heart. It is composed of a solitary guitar with an exotic twang somewhat between Southern country blues and Middle Eastern folk, whose tone sounds ancient, ageless, hollow, distant. The music drifts with no tonal center, momentum, or resolution, a journey with no apparent destination, simply ebbing away into silence.
And so it is with Pantommind themselves. They search for eternity even to this day, and along the way, they have learned about themselves and helped free themselves. The profound musical, emotional, and spiritual effects both Shade of Fate and Lunasense left upon me have included all of the above. Like all the others, this album is universally spiritual but left a deep impact on me as a person of faith. I expected nothing less than a masterpiece from Searching For Eternity, and I can confidently say I have experienced one. If it should be their last will and testament, their life’s mission will have been accomplished.