Album Reviews

Aeon Zen – Enigma

Well, you’ve got to admit! There are tracks you (and I) skip even in the best albums of the bestestest – yes – bands we love to death. Even then, since they bring something else, a new level to the table, you can’t help yourself but give them 5 out of 5.

So, what if you come across an utterly tasteful and technically flawless album where there are no filler moments, let alone tracks? Where each song is meeting the ultimate prog metal criteria for your existing scale? What then?

Just so you know; if there was a 6 star option, this one would get it. Through my first spin, I felt like I was there to be impressed and they were dressed to impress.

Before I come to the mastermind behind this album, let me give you an idea of what’s happening here. The music is complex but it is, I mean the complexity, is hiding so skilfully behind the melody, you don’t get the feeling that the substrate work is any convoluted. I don’t know how to put it; it is very technical yet does not sound technical… It is so heartfelt, it is more accessible than it would have been with what the technical complexity implies there… Hats off to that! A perfect recipe to reach out to casual listeners by offering an accessible form of prog-metal while keep the prog diehards satisfied with their ability to experiment with modern sounds and fresh ideas.

When I finished my first spin, I was left with a feeling of undiluted awe due to the great number of hooks on display here. And this very review started to write itself in my head… On the first listen to boot… Well, that’s a first…

I just had to jot everything down. Although, it takes a few more listens to fully appreciate the mastery hidden here and there it boils down to a dynamic and immense listening experience.

At places the album gets heavy and uniquely combines the ferocity and aggression with rich textures (pun totally intended).

OK… This brings us to the brainchild. Kudos to Rich Hinks! He will leave his mark on the prog-metal scene with this album. What a creative and ambitious effort!

He carries out the production, mixing & mastering duties in addition to his lead guitar, keys, bass, saxophone… Yeah, after composing all the songs… Just when you thought this was all, here’s a kicker – he sings as well. Right, weren’t expecting that much were you? You should see the fruits of his efforts then!

He must have worked hard on every detail here as the album is impeccable from start to finish; from the pristine production to selection and placement of the vocalists, from the flow to the mastery in execution, it is a masterpiece.

Yes, we are dealing with an overachiever here ladies and gentlemen. Expect to hear his name a lot in the future with the respect he deserves starts to settle. This genius man promises to craft a lot of adventurous progressive metal pieces in the future. Definitely someone to watch!

Ok that’s a lot of praise… Let me walk you through all those elements and justify these well-deserved praises.

But, first the band… Aeon Zen is Hinks on guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, vocals, & programming with Andi Kravljaca on vocals, Shaz on keys, Steve Burton on drums and Matt Shepherd on guitars. Enigma also features Jonny Tatum of Eumeria, Atle Petterson of Above Symmetry and Nate Loosemore of Lost in Thought… Whereas methinks just those names are enough to make one drool…

This great selection makes every song resonate with power and grace.  All these vocalists combined in each and every song works so blindingly well. Rich clearly understands voices, including his own, as he is utilising them perfectly.

With regards to the production, ‘every instrument can be heard clearly throughout the album’ kind of statement is not doing justice to the work on display here. What great selection, timing and placement of the instruments! He gives the spotlight to each particular element when it is just the perfect time for that particular element.

The album gets heavier and darker at places, then it suddenly becomes soft, atmospheric, mystical, and as I said before, so very heartfelt…  Yes, there is huge variety in this album and it is clear that they can pull off pretty much anything! So much to discover!

It shouldn’t be easy to make such different songs to flow perfectly into each other… But man, can he nail that too! Well, I have to say a lot of bands fail to understand its importance but we listeners do care.

Each and every bit, the songs, sounds unique and they can stand on their own. However, there is something musical and conceptual that binds these bits together making it a complete show. Yes! The album is like a masterpiece painted by a true master – wherever you look on the canvas, it is beautiful in itself and the pieces come to an impeccable balance and harmony.

Album can get weirdly uplifting despite the negative emotions it deals with from time to time. And man, it does take you through a range of emotions during its course.

Enter the Enigma… Basically, the perfect orchestration. Rich is not wasting a second and displaying awesome technical mastery here… Damn you Rich! The atmosphere… The atmosphere!!!

Artificial Soul… and Andi’s vocal greet us. Low, deep and tasteful followed by Atle’s raspy and gritty – both very impressive! Atle grabs you at your soul and evokes some unexpected feelings which is in my case, pain and let me tell you it is physical. The contrast between the distorted riffs and the clean, soaring vocals is so good! Devastating and mind blowing!

Just when you’re swept by the beauty of the song, out of nowhere comes this crushing piece right after and sucks you into another universe… The third track, Divinity is the album’s single released some time back and could suffer the On the Backs of Angels syndrome… Do you remember when Dream Theater’s A Dramatic Turn of Events came out some of us had to skip the song due to over hearing it and couldn’t revisit it for quite some time?

Anyway this one did not… I love the faster, heavier, angrier guitars and the brutal vocals delivered by Rich. The Force is strong with this one… I mean, the “metal” element is strongly represented in this one.

It’s not all growls by the way; it’s a tasteful mix of growls and clean vox… Just like the lady likes! The protean song shifts – catchy melodic verses, emotional choruses, thick textures, and we hear Jonny exactly when we need him… Vocals are so perfectly placed, it is impeccable. Some ripping metal! One word comes to mind: Headbang!

 And then the madness goes into a piano ballad, Seven Hills, which Rich co-wrote with Jonny Tatum. Very dark, terrific, atmospheric, emotionally charged piece – and also the only song that requires me to be in the right frame of mood for.

With Warning, we get into progmetal-gear again. But hey, not that fast! It first starts off with some soft tunes on expansive atmospheric soundscapes, taking form where Seven Hills left. This intro which reminds me of one of my all-time fave albums, Division Bell, showcases the musicians’ ability to deliver atmospheric and emotional elements. Then the song gets more intense, thicker and darker before it explodes and develops into something even more… It pulls you out of this atmosphere and starts progressing from there, getting more and more passionate… Yes! This song is blowing my mind…

No, listen! I’m not done yet! We’re talking about a masterpiece here. It just gets faster and more aggressive while still keeping the same time and finishes at an exactly opposite pace from where it started… But the tempo rises, the transitions are so subtle that you don’t realise that song transformed over the course of its run. It works really well and man, the chorus owns your soul. Hear me out Andi! You’re giving me goose bumps on this one!! Well done mister, very well done!

Atle, Jonny and Rich’s vocals are perfectly placed, too. Rich’s delivery of those two lines showcases his voice’s versatility at adapting to what the specific bit of the song he’s singing on requires.

The highlight of the song is the perfectly written and executed chorus and a bridge to die for right after… That riff is one of his best.  After that bridge the song suddenly explodes into a frantic guitar phase along with a great drum-work and blaring bass… with the finger work in the outro is just awe-inspiring!

Rich shines both in the guitar and the vocal department.

Ok, I’ll stop now…

Turned to Ash is another captivating song. Like it’s not enough that Rich is enchanting us with his amazing solo at the 2.50 minute mark, he is also shining through window of small bass niche… Andi and Atle also put in solid performances.

Still Human fills you up with anger, tension and panic, before Eternal Snow smothers you with sonic bliss! You cruel people!!! The emotional intensity of this song has left me feeling both relentless misery and deep euphoria. Seriously, there is an intense personal emotion that runs throughout this song which kind of jumps out of the songs and draws the listener in…

Rich is the first to get on the vocal stage… beautifully layered… those harmonies!!!! Holy!!

And damn you Atle!

Seriously, listening to him on this song is musically so rewarding yet emotionally torturing! He washes over you, consumes you!… On a completely unrelated note, the piano makes the song very classy too!

Nate and Rich do a call and respond after Andi’s brilliant delivery. That brutal layering shows me once again that the chap has a talent for picking exactly the right sound for any given moment, whether that sound is soft and melodic or brutal and punishing.

The growls at the end are spot on!

The closing track, Downfall is a beast of a song! It’s instantly memorable and utterly pleasing. The melodies have been simply blissful all throughout the album… But they are not done with us yet; they just keep ’em coming. This is another tastefully composed song executed in a near-impossible perfection. This song definitely gives another flash of brilliance from the band.

Overall, this album is – at the risk of sounding cliché – a roller-coaster ride that gets my head spinning! Flawless in every sense of the word.

I’m stunned! Completely and utterly blown away…

Shouldn’t be missed! Buy it dammit!

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