Vivien Lalu has had music in his blood since day one, literally. The child of Noelle and Michel Lalu, members of the 70s French progressive act Polene, he was raised with it, and absorbed it, and dedicated himself to make a career of it. Then came an onslaught of projects and bands: Time for a Change, Sad Warden, Mind’s Orchard, playing keys on Hubi Meisel’s two solo albums, all of which led up to the release of the first Lalu album Oniric Metal. From there he had a long list of soundtrack work for both television and film, and collaborated with Shadow Gallery on their Digital Ghost album and with Chris Nalbandian on his Paralysis for Analysis album. That my friends is one hell of a resume if you ask me. The next item on that list though is what we’ll be discussing here, his second Lalu album, Atomic Ark, but first let’s talk about the lineup of musicians that Vivien has gathered together for Lalu, version two…
To say that Lalu has gathered a talented group would be an injustice of biblical proportions. Folks, before I list these guys off, I kindly ask you to put on the prog metal hat of unwavering respect, these guys more than deserve it. The only member carried over as a full participant on this one is vocalist Martin LeMar of Mekong Delta. Joop Wolters of Shadrane, who was lead guitars on the first Lalu album, also contributes, but the lead duties are handled by Simon Mularoni of DGM. Bass is taken care of by Mike LePond of Symphony X, and drums are handled by Virgil Donati of Planet X. Lead keyboards are of course handled by Vivien himself, as were all of the songwriting and composition. Now this would seem to be a pretty “hell yeah” group as is, but he didn’t stop here by any means. No my friends, he laid it on thick. Other contributing musicians, and keep that hat-o-respect on folks, include……..ahem……. Jens Johansson (Stratovarius), Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater), Marco Sfogli (James LaBrie), Mike Andersson (Cloudscape) and Peter Wildoer (James LaBrie). Ok folks, you can stop bowing and stand up now, and let’s take a look at the end result of this gathering of musical brilliance, the album Atomic Ark…
And holy mother of God what an end result it is. Atomic Ark is a conceptual album, and not a happy-go-lucky, uber cheery and uplifting one either. The basic theme is one of “humans have gone a bit too far, and it’s time for a smack down” type of thing. It’s no wonder the first track then is titled Greed, and after a few cursory tinkles on the keys, this one takes off hard and powerful, almost a megalomaniacal tribute to how awesome humans are. All the main players of the band are hitting at once, and with a resounding “Here we are, the summit of creation”, the egocentric tone starts off. It’s a bit overkill lyrically, but the point is made, and not subtly either. Musically, it’s a kick ass tune all around. The hard pounding chords, the beastly powerful rhythm guys doing what they do best, forcing the song down our throats. And the vocals, oh the vocals. I got to take a fanboy moment her for Mr. LeMar. He is such a force on this album, his power style really conveys the subject matter so well, and slides right into where all the other guys are at musically, such an outstanding performance by him beginning to end. Now, back to the tune, the power ego trip continues for the good majority of the song, but towards the end (and after a few ripper solos by Sfogli, Mularoni, and Johansson), another side of the concept pokes its head in. After the line “kingdom of lies” there is an undertone vocal saying “bound to expire”, um, that don’t sound very good folks.
The next song is another heavy number, War on Animals, and has a solid and thunderous pounding beat, with Mularoni really digging hard on the chords, and Andersson’s backing vocals balance out LeMar’s leads wonderfully here. Thematically, it’s pretty much what it says, a standard animal rights song, but it plays into the movement of the theme, as the next song Tatonka comes in. Slightly less heavy than the previous two, but still carrying some weight, this is where the theme starts to turn. The song is told from the view of an older, spiritual being akin to the Native American tribes who is taking the helm as the champion for Earth and its other beings. Unlike the first two songs, which are pretty much force fed hard metal, some much more intricate prog and ethnic elements come into play here, carried by some lights out drumming by Donati, and plays right into the next song, Mirror Prison. Mirror Prison is a transitionary number that moves the album into a more diverse direction. Though there are heavy moments and songs for sure, the proggy elements come through much thicker here. Deep Blue is a moving ballad told, it seems to me, from the first person perspective of the ocean, lyrically touching though a bit simplistic. Bast is a bit heavier, with some ethnic elements drawn from the Egyptian goddess that gives the song its name and tone. Other than the final song, this one blends the prog and metal best to me, bringing in the harsher growl vocals at the perfect moment to emphasize the song’s effect, but really riding the ethnic overtones throughout. Momento is a solid rocking tune with some blistering solo work from Johansson and Donati. To be honest though, this album is laced with blistering solos, just so much damn talent all over it. Follow the Line takes things down a bit with an almost groovy tone led by Johansson and Wolters. Slaughtered, the first single released from the album, gives a good overview blend of the album. It has the heavy elements, the proggy ones, and has a playful, almost slapstick tone to it. Also we get our first taste of Rudess, as he does what he does best. The album up to this point has had hard moments, softer moments. It has laid upon us guilt trips and given us some solid things to think about. Then comes in the epic, Revelations.
Revelations is an all hands on deck situation, the last house on the street so to speak. The song comes in at a bit over nineteen minutes, separated into five parts. It opens with some atmospheric elements from Lalu, then a few minutes of Rudess once again being the man he is on the piano. Then the band comes in and takes over. LeMar nails this one, such a deep and passionate vocal performance throughout the song. Thematically, the album has jumped around from positive to negative aspects of us. From our greed to our spirituality to our vanity to even our disturbed and violent potentials, it has covered the gamut of us. Now, at least from what I see, it’s someone else’s turn to look at us. It is told from the viewpoint of a hunter waiting for the moment to strike and kill. Part two softly and ominously sets the scene for part three, and easily the highlight of the album, The Big Hunt. With the sound of a gun case being unzipped and the rifle being put together, it’s on folks. And hoo boy does this one take hold. I kid you not, I listened to this segment ten times in a row when I first heard it, it’s just so perfect. LePond and Mularoni hit the notes hard, veritably slapping us into submission, Donati is thunderous and forceful, and LeMar digs so damn deep and lets it all out, leaves it all on the table. Damn man, I’m speechless just thinking about it. From here it takes on a more prog tone, more atmospheric and colored, but the damage is done. Then it flows into a finale worthy of the epic and the album as all members go on high once again, topped off by yet another kick ass solo, this one from Walters. The tinkling piano keys that finish it off do nothing to settle the listener down; this one sticks with you, an unbelievable work, period.
Tremendous props to all involved, but it doesn’t come as a surprise considering the amount of talent present here. The biggest props though for me go to LeMar for his mind blowing vocal performance, and of course to Vivien himself. It is after all his songwriting that all this talent is laid upon. The riffs, the lyrics, the melodies, the whole package. I get the sense that this album has been burning in his heart for a long time, and I consider myself privileged to have been a part of the audience to his passion playing out.