Fragile is the debut album/project from Swedish singer Acke Hallgren, and what a promising debut it is! I approached this album knowing nothing about Hallgren, the Fragile project or any of the musicians involved. It took a couple of listens to sink in, but I quickly realised what an impressive first album it is. While Hallgren is the sole mind behind the concept and lyrics of the album, he co-composes with Linus Abrahamson of Andromeda (who also brings his guitar and bass skills) and Erik Wiss (who plays keyboards). Abhrahamson’s experience, in particular, seems to have brought in a certain maturity to the song-writing.
The music isn’t wholly original – a number of moments throughout the album are very reminiscent of bands like Haken and Leprous, though without straying into the metal territory that those bands frequent. That’s not to say, though, that the album is particularly derivative either, and indeed after a couple of listens I found myself very impressed by how memorable and distinctive a lot of the music is. It is quite dark and melancholy for much of the album, and creates some fantastic atmosphere. There’s also a nice amount of variety, and some great use of recurring themes.
The opening Prelude kicks off with a dark and somber cello melody before introducing a sad piano theme that crops up later in the album as well. The track conveys a real sense of tension and very much sets the tone for the album. After that, the album proper starts, exploring different styles but keeping a consistent tone. Beautiful, sad songs like Home and Gratitude are interspersed with darker, heavier songs like Moral Compass and By Omission. Some tracks in the middle of the album I find less exciting, but it never gets boring.
The penultimate track, Let Go, is clearly the centrepiece and climax of the album, and it really is very good. Over its 10 minutes it covers a lot of ground and flies by faster than you think it will. The chorus, in particular, really stands out as one of my favourite things on the album, and even after only a couple of listens I was already finding it stuck in my head. The album then closes off with a short, gorgeous epilogue song called Gratitude which wraps things up nicely.
There is one aspect that especially helps Fragile distinguish itself from similar albums, and that is Hallgren’s voice. It has an absolutely gorgeous quality to it. Unusually for the world of prog rock, it is a very soft, sweet voice, which in places reminds me very much of singers like Petter Carlsen. As I noted in my opening paragraph, I came to this album with no knowledge of what I was in for, and in the opening vocal lines I wasn’t sure if I was listening to a man or woman. You quickly get used to his style, though, and it lends a unique quality to the sound. And of course it’s not all pretty – he definitely gets some grit into his voice for the heavier parts as well.
If I have one small criticism of the album, it’s that it lacks bite in some of its heavier moments. It’s not a heavy album in a “metal” sense, and clearly isn’t meant to be one, but there are times where the music is quite dark and intense, and could have done with more bite. This may be partly affected by Hallgren’s sweet voice, but I think it’s mainly the production which on occasion doesn’t quite manage to bring out the intensity in the music. It’s a real shame, because otherwise the album is really nicely produced. The softer sections are beautiful and in a lot of places they have created a very moody and atmospheric sound.
In summary, then, this is a really excellent debut album and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes dark, atmospheric rock music. I am very much hoping that this group of musicians continues to make music together. It’s not clear at this stage whether the band would continue using Hallgren’s name (a la James Labrie) or whether they’d take on the Fragile moniker from now on (like Roine Stolt did with The Flower Kings), but either way, if they carry on making music this good then I’ll carry on listening!