As should be evident by any avid reader of my reviews, it's that I tend to gravitate towards music considered "progressive", or music that has a more intricate composition, more interesting approach, or which blends familiar musical constructs in unique & different ways. So it's no surprise that I would find Floodline's self-proclaimed "Alice in Chains meets Opeth meets Meshuggah" description both exciting & intriguing. Of course, while these kinds of descriptors are often not truly on the mark, at least they give some measure of a barometer as to what to expect when listening. For the band's debut, "Passage to Dawn", this was mostly true. There were other elements present, but the description was fairly accurate. But that's not the case with the follow-up, "Beneath the Waves".
What this sophomore album does is retain the core sound they explored on the debut, while simultaneously expanding on that sound, and improving along the way. Sophomore slump? Not here. This is a prime example of what a band should do from a debut to a second album. Rather than recording a hasty follow-up to cash in on whatever notoriety has been achieved with the debut, take a more studied & deliberate approach, allowing the musicians to grow in their abilities, songwriting, and overall compositional skills. So while the 3-year gap between the albums may seem excessive in many cases, especially given the breakneck pace at which some prolific artists or bands release albums in today's music scene, it was just the right formula for Floodline.
So while the album may be titled "Beneath the Waves" and some of the songs reference water in the titles or themes, this album soars. The combination of extreme/gruff vocals and layered "Alice in Chains" type harmonized vocals works even more seamlessly here than on the debut, the vocals have more clarity and definition, and they're just better overall. I do, at times, wish there was a bit more raw emotion in the vocals themselves, but the layering & harmonizing helps, as does the shifting back & forth between "clean" and "rough" vocal sounds to help convey more emotion than the clean sound alone is capable of doing. Vocal range isn't huge either, but the range displayed is good and it sounds as if Daniel Hall knows who he is as a vocalist, even if he does take a page too many from the Layne Staley book of singing.
Guitar sound is a touch less heavy than on the debut, but that's actually a good thing. While die-hards may call foul, the debut was plenty heavy, but the production suffered with too much noise & static. This record sounds so clean and when cranked up loud, gives you both the pounding satisfaction of a crunchy metal record, but is still pleasant to listen to the guitar sound. While this may not be important to the average metalhead, it's a hallmark of a well-produced album. Guitar playing here is varied & interesting, with plenty of chugging riffs, fast-picked solos, clean moments with lots of atmosphere, highly melodic riffs, and enough heaviness to interest fans of the heavier end of the progressive metal spectrum. The diversity of guitar sounds and textures helps make this album all the more memorable and listenable.
Bass guitar, like with much metal, is less conspicuous in the mix, but when audible outside of the riffs, is well played and doesn't detract from the rest of the music. I can't say much other than there's nothing overly outstanding about the bass playing, other than it's just well-placed within the music. Drumming is excellent, with great double bass work, interesting fills, and well-placed cymbal and tom accents that sprinkle in enough interest to add to the songs without becoming the centerpiece. This is one of the marks of a great metal drummer - they know how to strut their stuff without getting out in front of the rest of the music and taking over the whole show. Drum sound is good as well, with solid bass, tom and snare sounds, and good sounding cymbals, even if they're a touch quieter than I might prefer at times.
Keyboard work here is outstanding. I like the fact that the band included some sounds & textures not generally used in metal, like the faux Hammond B3 sound in "Show Me the Way", the delicate electric piano in "Innocence Lost", and some of the less showy symphonics littered throughout. The keyboard is used to great effect on the album, never completely dominating, but having a prominent position when necessary for maximum effect. The lengths at which the band and production team went to in order to give the keyboard the perfect footing and position within the mix paid off, as it sounds great throughout.
In terms of songwriting, this band nearly has it down to a science. With the possible exception of the unlisted final song entitled "Corrosion", a somewhat dour faux-doom piece, this album exhudes songwriting. Every song is hooky, has big riffs, contains catchy solo work, and has vocal sound that sort of sucks you in. While it's not captivating on the level of, say, Symphony X in terms of being a "grab you by the throat and don't let go until the end" kind of band, Floodline doesn't have to be that. What they do instead is generate interest by creating songs that keep interest all the way through, yet retain the length generally seen in progressive music to allow for more instrumental passages and "bigger" overall sound. The album loses a bit of steam toward the end, as many albums tend to do, but by and large, the songs on this album are a testament to the band's writing ability, especially considering these songs are much more memorable and well-written than those on the debut.
So what's the verdict? This is probably my favorite progressive metal album of 2009. I thought perhaps Orphan Project's "Spooning Out the Sea" might garner that honor, and it came very close, but this album wins by a hair. Where Orphan Project's album was a great, understated collection of hard rocking songs with enough progressive elements to break it out of the "Commercial Hard Rock" mold, this album just oozes with twists and turns, long interesting songs, and instrumental muscle to spare, in addition to all the subtle things going on here and there. So perhaps we'll call Orphan Project's album my favorite "Progressive Hard Rock" album of the year, and this becomes the reigning champion of "Progressive Metal". Truly an album not to be missed by fans of the genre, especially those looking for a prog album that not only shows off the talents of the musicians, but also comes jam-packed with good songs! Highly recommended!
Now someone needs to tell Mike Portnoy and company to take these guys out on the road, and ask them to include Menahem, Myrath, and Orphan Project - they'll very nearly have my favorite prog tour!