Monday, August 18, 2014

Voyager - V (2014)

Progressive Metal has become a crowded field.  In order to stand out, you really have to do something special, unique, or just be so insanely talented that people sit and listen to your album with their jaw on the floor, much like most of us did when Dream Theater first hit the scene and were wowing us with their level of playing talent.  Now that they've spawned a generation of copycats and gone toward a sound increasingly concerned with solos and individual playing, but have forsaken actually writing great songs about 50% of the time, other bands have more opportunity to showcase their talents and get noticed.  While Voyager has been releasing albums since 2003, I've only become aware of them recently, and "V" is my first exposure to their sound.

Upon first listen, I was taken aback at how much I felt their sound was at once unique and also quite familiar.  They remind me of some other recent semi-progressive bands playing a vaguely modern hard rock/metal sound with a unique vocal approach.  LA's Clandestine comes to mind, especially since their single "Disappear In You" has a similar hard-hitting yet melodic approach that opening track "Hyperventilate" has.  If you can imagine Orphan Project making an album immediately after listening to a couple Halcyon Way albums, that might give you a small idea of what this sounds like, but only hints at what you can expect on this record.  Their sound isn't that far removed from the likes of Souljorners or Ascension Theory either, though with a focus on songwriting and pop sensibility, perhaps a bit like Mehida.  One-time Canadian outfit Asher is another audio touchstone.  If you like progressive metal of the highly melodic and subtle variety, you're in for a treat.

It must be said immediately that this record sounds very "clean".  Those who like some level of grit, grime, and dirt in their metal will find almost none of that here, save for the distortion in the guitar tone, which is bassy and heavy.  Even so, the heavy, distorted guitar lines still sound "clean", in that they're processed and produced to get the sound and tone without any aural artifacts.  Don't think that diminishes the heaviness factor, because it doesn't.  The riffs sound meaty, and the solos have some bite to them when need be, and a real smooth feel to them at other times.  There's a fair bit of clean guitar work present, and it often creates a good balance between achieving a melodic center to the song and providing the listener something they can sink their teeth into before ramping up the heavy and knocking them around a bit.  The solo work also has a balance between complex runs and licks, and melodic lines that make them more memorable and tuneful.  I'm not sure who does more soloing, Scott or Simone, but hats off to whomever takes the reigns on that front, because the solos on this record are interesting and highly listenable.  Alex's bass work is good throughout, though he doesn't often get the opportunity to shine like some prog bassists do.  And drumming by Mark Boeijin is quite good, with a lot of niceties here and there, and it sounds like he gives the drums a solid pounding.  The bass drum sound is also nicely up front, with that satisfying thump you expect out of a modern sounding record.  Keyboards aren't overdone, and there are some songs where they aren't included at all, but used as an accent in some areas, and a focal point in others (especially the piano work in "Summer Always Comes Again") they work really well and are an integral part of the sound of "V".

I can't describe Daniel Estrin's voice without first stating that it's just so stinking smooth.  A lot of vocalists have an ability to transition seamlessly from gritty, gravelly vocals to a "smooth as butter" kind of sound, but the latter is Daniel's default setting.  There are a couple moments where his voice gets just slightly raspy, but on the whole, his performance is really even.  That doesn't diminish the emotional impact, either, because he has a nice sense of when he needs to be loud and frantic, and when things should get quiet and be a bit more plaintive.  He has a real nice tone to his voice, and his annunciation and phrasing have a bit of a unique feel to them.  Per the press kit, Chino Moreno of the Deftones likened Daniel's voice to that of Simon Lebon from Duran Duran, and I can hear a resemblance and similarity in the richness of their voices, though I'd say Daniel's voice has a richer, "thicker" tone to it.  All in all, this guy can sing and sing well, and I thoroughly enjoyed his performance throughout the record.  I also really liked in "A Beautiful Mistake" where guest vocalist Zemyna Kuliukas and Daniel were layered together harmonizing, because they really fit with the pop-infused progressive metal vibe on this CD.  Whoever she is, her voice is lovely and needs to be heard by more people.  I also enjoyed the occasional light sprinkling of mid-range growls, because they add just another minor ingredient to the mix.

I was pleasantly surprised by the album, and frankly, quite shocked that I'd only heard of the band before and hadn't heard their music.  Having gone back and listened to the previous 2 releases to get a frame of reference, I can safely say this is the best of at least the last 3 albums, and if the band continues in this vein of a hyper-melodic, pop-tinted semi-progressive metal sound, I see great things ahead.  Both singles thus far (opener "Hyperventilating" and "Breaking Down") exemplify the core sound of the band, and represent the album well, but only tell a small portion of the story that is "V".  I probably listened to this album 40 or 50 times in preparation for this review, and was honestly dreading writing the review.  Not only can I not put into words how excellent this slab of music truly is, but it also means having to move on and listen to other, likely less worthy music for a while until the next truly awesome album comes my way.  Until then, I'll have to pull this one out again on occasion, because the songs have been stuck in my head for weeks.  Highly recommended, if not downright essential.


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