Prog metal, however you define the term, has had a pretty good year so far. Several releases from new and established acts have reminded us that there is a fanbase of people who like their music a little more challenging and cerebral. While naturally there are still bands who insist on aping their influences, there also exists a desire by many to do something a little differently. Enter Sleepers Awake, a US band whose second album Transcension is bound to leave many people shaking their heads and rejigging their Best Of 2013 lists. Equal parts prog metal and stoner/sludge rock, with the odd surprise element thrown in for variety, it’s 70 minutes of intense music, but prog fans are used to that, right?
Unpacking this concept album is a challenge in itself; the tracks flow together smoothly but not homogeneously, each weaving around the story of a character’s “struggle with higher forces that veers off through magical worlds full of fantastic creatures and surreal imagery”. Apparently. Opening number “The Augur” echoes Mastodon-lite instrumentally, with charming guitar work that flickers around a highly emotional rock-style vocal delivery. In stark contrast to this, following track “Burdened” brings in an Opeth feel all round, with multiple layers to unravel and some stunning soloing, which prove to be hallmarks of the album in general.
While the subject of guitar work is up, the riffs and melodies really need a spotlight here. Whether in the simple grooving of “Circles Without Division”, the Crack The Skye-era Mastodon in “The Fulcrum” or the latter-day Baroness-esque layered melodies in “Apparitions”, the guitar work is a marvel through-out. Even when they dive into crunchy sludge such as in “Saint Condemned” and “Under Hoof And Gavel”, the sound is still recognizably theirs. Also commendable is the drumming of Chris Burnsides, who could comfortably name-check Danny Carey and Brann Dailor as compadres of the kit while he weaves fills and patterns such as in “Equa Mortuorum”. While this is certainly not a ‘musician’s record’, the guys here certainly have technical chops.
As touched upon earlier, the vocals are also of note throughout the release. For the most part, Chris Thompson employs an impassioned melodic style that convincingly tells the somewhat bewildering lyrics (“Fading in the candlelight/Whisper close into death’s ear/Drowning in all the laws/Of ancient liars”). He somehow flirts with the boundaries between Maynard Keenan, Josh Homme and Mikael Åkerfeldt, mirroring the latter fairly closely on a couple of occasions. Most notable of these is the ironically titled track “Throat Of Winter”, ironic because Opeth have a similarly titled song, although they differ musically and lyrically. In the end, however, Thompson brews his influences together so that, much like the music, the influences’ names stay under the surface and the band’s own work shines through.
In an album as well-assembled as this, it’s a shame when one of the parts doesn’t quite live up to the quality of the others. In this case, it’s the harsh vocals that pepper a few of the twelve tracks, never in abundance but enough to draw attention away from the rest of the music. While the Åkerfeldtian intention is fairly clear, the growling seems to have either been mixed poorly or lacks clarity in comparison to the smooth tone of the instruments. That said, they far from ruin the listening experience, and in the grand scheme of the album are but a small blemish on the musical canvas.
Sleepers Awake have achieved a remarkable fate with Transcension; a concept album where each song stands by itself, a ‘prog’ record that non-prog listeners can appreciate, and a 70-minute saga that shows no wear-and-tear on repeated listens. One can safely predict that, despite being an independent release, Sleepers Awake’s Transcension will hit a lot harder than a sleeper hit this year.
1. The Augur
4. Slave Within
5. Heathen Verses
6. Saint Condemned
7. Circles Without Division
8. Throat Of Winter
10. Equa Mortuorum
11. Under Hoof And Gavel
12. The Fulcrum
Sleepers Awake are:
Chris Thompson – Guitar, Vocals
Rob Bradley – Guitar
Kedar Hiremath – Bass
Chris “Ambrose” Burnsides – Drums