By Sam Lawson
I’m about one minute into the opener ‘Resolution’ and something that strikes me is the rich vocal harmonies at the beginning of the song, there are plenty of staples of the “djent” subgenre appearing throughout the track. You have the TesseracT esque chord arpeggio, clean guitar intro bleeding into a heavy riff and then dropping out to the verse, which is very ethereal and spacey melodically with a thundering syncopated drum and bass effort to cut through the cleanliness of the other elements of the ensemble. Around 2 minutes and 22 seconds into the song, comes to first “ohhhhh shittttt” moment.
The vocals really start to deliver some impressively catchy melodies and some piercingly high harmonies, singer Phil’s influences are clear but he doesn’t sound like any of them. The usual suspects being Dan Tompkins, Spencer Sotelo and whatnot and sure maybe he uses a similar technique and his ear for melody has likely been altered by listening to those bands a lot in his life however, he isn’t an imitation which is refreshing. I’m sort of replaying the same part over and over trying to figure out who his voice does remind me of, I hate making lazy comparisons but somethings I have to figure out for the sake of my own sanity. Perhaps Chris Barretto of Monuments Fame? Mostly when he is creeping into his higher range. I also get Tillian (Dance Gavin Dance) vibes too. This song does no wrong as an opening track, a classic djent banger is a great way to kick off but i’m hoping what is left is slightly more experimental perhaps.
The second track is one i’ve heard a fair bit as it was released as a single many months ago now. To my knowledge, it was everyone’s first chance to hear the new vocals introduced to the band’s sound, strong choice for a single most certainly. I generally have quite a disdain for modern heavy metal production, I won’t pretend that the “djent” guitar tone is something i’m particularly fond of, I never really have been. Some leaders of the genre make it work but they’re the notable exceptions. Production wise though, I can’t really fault this EP. It’s got that clean shaven, squeaky dinner plate texture to it that modern metal usually does but it doesn’t sound totally sterile, it has some life in it. The vocals are really the thing that have stood out to me this far in, the riffing is plenty impressive for sure and the drums are certainly being played by a pro but none of the other members are taking the spotlight quite the same way that Phil is.
This track, ‘Inertia’ gives me more TesseracT vibes than the opener. Especially the outro, where the drums are taking more of a lead role, it literally sounds like something taken out of the Ashe O’Hara era Tesseract handbook. Infact i’m relatively confident you could play it alongside the song ‘Nocturne’ (extended version) from the ‘Altered State’ record and it’s strikingly similar.
The third track is finally breaking away from what was progressively becoming more of a worrying trend within the sound. This song has far more Dead Letter Circus and Karnivool elements to it. I do apologise for the constant comparisons but I am just pouring out my thoughts as they come to my head whilst listening. This song is so much more colourful than the first two and there’s a guitar solo, which leads us into a totally different feel altogether, a breakdown which goes back to the dare I say, “djeneric” palette as before but the band are toying with different imagery and emotions but going from a song which is generally in a major key into something darker and diminished.
There’s another band i’m getting reminders of; Skyharbor! Lots and lots of Skyharbor most certainly. Especially in this track, very reminiscent of the second LP that they put out, Guiding Lights. Overall, this is my favourite track so far, i’ve heard it before but never paid as much attention to it as I am now. It’s songs like these that fans get really attached to and sing along word for word in the front row. Just before the 4th minute we have a nice groove change as the band pull out a trick from the Killswitch Engage handy pack and double time the drum beat by changing the snare accents, nice touch.
The title track features some dizzying production, note clarity isn’t particularly outstanding during the heavier riffs, I fear that it may be my hearing because it certainly isn’t my headphones. This song isn’t grabbing my attention so much, there’s a pretty heavy middle section but the guitar tones get a bit too digital for my liking, almost synthesised. I don’t want to make assumptions but some of these tonal choices remind me of Line 6 sounds. Can’t say I have much more to reflect on when it comes to this song, the weakest one so far. Perhaps a nice addition to a live set though?
Track 5, ‘Persuasion’ is the first song to feature any really impressive bass playing, the format of the song is what you’ve come to know by this point but the bass playing is certainly keeping on the edge of my seat, shame it isn’t mixed as clearly as it could be below the disarray of ambient guitars. Once again the vocals are providing a pleasant harmony throughout. The chorus is possibly my favourite so far on the album, the subtle/buried guitar lead part is similar to that track ‘Garden of Sankhara’ by Monuments. I can’t quite figure out what key this song is in but I know that it’s a winner when it comes to writing vocal melodies. Lyrically, nothing has stood out to me this whole time so far except for the quip “Enough to keep us blind” in the pre chorus section of this track. I can’t make out what comes before it and sets it up but it’s a great little turn of phrase. The middle 8/breakdown section features the first screamed vocal and arguably the heaviest part on the entire EP this far in, with some nice jarring guitar leads sitting atop the chaos. Once again, the guitar tones are verging on sounding like saw-wave synth leads however. I have to say I really like the drum mix throughout this EP though, this song is accentuating that to me specifically.
Well we are starting the last song. The intro is a beautifully lush guitar chord progression which sounds eerily similar to Killswitch Engage’s ‘My Last Serenade’ and TesseracT’s ‘Resist’, give or take one chord voicing. I get the impression the band have left the most emotionally sorrowing and/or uplifting song for the closer. I get the feeling the song is going to drop into some heavy riffing any minute now, however I have to say that I really like this band when they’re on the clean channel letting the rhythm section shine.
Phil’s vocals are once again a total stand out shining moment for the band’s general sound. Once the rhythm section start grooving together, the group provide what is arguably my favourite riff on the album, it isn’t a heavy riff but it’s a very cool little triplet-crotchet feel jig with some sweet syncopated ride cymbal action. The bass tone isn’t ideal and the notes aren’t as clear as they could be but it’s definitely a great moment for the band and this release specifically. We’ve reached the big epic chorus, from what I can assume. The vocal melody appears to get lost amidst the absolutely massive harmonies that have been recorded but every now and again it creeps back up into your conscious thought and it’s very catchy indeed. The soundwave for this track (i’m listening on Soundcloud) is a steady rise from the beginning to the end, I noticed that as I put it on and started assuming that it was perhaps a ballad. By the end of the song it’s evident that it isn’t and that the band certainly love their heavy riffs and who can blame them.
Well there you have it, that was my blow-by-blow colour commentary of ‘Insularity’ by the new and improved Bristol based progressive metal outfit Valis Ablaze. The band are certainly not to be overlooked, their songwriting can’t be faulted in terms of their awareness of space and how to accent the big hooks and riffs however my sweeping criticism would be that the band are most sonically interesting when they’re playing more relaxed passages and trying to really push themselves dynamically. ‘Lost In The Syntax’ is easily the best song on this record because it’s so different from the others and I firmly believe that whatever comes next from this band will sound a lot more like that than it will the other songs, I pray i’m correct anyway and not because the others songs are in any way bad necessarily but because that one is just so good.
The band have shared the stage with the likes of Monuments, Dead Letter Circus and in March of this year will be performing alongside djent founders TesseracT, all of whom are obvious influences for the group. All three of those bands are examples of groups who learnt from their earlier releases and matured in their sound, so perhaps Valis Ablaze will go down a similar path in such a case.
Though it would require some more concentrated listening to full explore the potential of this music, on first impressions I am pretty intrigued by what i’ve heard and would love to hear it live to see how well it translates to the stage. This band can only get better and better.