Friday, September 6, 2013

Illusion Suite - The Iron Cemetery (2013)

Think about the process, just for a minute. How does music get from the band to you? Sure, it's easy to say you found something on the internet, but how did you get there? A blog? Facebook? Word of mouth from a friend? Spreading your music and message can be a very slow process for so many great bands, sometimes taking longer than the shelf life of the band itself. For Illusion Suite, a four piece from Norway, the pandemic began in 2009, with the release of their debut album. But now, some four years later, their name still hasn't appeared in our dreams, or found itself sprawled across a marquee in Times Square. It isn't for lack of talent, or even lack of opportunity. It just takes time, a lot of hard work, and patience to get to that apex. With the release of their second album, they look to speed up the process, and declare themselves not only one of the best bands to come out of Norway in some time, but one of the best progressive power metal bands in the world. If "The Iron Cemetery" doesn't get them some notice, we must be doing it wrong.

An opening track like "Intro" means very little in the scope of an album, with few exceptions. Here, it serves as the launching of the engines, rolling directly into "Orpheus' Quest." Having gotten the flames burning, the band jumps with both feet into the winding, melodic guitars that come to define them. Though, despite what your first impression might be, this is far from standard power metal. The progressive influences are apparent, and help to add an additional layer. Guitarist Kim Jacobsen lays down a bevy of riffs and fret work, never sacrificing the hard edge for a hook; the two are, for Illusion Suite, one and the same. That joint appeal is a large part of the reason songs like "Uni-Twins" can make a lasting impression. Bass players across the world will find enjoyment in the first minute here, as bassist Dag Erik Johnsen does the low end proud with his strong work. it is amazing how easily digestible and free flowing a track like this can be, without carrying the weight of pretentiousness that so many prog power bands have adopted.

In what might qualify as a signature track, "The Iron Cemetery" takes all of the aggression in the instrumental, and uses it to inflate a vocal that would stand firmly on its own. But paired together, they grow and meld into a powerful mixture of melody and hulking, distorted thrash. Singer Bill Makatowicz, who to this point may not be a household name, doesn't just hold his own, and reserve a place in the mix; he excels in all situations. His voice soars over the battery of strings and drums, tinged with electronics and synths, just enough to give an accent to the music. Thankfully, the band ignores the traditional wisdom of the ballad, as "When Love Fails" is anything but. The gallop of the drums would be convincing enough, but the constant motion of the guitars delivers a secondary punch. And while he may be hidden behind some deft and slick guitar and bass work, drummer Roger Bjørge earns his keep on tracks like this. he is the anchor that keeps the track willfully grounded, while keeping his timing both impeccable and devastating. There is a duality to "Nero," then, that makes it all the more exhilarating. Somewhere between the pulsing bass line and the thumping kicks is a space where all five elements come together is perfect balance and harmony.

The last trio of songs all share a common thread, one that extends well beyond their run time. The soaring "Nostradamus' First Prophecy" is bolstered by a strong keyboard presence that was used sparingly o the rest of the album. Quickly played keys, partnered with the main guitar riff, do wonders for the depth of the track, while still adding a different tone to the music itself. Makatowicz flexes his vocal muscle, showing that he can thrive as a cog in a massive gear, or alone, crooning over tightly kept synths. But as "The Ugly Duckling" begins, the mood seems to change, taking on a darker edge. The rhythm section is the backbone here, perhaps more than before. Bjørge and Johnsen never falter, and as a result, the song stays on track and solid. A strong bass solo even takes you to the final act. The album rounds out with a burner of a track, one that puts the pedal down to the metal in the verse sections, only to back off the gas in the chorus. "Premonition" combines the moods of the two previous tracks, brilliantly playing them off one another from movement to movement. It would be easy to single out any one performance here as a great one, but the band at this point is firing on all cylinders, together.

After only one album, it's understandable that more people aren't aware of what Illusion Suite brings to the table. After all, if there is one thing we've learned from cartoons, it's that, "When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all." And while those words may have been written to describe the plight of a robot playing God, they apply to musicians just as much. But with a second album unleashed, as it were, and results that are consistent and impressive, one would assume that their time in the sun isn't far away. Much like Infinita Symphonia's debut album in 2011, "The Iron Cemetery" may well come to define what progressive power metal is, and should be, in 2013. The combination of melodic elements with crushing guitar passages could serve as a how-to for young bands to come. They flirt with perfection at times, which is a bold statement to make in this business. If this is the career arc they've built for themselves, the follow up might come to be the crowning achievement in modern Norwegian metal.


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