Swedish progressive metal band Evergrey have been around for a couple of decades and now with the twelfth album, Escape of the Phoenix, they’ve excelled beyond expectations. Following three prior excellent album releases that constitute a trilogy, this latest release covers various topics that are introspective, observant of mankind’s conflicts and consider humanity on a broader scale.
But the overarching theme links into the album’s title track, expressed succinctly in the artwork, that resilience is exhausting. It is hopeful, not defeatist, and with a lyrical depth rarely found in music. Here, vocalist, guitarist, songwriter and producer, Tom Englund, has managed to craft amazing melodies that sit perfectly across a generally heavy rhythm section with sonic clarity.
Opening track Forever Outsider has groove, heaviness, melodicism, breakdowns and a fast, punchy guitar solo. The band are all in synchronisation, with backing vocals enhancing the soaring chorus. As the first single from the album, it is a good representation of where Evergrey are at now. Guitar solos are back in their music and the results are fantastic.
Where August Mourn continues in a similar direction but reveals the album’s trend of varying instrumentation, a wonderful studio mix and impressive co-production from renowned producer Jacob Hansen and the song writing team of Englund and drummer Jonas Ekdahl. It’s a working relationship that has now lasted several albums. The spatial dynamics, arrangements and levels are perfectly constructed. Keyboard lines from Rikard Zander weave in and out of the tracks with ease, sometimes bolstered the vocal line, or the riff or simply providing that sonic wash and dash of musical colour to lighten up the denseness of heavier parts.
Stories is indicative of some coming tracks, opening with piano and vocals, as other instruments or atmospherics fade in or add gravitas as the song progresses. Englund’s vocal performance here is extraordinary, demonstrating a great range and projection. The use of twin guitars with a harmonised interlude using delay effects works brilliantly, showing their judicious but tasteful use of these studio techniques.
It’s a similar level of vocal prowess on the track The Beholder which features shared and doubled vocal duties from sonically recognisable Dream Theater front man James LaBrie, working well with the track’s haunting keyboard melody line and low end rhythm section parts.
The production dynamics really kick in on A Dandelion Cipher. After a grooving opening riff, verses with vocals and synth being prominent, other instruments build in intensity as the full band powerfully drives the melodic and lyrically insightful chorus. The swift guitar solo has some strong, clear note choices that ring out amongst wide vibrato and descending lines that wouldn’t be out of place from Lukather or Vai.
Similarly, album highlight, In the Absence of Sun builds from piano and vocals to merge with additional arpeggiated guitars and solid drums to create a convincing power ballad without the usual clichés. Again, the soloing is impressive with deft usage of the tremolo arm without being excessively flashy. The chorus is astoundingly well executed and by the time it builds to that section, the emotion of the lyric has a more meaningful stamp. The rhythm section shines here too, with bassist Johan Niemann playing in the pocket and adding subtle embellishments as the pre-chorus builds to reprise the chorus. The second solo is also succinct and apt for the song.
On the next track Eternal Nocturnal, Englund takes on the first guitar solo duties whereby his wah pedal and signature model Caparison guitar gets a workout. Co-guitarist Henrik Danhage really comes to the fore though as he plays the more aggressive, rawer second guitar solo, coaxing some George Lynch brilliance. But it’s the song’s melody, arrangements and chorus that is quite phenomenal. Englund’s vocals are clear and on pitch for every note. It’s certainly a great choice as their recent, second single release for the album.
The title track is a heavy, galloping, groove metal number with a rumbling rhythm section as the vocal line interacts with deep, resonant keyboard notes. Probably the most ferocious but exotic sounding solo on the album bursts out as the song briefly roars into double time in the final minute. Then, with tight skill, the song returns to the previous pace and sections.
You from You offers a different pace, and changes tack halfway through, Englund manages to deliver a guitar solo highlight that is reminiscent of David Gilmour. Those emotive tremolo arm dips on long, sustained notes over a keyboard wash with large, deep reverb doused snare hits, heavily influenced by Floyd’s more dramatic music of the late eighties.
Rounding off the album with two more tracks sees more use of the instrument placement in the mix. Pinch harmonics and chordal slices in the grooving, heavy track Leaden Saints has another catchy chorus plus a fast, sliding tapping solo. Final track Run has big, muted hard rock chords, heaving drums and a strong vocal that feeds into a slower feel mid-song, as bass and guitar notes are clearly audible in the mix against shimmering cymbals and yearning vocals before returning to the chorus, as the keyboard figure closes out the song with heavy guitar chords.
Like many bands, Evergrey have ironically benefitted, in a sense, from last year’s enforced period of lowered activity because the focus on clarity and consistency on this album is immediately evident. It’s not just the considerable effectiveness of combining melodicism with heaviness but the overall quality of the song writing and stellar production throughout.
If you haven’t explored the music of Evergrey yet, this is the album to rectify that anomaly. You’ll then be rewarded with a rich and varied back catalogue. But here, they’ve created something special and it’s destined to be near the top of many album lists for the year in progressive metal circles, possibly in other sub-genres too. Escape of the Phoenix is a fantastic album release from start to finish.
Where August Mourn
A Dandelion Cipher
In the Absence of Sun
Escape of the Phoenix
You from You