Artist: Aeon Zen
Album Title: Transversal
Label: Layered Reality Productions
Date of Release: 24 September 2021
Trust me to finally get into a band right at the very end of their existence. That’s the case here, with Aeon Zen. Although being familiar with the name and loving the progressive metal genre, I somehow neglected Aeon Zen, a band that was born back in 2008 as a solo one-man project by multi-instrumentalist Rich Gray. Fast forward five albums and well over a decade, and here I finally am, listening to what is the quartet’s sixth and final album, ‘Transversal’.
It will be the band’s final release because, since Gray’s recruitment into thrash metal band Annihilator in 2015, the band has slumbered in the shadows. Obvious that it would be nigh-on impossible to keep Aeon Zen going, it was decided that the band would fold, but not before releasing one final hurrah. ‘Transversal’ is that last hurrah and what a way to bow out it truly is.
Initially, it appears that ‘Transversal’ is a ten-track album, with a running time of exactly 30 minutes and three seconds. However, it transpires that the content of this release is essentially a single song that has been split into ten parts but which is best listened to as a whole. Apparently, the song began to emerge at the hands of Gray before he gave birth to Aeon Zen, so it is a composition 14 years in the making. And, alongside the usual protagonists of Gray (guitars, bass, keys, vocals), lead vocalist Andi Kravljaca, lead guitarist Alistair Bell, and drummer Steve Burton, a few guest appearances are made to embellish ‘Transversal’. Dragonforce’s Vadim Pruzhanov offers a keyboard solo, whilst ex-Aeon Zen guitarist Matt Shepherd appears with a solo too. There’s even a choir formed of members of the band as well as Tom De Wit (who incidentally assisted with the artwork that cleverly combines that of all previous releases), Alyce Gray, Clay Dean and Iris Van ‘t Veer.
With all the housekeeping out of the way, as well as the self-recrimination, my attention can finally turn to the music itself. And, as you may have guessed by the opening to this review, that’s where Aeon Zen excel, and why I will not be the only one to mourn their decision to call it a day.
In the 30 minutes of ‘Transversal’, the sheer range of influences and styles on display is staggering. Everything from chilled melodic progressive rock, to neo-classical, to djent, to film-score stylings, to art rock, to tech-prog, and just about everything in between can be heard on this recording. But crucially, it is all held together by some strong melodic sensibilities that only get stronger the more familiar you become with the music. Not only that, but the more you listen, the more detail that becomes apparent. There is a lot more sophistication to the songwriting than just pulling a load of different ideas together and hoping for the best – everything has its place and has clearly been thought about, down to the minutest detail.
As with many an ‘epic’ composition, it feels absolutely right and proper that we’re treated to a grandiose opening, full of atmosphere and expectation I the form of ‘I. Twilight’. The soundscape is slightly ominous to start with, before an acoustic guitar emerges and soon after, the melodious voice of Andi Kravljaca, assisted nicely by Gray himself. The drums and bass unobtrusively join the party, laying down an assured beat, further confirming what I thought, that the production is clear, sharp, and with a nice bottom end to it. I love the melodies that emerge as the layers are built up expertly, as well as the singing guitar leads from Alistair Bell. The burst of instrumental gymnastics near the end is a nice touch to counterpoint the strong melodies, whilst the closing vocal/acoustic guitar passage is gorgeous.
‘II: A New Day’ is equally as compelling, bit with a more pronounced orchestral edge. Just when you begin to think it is a film-score instrumental that offers plenty of light and shade, in come the lead guitars atop a stomping beat accented by a truly bombastic soundscape. Vocals appear towards the end and, as the song segues into ‘III: Chase The Sunrise’, a melancholy piano takes centre stage. Another great passage of music, it accentuates the progressive metal elements to Aeon Zen’s sound, as the band effortlessly deliver some complex and heavy music that remains entirely memorable and engaging throughout. Keyboard solos feature heavily too with that guest appearance from Vadim Pruzhanov, but the flow is marvellous; it’s so smooth and feels very intuitive, as is the case across the entire recording.
The introduction of ‘IIII: 10,000 Eyes’ is arguably my favourite moment on ‘Transversal’. The melody led by the lead guitar is stunning, but the bass playing and sparing drumming are really nice, as is the syth work that creates a rich, all-encompassing atmosphere that gives me shivers. ‘V: Force Of Fire’ and ‘VI: Lines Redrawn’ are shorter pieces but no less impactful, with the former in particular delivering some muscular riffing and the latter the most bombastic in terms of orchestration so far.
‘VII: Purgatory Rechristened’ is where Aeon Zen deliver their thunderous part of the song/album. Beginning with a neoclassical baroque intro, it’s full of Symphony X-like riffing and spiralling lead guitar solos that cleverly turn into a delightful galloping rhythm led by drummer Steve Burton. It’s very power metal in style and delivery, calling to mind Kamelot at their free-flowing best. Again, the melodies are fantastic, with a huge hook-laden chorus to top things off.
‘VIII: Twilight Reprise’ acts as a 45 second lead up to ‘IX: It Ends As It Began’, which toys with a waltz-like tempo at points, but is dominated by some great layered vocals, chunky riffing, and a guest guitar solo from Matt Shepherd who was in the Aeon Zen ranks previously. Needless to say, it contains yet more melodic class, as does the closing act, ‘X: Forever’. Everything comes together perfectly, to signal a suitably dramatic end to the song and the album as a whole.
And with that, the curtain closes on the career of a band that could, and should, have the brightest of futures ahead of them. ‘Transversal’ is the unequivocal evidence of this. However, it seems destined not to be. Never rule out a reunion somewhere down the line of course, but for now, Aeon Zen are bowing out. And, thanks to the music on ‘Transversal’, they are bowing out in spectacular fashion. I wish it was longer, but for the half-hour that it plays, it is a simply beautiful affair, reminding me of all that I love about progressive music and much more besides.
The Score of Much Metal: 92%
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: