Artist: An Abstract Illusion
Album Title: Woe
Label: Willowtip Records
Date of Release: 9 September 2022
I’ll confess that the debut album from An Abstract Illusion passed me by. Released in 2016, ‘Illuminate The Path’ did, by all accounts, garner some thoroughly positive column inches for the Swedish outfit but I completely missed it at the time. I blame the kids. I always like to blame the kids rather than accept responsibility myself, especially when they would both have been pre-schoolers at the time and unable to refute my allegations! But whatever the real reasons, I had to be prodded by a loyal reader or two recently to ensure that I wrapped my ears around ‘Woe’, the long-awaited-by-many sophomore effort.
Boasting an unchanged line-up, the trio within An Abstract Illusion remain as bassist/guitarist Karl Westerlund, vocalist/keyboardist Robert Stenvall and vocalist Christian Berglönn, who originally was also credited with drum duties. Who carries these out these days remains a mystery, although I would love to offer some credit because the performance is both thunderous and delicate. And that, in essence, is the music on ‘Woe’ described in the simplest of ways too – thunderous and delicate.
Naturally, this being manofmuchmetal.net, I cannot leave the review there alongside a very clear and direct order for everyone to go out and buy it. You should, though, just to be clear.
To commence the slightly longer part of the review, I would say that ‘Woe’ shares some parallels with ‘Liminal Rites’, the latest release from deathgaze band Kardashev. Musicially, there are some similarities at times, but it’s more in the way that a heavy, aggressive, and thunderous record has blown me away by so eloquently and effortlessly blending the extreme music with such beautiful, fragile, and memorable melodies. In the case of An Abstract Illusion though, theirs is arguably a more diverse and progressive end product, with greater variety woven into their sonic tapestry that beguiles and captivates me for almost bang on one hour.
Over the course of the seven tracks, that range from a paltry three-and-a-half minutes to over fourteen, there is so much that these three musicians explore. One minute we’re being bludgeoned by some dense death metal, the next we’re plunged into minimalist post-rock atmospheres. And then in comes the black metal trappings which give way to stunning 70s-inspired prog rock environs, or forays into more djent-like passages. You name it, it’s here, and it sounds incredible. A lack of identity or a lack of coherent thought is often the result of an album that tries to do too much, not to mention a feeling that the music is deliberately contrived to appeal to as many listeners as possible. But that’s not the case here for one moment.
The opening minute or two to ‘The Behemoth That Lies Asleep’ is quiet and tentative, yet sombre and full of melancholic drama. The sound of waves gently lapping upon the shore is joined by brittle orchestration and gentle sounds that create a calm, yet strangely uneasy atmosphere. Out of nowhere, thunderous blastbeats shatter the quiet, alongside mournful lead guitar notes. The blackened death metal onslaught slows and then stops dead, whereupon a clean, digitised voice akin to that of Cynic is unleashed upon us.
‘Slaves’ takes over and begins with more barely contained aggression, progressive death metal with a blackened edge the focus. But even then, we get some odd synth sounds piercing the chugging death metal material, whilst the song rarely sits still, ebbing and flowing from one idea to another with impressive fluidity. The light and shade only adds to the drama, as does the switch between deep growls and lighter, clean vocals. As we near the halfway mark, the melodies increase, almost insidiously. From there, it is pure musical heaven for my ears, because not only do the more brutal passages contain more gorgeous melody, but the whole thing is laced with a grandiose melancholy that leads to a piercing lead guitar solo towards the death.
If you think ‘Slaves’ is good (and it is), wait until you hear ‘Tear Down This Holy Mountain’. It arrives out of the ashes of its predecessor and proceeds to create more sombre, yet dramatic atmosphere, slowly building with a judicious use of guitars and drums along the way. The guitars in particular are more in keeping with black metal, or post metal at times, whilst the deep voice that emerges is layered with whimsical melodies created by a flute I believe. When the aggression hits, it creates a huge impact, full of vicious intent, driving the song forward with purpose. But again, as the song develops, it veers off into other realms, with more 70s-inspired keys and a breezy feel, until it stops dead in its tracks. It is here that we are plunged into the most glorious of passages, ambient but overlaid with a beautiful lone guitar solo. The heavier sounds that are then introduced send shivers down my spine, before I’m blown away by yet more melodic lead guitar solos that touch my soul. See, when you have a guitar, you do not need a saxophone. Case closed. And in so doing, An Abstract Illusion have laid down their marker for ‘song of the year’.
Reeling from the majesty of the previous track, ‘Prosperity’ does its best to follow, doing so with the introduction of more of a djent approach. I’m reminded a little of more recent Haken output, although this song certain retains a uniqueness that eventually works its charms. The synths create a lush soundscape upon which the technicality is built, keeping things graceful and melodic however tumultuous the incessant blasts and fast riffs become, albeit in a good way.
With the introduction of ‘Blomsterkrans’, An Abstract Illusion mix things up yet again. This time, the track is a much gentler affair, led from the start by a piano melody and then joined by spoken-word lyrics in Swedish. Strings are introduced, as are other very subtle sounds to only heighten the emotional intent of the song. Only later in the piece do the drums and guitars enter in any kind of notable fashion but when they do, they compliment the song perfectly. Sorrow, misery, and resignation are the feelings that come to mind as I listen to this stunning composition unfold in beguiling fashion.
A demonic voice ushers in the longest track on the album, ‘In The Heavens Above, You Will Become A Monster’, before our eardrums are butchered with the most frantic, fast-paced black metal assault. The 90s looms large over the opening couple of minutes as blastbeats, frosty staccato riffs, and swathes of keyboards assault the senses in a dense attack not for the faint-hearted. An neither are the sections that remind me of Strapping Young Lad at their most extreme, when the song threatens to descend into unhinged, cacophonous aggression. But as is the An Abstract Illusion way, the fourteen minutes are used cleverly, with plenty of variety to be heard, not to mention yet more captivating melody to make the heart sing. With the melody, comes groove, and a demonstrable sense of majesty that many bands would kill to achieve. Acoustic guitars and ethereal female vocals make an appearance within the second half as we’re treated to one of the most epic and spine-tingling sequences of music I’ve heard this year, perhaps longer. And when I use the word ‘epic’, it is not misplaced or vacuous hyperbole, I really mean it. Another contender for ‘song of the year’ without a shadow of doubt.
The final say on ‘Woe’ goes to ‘This Torment Has No End, Only New Beginnings’. It would be easy for it to get lost in the shadow of what has gone before it, but despite the gentle acoustic introduction, and delicate minimalist atmosphere, there is something about this song too, that ensures the listener remains captivated. In some ways, when the heaviness arrives, the song carries with it a triumphant air, as if the band know that they have created something special and they tie everything together perfectly in this last hurrah. As such, there’s a bit of everything to be heard, including one of the catchiest and strongest riffs on the album, as well as some arresting clean vocals that emerge out of a claustrophobic silence. The bass playing is the jewel in the crown of this song though, making those goosebumps reappear once more, particularly around the halfway mark. But then, via an enormous, dramatic, and cinematic final movement, the album is done.
I cannot tell you just how much I really love this album. Well, I have tried over the past 1200 words or so, but sometimes no words can do a record justice. This might be one of those times because as much as I have tried, I still don’t believe that I have scratched the surface of ‘Woe’ and all the little things that makes it so special. The artwork, for instance, which is beautiful, or the production that allows sufficient clarity whilst never robbing the music of its power. There are so many other things that I could mention, but instead, I will leave it up to you to discover them, because you will buy this album, and you will listen to it over and over again. Because if you don’t, you will make one of your biggest mistakes of the year.
The Score of Much Metal: 98%