Album Title: The Approbation
Label: InsideOut Music
Date of Release: 16 June 2023
OK, I’m going to start this review by tackling the elephant in the room at the outset: the name of the band. It’s hard enough to get noticed and to gain traction in the music world at the best of times, but to make it harder by choosing a name that is not immediately understandable or pronounceable is perhaps not the sharpest move. Apparently AVKRVST is pronounced ‘Awkrust’, but maybe it’s the English in me, when all I can think is ‘awkward’.
Right, with that grumpy and pointless introduction out of the way, let’s get down to more important business. And first up, is the rather beautiful back story that accompanies ‘The Approbation’, the debut album from Norwegian progressive rock band AVKRVST. The story begins no less than twenty-two years ago when guitarist/bassist/vocalist Simon Bergseth and Martin Utby (drums, synths) made a pact as seven-year-olds that they’d form a band. Whilst a similar pact for me has not led to me playing up front with my mate for Tottenham, this one has come true, and they’ve been joined by Oystein Aadland (bass, keys), Edvard Seim (guitars), and Auver Gaaren (keys) to bring AVKRVST alive.
The quintet refer to themselves as a progressive rock band but this debut record, comprised of seven songs and nearly fifty minutes of music, is not nearly as neatly pigeonholed as that. Mind you, isn’t that the very point of progressive music?
The hype that has surrounded this release has been hard to ignore and, when I finally managed to get my ears around ‘The Approbation’, I could begin to understand just why this was. With artwork created at the hand of renowned artist Eliran Kantor, and a production that affords a rich, clear sound, it has all the hallmarks of a high-quality affair. Add to this an intriguing concept that surrounds a ‘bleak soul who is left solely with his thoughts, isolated in a cabin deep in the dark forests, far away from civilization’. When you learn that the band holed up in a cabin of their own over the course of an autumn and winter to write and record the album, the entire framework is present and correct to deliver cast-iron success. All that is, bar one: the music itself.
It is very easy to understand the various influences at play for AVKRVST, for they are the great and the good of the progressive music world. The Opeth effect is writ large within many of the songs, as is the influence of Steven Wilson, be it in his solo guise or in Porcupine Tree mode. There are many more names that I could drop into the equation too, from Riverside to King Crimson, maybe even a hint of Frost* here and there. Depending on your tastes, I’m sure that many of you will be salivating at the prospect, especially when I confirm that the five musicians within the band are all incredibly talented and adept musicians.
The problem for me, however, is that ‘The Approbation’ is just a little too inconsistent to deliver the home run that I was hoping for. It’s a very good album, of that there is absolutely no doubt. But for my tastes, every killer moment is counteracted by a song – or a passage of a song – that brings me back down to Earth with a frustrating ‘meh’-shaped bump. I also wanted the music to have a bit more bite. You occasionally hear a growl, or a heavier section, but generally, ‘The Approbation’ is at the softer end of the prog spectrum.
It all begins with a 26-second intro piece, ‘Østerdalen’ and an Opeth-ian acoustic guitar duetting with the distant sounds captured from around the cabin. From there, we segue seamlessly into ‘The Pale Moon’, arguably the best song on the entire record. The guitars are heavy, meting out a classic-sounding stop-start prog riff, whilst the drums are properly impressive, all muscularity and honed power. And then the most gorgeous melody cuts in as the brief heaviness dies away. The bass guitar is delicious, whilst the guitar notes are bright, pin sharp, and beautiful. I have ultra-high hopes at this stage as a poignant lead guitar wails mournfully over proceedings, as in comes swathes of keys and synths to drench the music in greater layers of atmosphere. Vocally, Bergseth has a nice enough delivery, very smooth, and at the slightly higher end of the register. You can tell that the songwriting prowess is high as the song ebbs and flows, ultimately building into a finale that features some growls and some of the heaviest, chunkiest material on the album. Yes, the Opeth influence is huge, but there’s just enough of AVKRVST’s own identity peeking through to not make it sound entirely derivative.
So far so good, but it’s with the introduction of ‘Isolation’ that I start to lose a little of my early excitement. It’s a more urgent track, much faster and in-your-face, but what it introduces in terms of pace, it loses in the memorability stakes for my personal tastes. There’s a nice section where the lead guitar again sings atop a quieter passage, but it soon disappears in favour of some bold 70s-style synth sounds and a direction with which I’m less enamoured, sadly. The musicianship is very high, but to me, it feels a little ‘something or nothing’.
For all of the expertly crafted material that follows, including ‘The Great White River’, which I’m sure will gain many plaudits from plenty of prog rock fans, I’m not brought out of my feelings of apathy until the penultimate track, ‘Anodyne’ hits. Admittedly, ‘Arcane Clouds’ offers a couple of nice riffs here and there, but after a very slow, ponderous beginning, ‘Anodyne’ eventually resolves into an interesting, engaging track, made all the more powerful thanks to its ever-changing nature and ultimately some super melodies that come to the fore in the second half of the ten-minute song. Not only are we treated to a brief, but welcome, reprise of those heard in ‘The Pale Moon’, but equally impressive are those heard within the ‘chorus’ of sorts, even if such a thing doesn’t strictly exist.
The closing title track is over thirteen minutes in length and contains a few nice touches for sure, one of the groovy riffs in particular. But again, it feels to me like a wasted opportunity as it fails to make anywhere the same impact on me as a couple of other tracks on the album. I’m not a fan of the heavily effect-laden vocals that crop up in the first few minutes, and there’s a lack of killer melody, too, even if the closing few minutes do have a certain charm about them that does slowly grow with repeated listens.
I realise that I’m sounding like a miserable old git, and that I may be coming across as overly harsh here. However, AVKRVST are a clearly talented bunch, and on occasion, they have delivered some music that I really like on this debut release. Unfortunately, for my tastes, this happens too infrequently, and I cannot help but feel just a touch disappointed with ‘The Approbation’. That doesn’t mean, though, that I won’t be eager and willing to check out album number two in the fullness of time, because I certainly will, hoping that it clicks with me the way that this debut has clicked for many others.
The Score of Much Metal: 72%