Artist: Silent Skies
Album Title: Dormant
Label: Napalm Records
Date of Release: 1 September 2023
“Are you prepared…”
These are, fittingly, the first three words that are sung by Tom Englund at the beginning of ‘Construct’. It is the opening composition of ‘Dormant’, the third album from Silent Skies, the collaboration between Englund and Vikram Shankar.
The answer is ‘no’, I was not prepared. I mean, I should have been, but I wasn’t.
I’ve been aware of Tom Englund’s vocal and songwriting talents since the turn of the millennium thanks to his work with Evergrey, more latterly Redemption, and his myriad guest roles and cameo appearances for any number of bands over the last quarter of a century. As I have been lucky enough to get to know Tom on a personal level, I’ve begun to obtain an insight into the man himself, too, and so I should have been prepared.
I’ve been aware of the talents of Vikram Shankar for a little less time. However, I have followed his work closely over the past few years, therefore fully understanding his supreme musical talent. Piano and keyboards may be his primary focus, but he is also an accomplished guitarist and songwriter, as his delicate recreations of well-known and well-loved songs can attest. I know all this, so I should have been prepared.
I’ve been very aware of the music of Silent Skies since Tom and Vikram decided to join forces to bring voice and sound to a shared inner vision. I adore both previous albums, the 2020 debut, ‘Satellites’ and last year’s follow-up, ‘Nectar’, lavishing scores of 97% upon them both. And rightly so, because the music that features on both is exquisite. So, I should have been prepared.
I wasn’t prepared.
Despite going into ‘Dormant’ fully armed and ready, it has still utterly floored me. The modus operandi of the two musicians hasn’t changed, meaning that theirs remains a stripped-back affair, where simplicity is key, and the compositions speak for themselves on their own merits without unnecessary gimmicks or smoke and mirrors. That said, with ‘Dormant’, the guys have pushed themselves further than ever before, allowing some of the songs to become more than just vocals and keys.
In the beginning, when chatting with Tom, I joked that I’d love a guitar solo in just one of the compositions on the upcoming debut. ‘No’, was the firm reply. And he was right with this decision.
Fast forward to this third release and whilst there remains an absence of such frippery, it’s fair to say that the music on ‘Dormant’ is more multi-layered and diverse than ever before, as the two artists seek to test the boundaries as well as their own personal limits throughout. What hasn’t changed, however, is the depth, the emotion, the honesty, and the beauty of the output.
There is absolutely no point in going through my favourite tracks in detail, because it would end up being a track-by-track review of the album, with nothing left for you to explore and surprise you. But then again, it’d not be a Man Of Much Metal review if I didn’t go into a little detail. So allow me to pick a few key highlights that I firmly believe require some extra time in the spotlight.
It all begins with the opening composition, ‘Construct’, which demonstrates perfectly the stripped back, simple effectiveness of Silent Skies for the vast majority of its five-minute life. Delicate piano notes, and apparently simple electronic sounds courtesy of Vikram Shankar provide an uncluttered and relatively minimalist canvass upon which Tom Englund can deploy his strongest and most unique weapon. Over the years I must have used every possible adjective to describe Englund’s voice and the impact it has on me, so I feel like I’m restating the obvious when I say that his performance is utterly devastating. Resonant, rich, powerful, emotional, and completely authentic, there’s no one else quite like him, there really isn’t, not for me anyway.
Towards the end of the beautiful ‘Construct’, we’re hit with a powerful crescendo of sorts, a bursting forth of emotion that is wonderous to behold. The increase in intensity begins with a more pronounced beat and bolder synth sounds before we’re hit with a tidal wave of beauty. Choral vocal effects and increased layers of sound combine to create more of a movie soundtrack vibe, but one that is entirely in keeping with the Silent Skies approach. It’s only the first track, and I’m already blown away.
‘New Life’ is a much darker affair but features string samples within the piano and electronic sounds deployed to great effect. It’s also a more intricate composition and actually reminds me a little of the film composer Craig Armstrong at points – a definite compliment, I assure you. However, the melodies and the pleading, imploring delivery of Englund elevates this song to another level entirely. I’m not sure at what exact point it happens because it is so subtle, but there’s a transition between simply listening to the song, and living and breathing the experience. I give myself willingly to the music, allowing it to envelop me and move me emotionally in a way that’s rare. Yes, I get excited by music, but this is different; this is an all-encompassing experience.
The duo then dabbles with a more overt pop-like delivery with ‘Churches’. No less emotional, raw, or honest, it carries with it a slightly brighter and breezier feel, albeit not exactly ‘bright’ in the conventional sense, as the lyrical content doesn’t lend itself to such a description. Nevertheless, it has blossomed into another essential track on the album.
To further underline the slight broadening and expanding of sounds and influences on ‘Dormant’, ‘Just Above The Clouds’ features a guest appearance from cellist Raphael Weinroth-Browne. It’s a wonderful addition, almost as wonderful as the scintillating chorus that emerges from within one of the more minimalist tracks, at least initially at any rate. Tears? No, not at all. It must just be gentle precipitation getting in my eyes.
As the album develops, there isn’t a weak moment, a missed step, or a chink in the quality. ‘Reset’ is about as deliciously melancholy as it’s possible to be, a description it shares willingly with its successor, ‘Tides’. Mind you, as with all Silent Skies material, the melancholy is not stark or absolute because a thin thread of hope and resilience runs through many of the words sung with such purpose and delicacy by Englund. And with Vikram Shankar by his side, the lyrics are provided the perfect aural accompaniment, as eloquent as any other part of the compositions thanks to his limitless skill.
Do I have a favourite song on ‘Dormant’? No, I genuinely don’t think I do. But, somewhat surprisingly, it is ‘The Real Me’ that threatens to change my mind just about every time I play this album. It’s surprising because I’d not have expected a song with an increased electronic vibe to have this effect, especially when Englund experiments with a few sparingly-used vocal effects. As always, though, it’s the power of the melody that once again proves to be the killer weapon. And on ‘The Real Me’, the melodies are utterly sensational.
No review of ‘Dormant’ could be complete without a mention of the bonus tracks that feature. Normally, I am not a fan of cover versions at all, because I’d much rather listen to the original and hear more new material from the artists that I like. The latest rare exception to the rule, though, has to be this album that features not one but three re-workings and re-imaginings of classic songs. I’m less familiar with Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dancing In The Dark’, but my jaw hits the floor when I listen to Silent Skies’ renditions of Iron Maiden’s ‘The Trooper’ and ‘Numb’ by Linkin Park. Both covers bring a completely new feel to the songs, without abandoning the essence of either. In the case of ‘The Trooper’ in particular, the dark intensity of the words are given new meaning and resonance, turning what was a heartbeat raising barnstormer of a song into an achingly tragic and poignant composition. I never thought that Iron Maiden could be bettered, but Silent Skies come close.
I’m not really sure what else I can say about ‘Dormant’, except to praise artist Mattias Norén on the stunning artwork that adorns the cover. The whole thing is more than just an album containing some nice music – with ‘Dormant’, Silent Skies have gone above and beyond to create a piece of art that I will willingly and eagerly return to time and again for day, weeks, months, and years to come. It is a body of work that fills me with such a sense of wonder, teasing out all kinds of emotional responses along the way. It’s not something you simply listen to, it is an album that you give yourself to, absorb, and allow it to work its magic from the opening note to the last. Have no doubt, you’re in the presence of something truly special here. Silent Skies can do no wrong.
The Score of Much Metal: 98%