Album Title: Lightless
Label: Season Of Mist
Date of Release: 26 January 2024
The description of ‘instrumental progressive metal’ is one that will either have you flocking to it, like a moth to a flame, or running away as if your life depended upon it. Not normally the biggest fan of completely instrumental music, I approached ‘Lightless’, the sophomore album release from Vipassi, with a touch of caution to begin with. That was until I found out the clientele involved. Vipassi was born as far back as 2007 as a project between Ne Obliviscaris drummer Daniel Presland and Hadal Maw guitarist Ben Boyle. It took until 2017 for their debut album, ‘Sunyata’ to surface, but the quartet now boasts the further talents of UK-based Arran McSporran on the fretless bass and Ne Obliviscaris guitarist Benjamin Baret.
An impressive and intriguing line-up, I’m sure you’ll agree. But, as with any such endeavour, it will all come down to the chemistry within the group, a shared focus, and some quality output in terms of the music itself. And by heavens is that the case here with ‘Lightless’.
The first, and the most important thing to say right at the outset, is that Vipassi have managed to effortlessly bridge the chasm that will frighten others to within an inch of their lives: the gaping black hole between technicality and memorability. On the one hand, ‘Lightless’ is one of those albums that the musicians amongst you will enjoy, as it contains some incredibly technical and interesting elements, the likes of which I can only flounder about with when trying to describe what’s going on. But, crucially, as a talentless guitarist, but insatiable music lover, I am drawn into this album because…well…it’s brilliant.
And why is it so brilliant to my cloth ears? Simple. The music stands out. It is memorable, it contains melody, interesting contrasts, dynamics, power, subtlety, and is a really enjoyable and engaging listen. OK, so there’s no-one dying into a microphone, or adding a clean vocal melody as a counterpoint to the musical soundscape being created, but the music itself is entertaining enough, and diverse enough to determine that a vocalist is surplus to requirements here.
Without doubt for me, the high point of this excellent record arrives just after the half-way mark in the form of ‘Phainesthai’ so it is here that I begin a deeper dive into the material on ‘Lightless’. It starts off in the most delicate of fashions, with an almost ethereal atmosphere, tentatively growing in stature until all of a sudden in comes the full force of the instrumentation, led purposefully by the bass of McSporran which dances effortlessly alongside some frenetic drumming, and technically adept riffing. The atmosphere is never far away, as the song occasionally pauses to inject tension and sharp contrast into proceedings. There’s a delightfully effervescent lead guitar solo after a couple of minutes, after which, the bass takes on a whole new importance, so deep and resonant alongside an increase in electronic sounds around it. And with this introduction comes a greater and more prominent melody line that grows delicately until in come the guitars to offer melodic riffs, lead lines, and solos to completely leave me open-mouthed and in awe of what I’m hearing.
Happily, though, there are plenty of other fantastic moments across the remaining seven tracks, starting with the marvellous opening title-track. Delightfully light and breezy clean guitar strumming kicks things off, before the drums enter to add some power to what is a rather beautiful and melodic opening. It builds carefully and in considered fashion, layer upon layer being added cleverly, but never to the point where the material feels cluttered or over-worked, and never at the expense of the melodic ideas that are being explored. By the mid-section, the full force of the band is upon us, with fast, urgent drumming, and some chunky, heavy riffs that emerge as the pace slows. Mind you, I love the way in which the drumming remains fast-paced whilst all else around it grinds to a halt – it adds a really cool, interesting dimension to the track.
By contrast, tracks like ‘Labyrinthine Hex’ are much more brutal and technical, at times bordering on the cacophonous. However, the skill of these musicians means that as aggressive as things get, the music never spirals out of control or becomes messy. Instead, it begs you to listen hard and to tease out all of the various intricacies at play, be it an expressive bass-line, a lead guitar embellishment, a subtle timing change, or a cheeky drum fill, or pattern. The way the composition ebbs and flows is also a huge strength, as it allows for moments of calm to allow for a breather, but to also build up the tension and act as a strong contrast to the heavier, more intense sections.
Then, to further underline the variety on offer, you get ‘Ruination Glow’ and ‘Neon Rain’ towards the end of the album. The former takes what feels like an age to build beyond anything more than a gentle minimalist composition, where clean guitars do the heavy lifting for long periods alongside some soothing, ethereal electronic soundscapes. But when it does, it fully explodes, punching the listener square on the jaw in so doing. The latter is another personal favourite. There is a tribal feel to it initially, with some strange vocal samples and intricate, jazzy drum work akin to a solo. And then, from nowhere, in comes the most powerful melodic refrain on the entire record. I wish it would last longer but, mercifully, it is reprised and built on towards the back end of the song. The overlaying lead guitar solo is majestic and spine-tingling, as it cries to the heavens before running impossibly swiftly over a million notes with perfect precision. If you want to hear a properly epic-sounding and moving instrumental track, then look no further.
I could go on, but I think I’m safe to leave it there – there’s no disguising the fact that I like this record and give it a big, positive recommendation in the process. Given the musicians involved, you’d probably expect nothing different but, the way in which the music on ‘Lightless’ pulls you in and refuses to let go, whether it is through an aggressive display of heavy virtuosity, something more delicate, or something achingly and beautifully melodic, is nothing short of magnificent. In a year where I’m desperately trying to be a bit harsher with my scoring, Vipassi have made it very difficult to do so. ‘Lightless’ is worth a bit of everyone’s time and money.
The Score of Much Metal: 90%