Album Title: Witness
Label: Mascot Records
Date of Release: 21 May 2021
To me, ‘Applause Of A Distant Crowd’ was one of the best albums released during 2018, securing the number 11 spot in that year’s ‘Album of the Year’ list. With hindsight, it ought to have been even higher, as it just gets better the more I listen to it. At the time, I concluded my review by stating that ‘Applause…’ created “…some of the most challenging and original yet beautifully elegant and sophisticated music that I have heard all year. All I want to do when the album finishes is listen to it all over again.”
Naturally, I was chomping at the bit to get my ears around Vola’s (or should that be VOLA’s?) eagerly awaited successor, and I know from my social media timelines that I’m not the only one. And here I am, finally, able to give voice to my thoughts on ‘Witness’, the fourth album of the Danes’ career to date. According to the band themselves, the lyrical content on ‘Witness’ deals with the subject of failed relationships, but relationships on a societal level, namely between the leaders and the followers, or to put it another way, politicians and the general populace. It’s therefore not the happiest of records overall.
However, rather than the lyrical content, the first thing to hit me when I listened to ‘Witness’, was the increased djent influences. The big chugging riffs of that genre were definitely present throughout ‘Applause…’ but unless I’m mistaken, they are even more prevalent here. Almost immediately, as ‘Straight Lines’ kicks in, we’re struck with a powerful djent-like riff, a churning, mesmeric riff, enhanced by a clever drum beat and gurgling, commanding bass line. The rhythm doesn’t sound like a standard 4-4 structure either, giving it a progressive, slightly off-kilter feel. The initial heaviness subsides but the riffs and rhythms continue, albeit bathed in synths to provide a thick atmosphere. Asger Mygind delivers his mellifluous and slightly effect-laden vocals and then, after a moment of quieter contemplation, in marches the first of many ridiculously catchy, pop-infused choruses to my utter delight. The juxtaposition between heaviness and unashamed hooky melodies is perfectly balanced, sating both the metalhead in me as well as the fan of a catchy melody.
The opener isn’t the only track to explore the blending of progressive metal and heavy djent with accessible, mainstream choruses, either. It’s a tactic used throughout much of ‘Witness’. Indeed, the second track on the record, ‘Head Mounted Sideways’ continues the theme. Mygind’s guitars are heavy and downtuned delivering killer riffs in the process, the drumming of Adam Janzi is sharp and interesting, whilst Nicolai Mogensen’s bass continues to compliment the riffs in a powerfully deep and resonant fashion. This time though, we hear a completely different vocal performance from Mygind, much more heavily effect-laden, sounding almost like a digitised robot. It works well with the more pronounced keys within the song, as sci-fi influences loom large. But yet again, the song opens to provide a beautiful chorus, not massively dissimilar to the likes of Voyager unless my ears deceive me. Mygind’s ‘normal’ voice returns later in the song, and overall, there feels like there’s a greater use of light and shade within the song, certainly more than the opening number.
The vocals on ‘Witness’ are another area where it feels like Vola have opened up somewhat since ‘Applause…’, happy – eager even – to experiment with new ideas in this area. This observation leads inevitably to the one song on the record that has caused me the greatest amount of difficulty, ‘These Black Claws’. Allow me to explain…
The song opens in a manner that I wasn’t expecting. The song features electronic/hip hop duo Shahmen and their influence is clear from the outset thanks to electronic-sounding beats and a weird electronic-led ‘spooky’ melody. In comes a heavy riff, arguably one of the heaviest on the album, to pull things back towards a more ‘business as usual’ framework. However, it falls away and back come the odd electronics for the verse, overlaid with Mygind’s voice. Weirdly, it sounds like he has a heavy cold as he sings, but I may just be hearing things. The chorus, when it hits almost out of nowhere is both powerful and stunning, catchy as hell, a personal favourite on ‘Witness’. But just when I start to relax, the second verse is delivered by Bliss of Shahmen and the song is ruined in my opinion. I don’t like hip hop, I don’t like rap, and I really don’t want to hear it within a Vola record. Many of you will be shouting at me, saying I’m closed-minded, and not open enough to new ideas. You might well be right, but this is just me and I have to be honest. Despite repeated listens and great effort on my part, I genuinely don’t like it and I feel it wasn’t necessary despite the overt hip hop influences elsewhere within the song. It’s a crying shame because the chorus is a thing of majestic beauty. I applaud the quartet for trying something different, but personally-speaking, I feel like they went too far here.
Leaving ‘These Black Claws’ aside however, there remain plenty of other amazing songs within the nine that comprise ‘Witness’.
Probably my favourite has to be ’24 Light-Years’. It is a quieter, more introspective song, without all of the heavy djent muscle. It could even be considered to be something of a ballad, albeit not your run-of-the-mill saccharine affair. Throughout, I love the drumming because it provides a properly intriguing and interesting beat, demonstrating Janzi’s talents behind the kit. The track is heavily layered with atmospheric synths and the guitars, whilst present, take a backseat for large portions of the song, until the final third when they emerge with modest aplomb. Admittedly, there are moments that fly close to the miserable drivel of Coldplay et al, but such is the skill of Vola, that they sidestep any such mediocrity and just create a delightful, beautifully melodic, and rather poignant piece of music.
The other ballad on ‘Witness’ is entitled ‘Freak’ and it’s another really beautiful, smooth song, led by acoustic guitars but with all of the Vola ingredients you have come to expect by now. It might not have quite the same impact upon me as ’24 Light-Years’ but it’s still a great addition to the album as a whole.
Elsewhere, ‘Napalm’ is an almost perfect symbiosis between layers of guitars from Mygind (yes, there is only one guitarist within Vola) and even more layers of rich, textured synths. Further elegant melodies litter the song, particularly in the choruses, whilst the drums and bass keep things interesting with beats and rhythms detached from the norm. Then there’s ‘Future Bird’ which, whilst maintaining the general modus operandi, contains echoes of latter day Katatonia. I say this for two reasons. Firstly, the inclusion of some simple piano notes and secondly, the melodic yet slightly unusual chorus that contains a greater progressive element than other choruses on the record. Together, the atmospheres feel just that little bit more dystopian and reminiscent of their Swedish counterparts. Needless to say, it’s a superb song; smooth, heavy, and beautiful, full of emotion.
A word at this point needs to be made of the production. If their instrumental and songwriting talents weren’t enough, ‘Witness’ has been self-produced, with only the mix and mastering handled by a third party, namely Jacob Hansen. And the final result sounds incredible. Muscular, clear, nuanced, textured, it really does the music full justice.
Before I heard a note of ‘Witness’, I knew I would like it. The question was how much and, would I like it even more than ‘Applause…’? Having listened countless times to this album, I have reached the conclusion that I might just like ‘Applause…’ slightly more, but it’s a close-run thing. But why choose? Just play the albums back-to-back. ‘Witness’ is a heavier album, where the boundaries have been pushed just that little bit more in terms of the different ideas given voice within the album. These experiments have both worked (’24 Light-Years’ and ‘Straight Lines’) and fallen a little flat (‘These Black Claws’), but credit where it’s due, kudos to the band for giving things a go. At the end of the day, I love the riffing, I love the melodies, I love the rich layers, and I have taken many of the songs to my heart. If, like me, you enjoy heavy music with a progressive bent, but with strong, immediate, and irresistible melodies, then ‘Witness’ will be a massive hit with you. But then I guess you already knew that, didn’t you?
The Score of Much Metal: 93%
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: