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You can always rely on the excesses of progressive metal bands to add some much-needed complexity to an otherwise humdrum evening, and Floridas Aghora are among the more interesting. Formed from the ashes of Cynic, one of the few legendary jazz fusion death metal bands of the early nineties who only ever released one album, Aghora is overall a less eccentric and violent affair, absorbing the lighter instrumental touch of Gordian Knot alumni and the contemplative Hinduism of its lyrical subject matter.
Unlike the majority of so-called progressive bands, who essentially aim to reproduce the style that their peers were playing approximately two years earlier (or in the case of Shadow Gallery, two decades), the musicians collected here all belong to the higher calibre of avant-garde musical experimentation that concerns itself with producing a decent, memorable and new sound, as opposed to just trying to sound like Dream Theater, or contenting themselves with a wall of sound to show how fast they can perform. The predominant writer-director of this piece is Santiago Dobles, who commendably limits his excellent guitars to the times when theyre really needed, unleashing a distinctly Cynic-sounding crunching riff in the instrumental sections and experimenting with several types of guitar solo, from the laid-back style of blues to a more traditional heavy metal sound and even, on occasion, the look-at-that-boy-go approach. Of equal merit is bassist Sean Malone (of both Cynic and Gordian Knot), who handles most of the lead rhythms that would traditionally be played by a guitar drowning the bass player out; this certainly isnt the case here, and the primary lasting effect of this album is that its going to be hard to go back to the majority of effectively bass-less bands hereafter. Malone isnt restricted to filling in the riffs or jamming along to his own piano however, as he also gets some nice, understated solos, in particular a nice interlude between Dobles contributions in Frames.
A slightly controversial casting decision is Dobles sister Danishta Rivero as the lead vocalist, though shes completely competent and pleasant sounding, only really becoming questionable in some of the more energetic sections when her delivery sounds a little too jarring. Perhaps most notable, and certainly most popular of all is the drumming of Sean Reinert (of Cynic, Gordian Knot and Deaths classic album Human, among other credits), who manages to be incredibly prominent and compelling without ever intruding on the rest of the instruments, or showing off for the sake of it, and he receives his due reward of a little time in the solo spotlight at the end of Existence. To their immense credit, these musicians keep the entire album grounded in memorable and catchy rhythms, even when jumping between time signatures or unleashing a blast of frenetic guitars to disturb the peace, and this higher degree of accessibility makes it a less trying and less pompous affair than would probably be expected. At the same time, this could serve to disappoint fans of the aforementioned bands as well as other such as Spiral Architect or death-fusion pioneers Atheist, but theres enough virtuosity between the more reflective and traditional passages to satiate the majority. And come on, were dealing with jazz fusion influenced progressive metal here; its not exactly going to be everyones cup of tea.
1. Immortal Bliss
5. Minds Reality
6. Kali Yuga
Despite its experimental leanings, most songs follow the similar (broad) format of a melodic introduction, usually carried out by bass and piano before the drums kick in, a generally peaceful, lofty tone in the verses, and a slightly more energetic, guitar-led chorus before the band goes off on one with some solos in the second half. Theres never a sense of conceding to tradition though, with Riveros vocals usually coming in a lot earlier than is typical, usually right from the onset, and Dobles very loose and spontaneous attitude towards his guitar, which sometimes blasts out a brief riff between verses and other times decides to stay for the long haul.
There are attempts at an Eastern tinge right from the first song, usually in the form of a slightly clichéd-sounding lead melody (also heard in Minds Reality), but this influence becomes more dominant as the album continues (again, loosely speaking), from the contemplative mood of the otherwise fairly dull Transfiguration and lengthy instrumental Jivatma to the final song, which largely abandons its metal roots and assigns the performers the task of creating an authentic Eastern sound, something they pull of expertly, as expected. These three songs in particular work well to break up what would otherwise be a fairly repetitive album, but would perhaps lack the strength to stand effectively alone as well: despite the praise levelled towards Jivatma as a piece of instrumental grandeur, I was actually a little disappointed that it remained so restrained, though avoiding plunging into more obtuse realms that bring the progressive genre so much criticism was probably a wise move, and certainly one that helps the rest of the album.
Immortal Bliss is a nice introduction, beginning as a fairly standard metal song before subtly tripping the listener up with increasing time signature shifts, but compared to the songs that follow in much the same manner, its probably most memorable for Riveros vocal performance, which reaches some reeeeeally high notes in a questionable attempt to match the skill of the surrounding musicians. Her style doesnt suit the next song or Minds Reality quite so well, as shes pitted against her brothers thrashing guitar in both, but it all works beautifully in the bass- and piano-driven verses. The songs are all trimmed to pretty much the perfect length, with some such as the more reflective and complex Frames being given a longer cooling-off period and the majority ceasing abruptly before they lapse into repetition. The only song that really suffers for this is Minds Reality, which is a little too short and lacking in content to be of much value compared to the others, and along with the more ambient songs mentioned earlier, is probably the least essential offering on here.
Oddly, its the even-numbered tracks that I found the most rewarding (the same works for Star Trek films), as Satya, Frames, Kali Yuga and Existence all nail the sound and style to perfection. The latter two in particular manage to be more diverse than their predecessors, combining heavy and melodic sections with greater skill and frequency, and opportunities for the performers to play whatever the hell they want, regardless of how easy it will be approach. They neednt worry, as Aghora is a wholly successful prog metal offering from some of the genres most recognised performers, living up to the true definition of progressive metal while also making music to be enjoyed by a wider audience than just pipe smokers who nod along occasionally, scratching their bearded, middle-aged faces.
Track Listings: 1. Immortal Bliss / 2. Satya / 3. Transfiguration / 4. Frames / 5. Mind's Reality / 6. Kali Yuga / 7. Jivatma / 8. Existence / 9. Anugraha