- Surpassed Monumentally Impossible Expectations?
Having, unfortunately, been unable to attend Nearfest, I was ecstatic to get a call from my colleague Markus Cueva with news that he was spinning the new Änglagård album, and that I would be amazed. I didn’t take me more than a couple of seconds after hanging up that my heart was racing and I was emailing Greg Walker for him to hold a copy for me to pick up from him since I coincidentally was going to be in town. To make matters even more exciting, the band almost immediately thereafter announced that there had been a problem with the printing and that as a result the release would be delayed; however, there were an extremely limited number of copies available from some US distributors, and I had just secured mine. And so it is that I am now the lucky owner of one of the first runs of Viljans öga, the one that was printed on the digipack inside out with the shiny side inward. It’s gorgeous, and I’m sure it will become a hot collector’s item, although I’d never dare think about getting rid of it.
The bottom line is that Änglagård had previously set the bar so high that I never imagined that they could come up with something that still sounds like Änglagård and is simultaneously new, exciting, and fresh. Well, they did it, which is saying a lot. Apart from the compositional masterpiece that Viljans öga represents, I am absolutely speechless about the performances of each and every member of the band, particularly Matthias’s drumming, Anna’s flute playing, and Johan’s bass. Furthermore, if it weren’t for White Willow’s release last year (also featuring Mr. Olsson), I would say that this might just be the most beautiful, natural, and earthy sounding production job I’ve heard. Although it comes in as a close second to White Willow, it still leaves the competition in the dust, resulting in me casting premature, but wholly reasonable, votes for the upcoming Proggies’ category of ‘best production.’
There is very little that can compare to that sense of the sublime that I felt upon first hearing the somber and folky opening of Viljans öga. I was initially taken back by how quickly I could feel the maturity of a band that had already matured past where most bands ever could. So much restraint is shown as the album opens up with extremely delicate arrangements and tasteful instrumentation. Every second is essential, the addition and disappearance of each and every instrument has been meticulously crafted, every bit is purposefully in its proper place as instruments and moods are combined and layered masterfully. As “Ur vilande” finally becomes heavy, I expected that the gorgeous intro was just that: an intro. I am delighted to say that I was mistaken, and that throughout the track the band continues to masterfully craft the opening melodies lines in ways that make the utmost sense. Just when you think that the piece is about to get out of control, they pull it back into place with the ever so mystical flute playing of Anna, who really has been given her chance to shine on this album.
“Sorgmantel,” like “Ur vilande” opens up with some very dark moods, although here the atmosphere is distinctively dreamy, and in my opinion, impressionistic, as it wanders about in the most surreal of ways. Johan’s superbly melodic bass-lines are a highlight here, practically taking the lead, complimented by some very ambient Mellotron, along with more of Anna’s flute playing that we all love. Additionally, this track has Thomas showing us that the choice between a reverby Mellotron 3 violins and a dry and harsh one is a fundamental choice which he employs perfectly in both cases. As the song advances, Änglagård brings back some of their more aggressive approaches that we have seen on previous albums, always balancing it perfectly with massive amounts of restraint. Then, there’s the moment on this album that would knock anyone’s socks off. Starting around 7:13 the band starts to build the parts until it divinely erupts into perhaps what is the most luscious texture I have ever heard on any recording in my life. This is a brief section of the overall piece, but I’m already going to call it for the upcoming Proggies “Biggest Depends Moment” category; be sure to keep a change of undies; you will soil yourself, and then you will soil yourself again at 8:53 (although a bit less) when a similar bit ensues, so be prepared! Once again, Änglagård knows how to bring you down off this high with some calmer moments that only they know how to do.
If there’s any track that just punches you in the face, it’s “Snårdom.” While the first two tracks had me convinced that Änglagård had made a habit of easing you into their compositions with soft, moody intros, “Snårdom” blasts you instantly with ferocious bass playing, thundering drums, and wild flute. I suddenly thought, “Änglagård goes RIO!” Indeed, I had noticed a few avant-prog moments earlier in the album, and while “Snårdom” still feels like good old Änglagård symphonic rock, it most definitely makes it clear that the Änglagård palette has expanded in significant ways over the years. The funny thing is, it sounds so natural, and so Änglagård! The way they have adapted some more ‘experimental’ sections into their songs feel like such angles always belonged in their music. In other words, there’s no sense that this is a band that is trying out new things in order to expand their identity; rather, this is a band who has come into full maturity and knows the fine art of self-expression with the capacity to paint with many more shades than ever. This really shows with the solo cello that enters just before the 10 minute mark, and the band produces what I might consider the most heart wrenchingly beautiful melodies of their career. This is majestically complimented with a great follow up of organ, drums, and bass as Änglagård morphs into the finest of folky moods; haunting and grim, just what I would expect from a great Swedish symphonic band.
As the final track, “Längtans Klocka,” kicks it off, I started thinking that this was the track that had the highest concentration of the Epilog sound on it. While I may still defend this statement, that doesn’t mean that it’s without its distinctive 2012 Änglagård features. About halfway through the piece, strange things be begin to happen, from the return of the ‘duck’ sound, to weird little synth bits before melding into some of the huge melodies and gorgeous arrangements that we are hearing more and more often on Viljans öga. Then suddenly, the madness begins. I’m not sure if that was an organ with weird effects or Mellotron bees or what, but I suddenly had a vision of a psychotic circus with insane clowns as Änglagård breaks into a sort of nightmarish waltz full of all sorts of delightful timbres and a brief avant-prog outro that proves to be an ending to the album that was completely unexpected.
When I first heard Änglagård, it seemed near impossible to get my hands on a copy of Hybris and Epilog, so I bided my time by wearing out their live album, Buried Alive. Luckily, the day came when I could get my hands on their studio albums, and I am glad to say that I didn’t have to endure anywhere near what many Änglagård fans have faced during the many years in which they wondered, hoped, and prayed that someday there would be another studio recording. With our minds all blown by the fact that such young people had managed to write and perform such legendary music as could be found on the first two Änglagård records, I think it’s fair to guess that we had all been asking, for some time, how could a new Änglagård album ever measure up to their previous masterpieces? It only follows that when Viljans öga was announced, this question constantly haunted my mind as I would watch the studio update videos.
Why do we exhibit this paradox of expecting a band to do something bigger and better while we simultaneously proclaim their past works to be so transcendent that they can never be surpassed? I honestly felt that I could not ask for too much from this new release. I now realize that I should have had more faith in Änglagård, because they have proven once again what they are fully capable of. It didn’t even take more than a few seconds of Viljans öga to realize that Änglagård had done what had seemed to be impossible by giving us everything we have ever loved about the Änglagård sound, while revealing themselves as blatantly more mature in virtually every aspect of their career, including, but not limited to, composing, arranging, performing, and producing outstanding music. I’m going to call it right now: Viljans öga is the prog album of the year. Let’s hope that the bigwigs at Prog Magazine recognize this over the ‘hyper-popular’ or ‘classic’ bands. In the event that they don’t, we will surely publically recognize this monumental album in Progulator.com’s Proggies!