Tom S. Englund - vocals, guitar
Henrik Danhage - guitar
Michael Hakansson - bass
Rikard Zander - keyboards
Jonas Ekdahl - drums
Well, now, this isn't bad at all. Evergrey have made a tiny bit of headway into the American music scene, appearing on Headbanger's Ball a few times in the early '00s, but on the whole they are not considered the chieftains of greatness by any stretch. In fact, owing to the fact that this is the first review of the band on this site, which is ordinarily quite thorough with regard to European metal, I'd be willing to speculate that not all that many people (in the U.S. at least) are actually familiar with them. I suspect that there's a reason for that, which I will go into later, but on the whole I'd say this band is the musical equivalent of a movie "sleeper:" the surprise purchase you get on a whim, lacking in hype from either fans or the industry, and you discover that they are, in fact, quite fantastic.
This album is the Swedish quintet's fourth, I believe. By now, only one original member of the group--Englund--seems to remain, but that hasn't dampened the results. The basic tenet of Evergrey's sound is a very dark, almost blue-sounding progressive metal style. The musical result is reminscient of many things and styles: it's progressive in the sense that Queenscryche were, and it's heavy and wintery like much of their more extreme Swedish contemporaries in the adjoining death and black metal scenes. Their guitar sound is fantastic: it's incredibly crunchy but not over-the-top, and it hits you right in the gut. It's very organic and sounds great. The keyboards are also a wonderful touch for the group, solidifying their proggy tendencies while enhancing the cold feel of the music: very rarely does Zander choose questionable key tones the way one Jordan Rudess is apt to do in Dream Theater. And Englund is a fine vocalist, singing with an almost gospel/blues power over the driving forces of the metal band behind him. His voice is warm, moderately accented, and expressive. His note choice can sound sometimes cheesy, as he seems to be firmly based in the clean, bluesy vocal form rather than the typical metal styles, but on the whole the results are quite effective. Evergrey, in addition, are huge fans of the concept album, and this one, "The Inner Circle," is no exception, dealing with a person lured into a religious cult and who is eventually unwillingly turned into an ideological automaton that destroys his self-respect and leaves him alone again. A theme in some Scandanavian metal is a criticism of religion or at least the fanatical breeds of followers it creates, and this follows that in a manner that Operation: Mindcrime fans should love.
Here's the album track-by-track:
1.) A Touch of Blessing
Opening with a fade-in of an ominous guitar line, Englund digs into the concept immediately by imploring the central character to "join the world of greater learning," and then to "become its servant." The keyboards begin playing a nimble figure over this in a way that builds it to a perfect prog-metal crescendo, as the wonderfully warm and crunchy guitars slam in. There is a post-chorus guitar solo, of the nice expressive type we enjoy in the slower prog: Englund handles the solos quite nicely. The outro is a fantastically emotional section, containing a neat key change and another expressive solo, which resolves to the main figure of the song and goes to a very melodic and biting close.
Opening with a disembodied voice saying "Obey my voice and I will be your God," this song is meant to represent the introduction of the main character to the cult's head. Very dark, groaning vocals say "Let me be your hand of guidance: no more solitude, no more incontinence." The riffing in this song is very cool, and the guitarists have a perfect vibrato for their single-note lines. The keyboards continue to add a ton of dimension, never getting in the way of the composition. That's another element of Evergrey that's well-showcased in this song: they can play, but their songs never sound clinical or clipped. Organic composition is the name of the game here. Another cool solo and a double-kick interlude are highlights, as are the frequent half-time/double-time tempo shifts.
3.) In the Wake of the Weary
Opening with the aggressive, melodic minor-key riffing we're used to so far, Englund takes a great, expressive tack here. The verse vocals in particular are very emotional, with nice high-pitched harmonies from female guest vocalists that make the gospel and blues influence VERY pronounced, even though the underlying music remains the wintery prog-metal that is their mainstay. Personally, I think this vocal style fits the music much better than the typical faux-operatic style we've come to expect from prog-metal vocalists. This song is another great example of how these guys clearly display their chops in subservience to the composition, which sounds incredibly organic, so much so that the complexities that are here almost go by with absolutely no notice. A highlight is the symphonic section in the middle. Great tasteful use of the keyboards there.
4.) Harmless Wishes
The major standout in this song is the stellar verse break. When the heavy riffing gives way to the verses, the drums play a smashing, catchy beat over a VERY subdued acoustic guitar that's so drenched in chorus and reverb you can't even hear it and the thickened textures of the bass and keyboards, as Englund continues on his typically expressive course. The symphonic elements at the end of the choruses are great as well. Englund continues to cultivate different vocal tones to represent his various characters, going very throaty for the cult leader and members and very expressive and helpless for his main character. This stuff is just great.
5.) Waking up Blind
Opening as an almost smooth-pop ballad, Englund is at a very expressive note here, although there is the risk of a cheesy factor. Dealing with the main character's dissatisfaction with the cult leader's false truths, this song seems a general criticism of religion in general, with lines like "So foolish to believe in your hyprocrisies." There is a lot of melodic activity, but it's oddly dark and murky, which benefits it. It's quite different from the rest of the album though: this qualifies as a dark pop song.
6.) More than Ever
We are quickly brought out of that particular reverie with a ton of aggression here, as Englund bellows with incredible dynamic control over the always-fantastic melodic riffing of the two players. The keyboards continue to serve an ambient and background role, enhancing everything and thickening the mix out. Still more solos fill this up, more shreddy than before but still very impressive and tight and most importantly organic.
7.) The Essence of Conviction
We get a little more proggy here with neat stop-start dynamics in the intro and chugging riffing leading into the melodic body of the piece. The only real problem that's becoming apparent with the music so far is the general sameness in tone and sound. It can get problematic to listen to this type of thing all the way through, and it's also this quality which prevents many particular spots sticking in listener's ears, even though the music is very high-quality. Englund continues being very expressive and controlling over the band dynamics, rising and falling. The preacher voice makes a return in this song, an effective touch. The bridge section in addition has a wonderfully nice ambient keyboard part. The solo is not much different from the ones we've heard before: taking place over a slow beat, it's pretty emotional and reverbed, but it's also not much different in tone from the other ones we've heard.
8.) Where All Good Sleep
Great synths open this up, with a great drumbeat. The band's deceptive heaviness hits us once again after. The main character of the concept is excorcising the demons implanted by the cult in this song. The band's unusual layering styles come through again in the middle solo: another thing that's deceptive about this band is the amount of harmonic and instrumental activity happening at any one time. There are usually two or three riff harmonies going on at one time, and during the solos there tends to be a lot of guitar tracks playing various figures, creating a lot of good ambience. There's a pretty nice drum workout here, although I'm wondering why the guy doesn't play a little more.
9.) Faith Restored
The chorused acoustic guitar is back, and it's cool. We get another really nice ballad here as Englund continues on his very expressive course. I really like his vocal style. The guitars are handled nicely, with almost no other instrumental embellishments to speak of until near the end, as the preacher's voice heralds the entry of very effective volume-swelled guitar leads and a wonderfully beautiful symphonic string section, where the song closes.
10.) When the Walls Go Down
The main character finally begs for help from God over a wonderfully ominous piano line, having no where else to turn as his struggles with the cult leave him helpless. The monologues over the symphonics and pianos are incredibly emotional, with fantastic voice-acting. The music is very beautiful in this song, which builds very orgasmically and awesomely. The band picks up and begins getting heavy at around the midway mark as the monologues continue. Zander really shines here, as his keyboard arrangements are fantastically beautiful and well-constructed. The emotion here in this song, which is entirely instrumental except for the monologues, is very palpable and moving. The song builds with an intensity largely unmatched throughout the rest of the album and as such is a great closer. Awesome stuff.
This album gets a four, or an eight on the ten-point scale. It's a very deceptive, deep album, that was at first challenging for me to get into. There's very little pretention about this stuff, and despite the many, many guitar solos there's very little assertions of instrumental prowess or muscle--so little, in fact, that no riff on the album, for a while, stuck in my head as awesome or bone-crushing or whatever the way, say, Nevermore's guitar riffs do so frequently. This was a concept album in a very true sense, and the music was built around the telling of the tale. If it doesn't grab you immediately, that's to be expected: there's more going on beneath the surface than is at first apparent. These guys make great, VERY accessible prog-metal with a dark atmosphere and a huge attention to detail, which makes this album quite a good pick-up. Englund's voice is also really excellent, and a unique style for this kind of music that works very well. I doubt it'll be anyone's favorite, or a classic, or anything like that, but you can't go wrong for some thoroughly competent music of the prog-metal genre.