Review Summary: Worth the wait?
The success, or failure, of Skyharbor’s third outing, Sunshine Dust
, was always going to rest on Eric Emery’s heavily tattooed shoulders. It’s never easy for a band to replace a key member while cresting a creative wave, let alone two key members who are widely regarded as being among the best musicians in their genre, which Dan Tompkins and Anup Sastry certainly are. Sastry, being a drummer, may have been somewhat easier to replace simply because Tompkins was literally the voice of Skyharbor. While Skyharbor’s debut album, Blinding White Noise
, was little more than a glorified solo album by guitarist Keshav Dhar, with guest spots by Tompkins and Sastry (and Marty Friedman), the sophomore album, Guiding Lights
, was an actual collaborative band effort made particularly evident by how much better and more organic the fit between vocals and instrumentals was.
This audible chemistry between the members of Skyharbor, circa
2014, resulted in Guiding Lights
being a standout album despite there being something of a dearth of truly memorable riffs on the album. The guitarists, Keshav Dhar and Devesh Dayal, ended up providing Tompkins with an atmospheric canvas to paint his melodies on, rather than competing for the spotlight. The only reason this worked—making a progressive metal album that didn’t focus heavily on riffs—was because Tompkins is, at his best, a craftsman par excellence
of gorgeous melodies that soar over or knife through churning modern progressive metal instrumentals in all the right ways.
It seems apparent that the spectre of Tompkins continues to hover over Skyharbor. It’s taken the band four years to follow up Guiding Lights
with Sunshine Dust
. In fact, they apparently recorded the album once before deciding that it wasn’t good enough and completely re-recording it under the watchful eyes of Forrester Savell. If you’re wondering whether Sunshine Dust
was worth the extended wait or whether it’s a disappointment, the answer is: Yes.
It’s definitely a good thing that the band took their time recording Sunshine Dust
because they have managed to develop some chemistry in the interim with Tomkins’ replacement, Eric Emery. Emery doesn’t sound like he’s trying to sing songs that were written with Tompkins in mind. His voice has a huskier and breathier quality than Tompkins and sounds tonally closer to Chester Bennington (RIP) or Spencer Sotelo. The band takes that quality and actually adapts to it, writing songs that sounds closer to alternative rock and alternative metal, than the progressive metal of its predecessors.
This doesn’t mean that Skyharbor doesn’t sound like “Skyharbor”, not even when openly paying homage to Linkin Park on the unapologetically nu-metal “Dissent”. Songs like “Menace”, “Ethos”, “Out of Time” and “Blind Side”, for instance, are classic Skyharbor, full of propulsive drumming, staccato riffs, fluttering leads, and soaring vocal melodies, even though they rarely seem to turn the corner into progressive metal territory. Meanwhile, “Dim”, the re-recorded “Synthetic Hands”, and the title track are all much more clearly in the realm of alternative rock, quite far removed from the band’s roots in the “djent” movement, but still recognisable as Skyharbor songs.
None of this is to say that the band’s music is less interesting than it was on Guiding Lights
or Blinding White Noise
. In some ways, this is a much more diverse album than either of its predecessors, with Dhar and Dayal opting to use a wider variety of guitar and synth tones than on the previous albums resulting in them drawing on a broader palette of sounds for their guitar parts and ambient layers. Emery's vocal performance is also more varied than Tomkins', in part because of his use of harsh vocals.
However, it’s hard to say that Skyharbor v.2 is an improvement over its predecessor. While some of Emery’s melodies and hooks are very good, such as on “Menace” and “Ethos”, he struggles to consistently create melodies and hooks as captivating as Tomkins’ best moments. The breathiness in his vocal delivery also leaves some of his vocal parts sounding mumbled and indistinct even though it seem like they’re higher in the mix than on previous albums. When taken to an extreme level, like on the chorus of “Blind Side”, it leaves the vocals completely unintelligible and the song nearly unlistenable for me.
These criticisms aside, Emery does an admirable job of stepping into Tompkins’ shoes. To both the band and Emery’s credit, they don’t strive to just satisfy their existing fans, but continue the band’s evolution in a manner that plays to each band member's strengths. While Sunshine Dust
isn't quite on the same level as Skyharbor’s previous albums, it’s definitely a satisfying listen with enough detail and appeal to merit and reward repeated listens.