Review Summary: Vola spread their wings and soar.
When Vola released their debut full length album Inmazes
in 2015 they accomplished something rather extraordinary. By fusing post-Meshuggah heaviness with the kind of '70s progressive rock melodicism that Opeth has fallen in love with over the past decade, Vola crafted what might well be the last
truly original album of the "djent" era. Inmazes
eschewed the mindless battering of chugging guitars and self-important technicality that plagues modern "prog" in favour of a more thoughtful approach to riffing, an unshakeable grasp of melody, and dynamic synthesizer layering, which set Vola apart from the rest of the pack and established them as promising rising stars within the genre.
Applause of a Distant Crowd
finds the band fulfilling that promise by building on Inmazes
' considerable strengths and fixing its glaring weaknesses. Gone is the wall-to-wall guitar/bass sound that dominated proceedings and threatened to bury all the pretty vocal and keyboard melodies. Also gone is the lack of subtlety and variation that lent Inmazes
an air of same-ness that made listening to the entire album a bit of a chore despite the individual brilliance of each of its songs. Vola's growth, maturity and self-awareness is apparent from the get-go on Applause
. While the band has always understood that their real trump card is guitarist/vocalist Asger Mygind's sonorous yet surprisingly vulnerable voice, which evokes Mikael Åkerfeldt's singing voice in all the right ways, they've now figured out how to best emphasize and focus on Mygind's voice while staying true to their instrumental vision.
There are riffs on Applause
as heavy as anything Vola have written thus far in their career. "Smartfriend" and "Whaler"' have a pronounced Meshuggah-ness in their hypnotic, dissonant repetitiveness while "Alien Shivers" and the title-track feature the kind of jumpy grooves that made Vola's instrumental attack so addictive in the first place. However, even at their heaviest and most commanding, the riffs take a backseat to the vocal and keyboard melodies. The riffs exist here to provide dynamics—crescendoing and lifting songs whenever necessary—and never get in the way of either Mygind's voice or Martin Werner's keyboard hooks and synth layers. There is a kind of pervading spaciousness in the songwriting and production that allows every instrument to not just co-exist but thrive at all times, and to really shine when called upon to carry a section.
However, the unlikely gems of Vola's set prove to be the distortion-free "Ruby Pool", "Vertigo" and "Green Screen Mother". These tracks are exactly the kind of respite from overbearing guitars that Inmazes
sorely needed but lacked. Their presence on Applause
illustrates Vola's newfound mastery of subtlety in composition as well as the confidence that the band have in their songwriting, while also improving the pacing of the album immensely. "Ruby Pool" in particular is a gorgeous tune featuring gentle piano, plucked guitar, and an emotional guitar solo (another first) from Mygind. Not only is the song itself gorgeous, but its presence enhances the impact of the tracks that bookend it.
This, more than anything else, announces Vola's arrival as a true force to reckon with and the capitalisation on their obvious talent. Vola always knew how
to write great melodies and riffs, but now they've also figured out when
they should lean on one or the other. This manifests on both the micro-scale with songwriting—the way that the title track, "Smartfriend" and "Whaler" evolve and unfold is quite marvellous—as well as on the macro-scale with the way the album itself flows. Applause of a Distant Crowd
proves to be a quantum leap for Vola, both in terms of composition as well as presentation, which is enough to make this one of the most enjoyable listening experiences of 2018.