Review Summary: We've left the ruby pool.
Reuniting with Inmazes
was not the trajectory VOLA seemed to be following. True, the group’s powerful debut garnered significant attention when it rapidly conquered the underground, with its entertaining, addicting template acting as a breath of fresh air for the rapidly stagnating djent scene. By releasing the subsequent Applause of a Distant Crowd
, it appeared as though the game was being changed and the Danish quartet were floating off on a separate odyssey, making a departure dramatic enough to indicate they were eagerly separating from the sound that provided them a growing fanbase. It was, in many ways, everything that the first record was not: it was subtle rather than overt, more atmospheric than commanding, more patient with its tools as opposed to aggressive. It managed to maneuver around the all-too-common pitfall bands find themselves in when attempting to migrate from heaviness to lighter frontiers. Audiences are quick to cry foul when a collective known for throwing down step off the gas pedal, yet Applause
featured an expert presentation that bridged the gap in such a way that it improved VOLA’s stock, transforming the youthful group into rising stars in the progressive rock realm. It’s difficult to envision Witness
in this context, as the background simply didn’t support it to an outside observer. In terms of critical acclaim, there were no large detractors to the shift in direction, nor were there any noticeable decreases in general appraisal. Perhaps the gents simply desired to rock out again with no restraints placed upon them—a fine enough motivation, albeit one that finds itself lacking in multiple places. Despite containing ample promise, the bombastic tendencies of the bands’ third release unfortunately reign to a disappointing extent.
What helped Applause
succeed was the fact that, while muted in comparison to its predecessor, it didn’t shy away from explosive crescendos or direct assaults. The increased ambient influence didn’t cause VOLA to completely lose their footing, with “Smartfriend,” “Still,” and “Whaler” offering plenty of adrenaline-rushing moments. The pacing between these entries and their less expressive counterparts tied the package together neatly and consistently showcased surprises, such as the elegant, blissful contents of “Ruby Pool” and its gorgeous synth work. Witness
is, by comparison, deficient in both critical factors: it has no unexpected twists to integrate and its pacing fails to impress. Part of this can be attributed to poor structuring overall; the proceedings are absolutely frontloaded with the crew’s strongest new material. Each of the four first tracks were pre-released as singles, and all of them successfully replicate the potent strikes of Inmazes
. A crushing djent riff and a soaring refrain define the vibrant opener “Straight Lines,” the resonating synths belting out a delightful, melodic solo to match the harsher edge provided by the guitars. The intensity is quickly amped up in the succeeding “Head Mounted Sideways” with another bass-fronted, groovy passage and distorted vocals, a fearsome presentation emerging to bring a darker side to the LP. In this and the controversial “These Black Claws,” VOLA gingerly wade into ominous waters, exhibiting a novel perspective that delves into depths reminiscent of the album’s foreboding cover. There’s even a stab at Applause
-level antics in the reasonably limited “24 Light-Years,” but this example becomes more of a rarity as the CD moves forward.
Ultimately, an absence of diversity and an overreliance on spectacle cripple VOLA’s latest effort. The shadow of prior escapades stands taller here than elsewhere, as it is difficult to ignore the missing sense of delicacy and grace that gave birth to a beautiful, dreamy adventure. The group has chosen to augment everything except the atmosphere, cranking the volume up to max levels to enforce a regime of headbanging across the record’s 44-minute lifespan. Sparse counterpoints notwithstanding, the album’s script becomes entirely predictable upon the onset of “Freak.” Pulled straight from the 80s, cliché synth lines and acoustic strumming create a tonal whiplash from the cynicism of “Black Claws,” simultaneously imposing on the listener a ham-fisted output that comes across as forced emotion. Subsequent entries commit to similar flaws; they are abrasive in their demeanor and their highlights hinge on unengaging, repetitive payoffs. Very little separates “Napalm” from “Freak,” with both numbers ebbing and flowing through unremarkable verses before an upswell into a vibrant chorus attempts to salvage matters. It’s like the band performs on an autopilot function, cranking out serviceable rhythms that do nothing to impress, but they do just enough
to reach a gigantic climax that’s meant to be the selling point. The issue here is that the groundwork leading to these apexes is minimal at best—a curious shortcoming when the post-rock-esque buildups of older works can swiftly be cited. A climax exists, which is meant to be sufficient in of itself, with all supporting elements diminished.
Every track feels the need to be huge, to erupt in a shower of fireworks and glowing colors, completely extricating itself from an emotional payoff due to the one-dimensionality and blending of the entire experience. The continuous end goal is to come out swinging while delivering knockout blows in choruses that occasionally border on nauseating in their anthemic quality (see [or hear, rather]: “Napalm”). This dedication to enormous moments is laden with errors: as aforementioned, it disregards the how
portion of attaining a climax, consequently losing sight of the post-rock concept of the ‘journey’ while placing all bets on the chorus to flourish. Those pinnacles inevitably blend together without much to distinguish them, as they all feature the same vocal inflection, same delivery, and same instrumentals buttressing them. Nothing in particular makes “Inside Your Fur” a conclusive statement outside of its placement at the end of the album, its fading outro possessing no sense of finality, intrigue, or captivation; it basically subsides to the tide without a note of memorability, the refrain too parallel to those that preceded it. Though it has potential, “Stone Leader Falling Down” tries little to diverge from established trends. The closest the song gets to upending tradition is a (dare it be written?) deathcore-like breakdown that enters the scene. It’s not the first time VOLA employed this specific strategy, but its haphazard execution here falls flat. Much like the overbearing refrains, instrumentals, and intended emotions that came before it, “Stone Leader” feels forced instead of authentic.
Ironically, the controversial “These Black Claws” emerges as a highlight for the abnormal risk it took endeavoring to segue into a genuinely unanticipated rap portion. The ominous aesthetic aimed for in the entry is complimented exceptionally by the inclusion, however strange it may be. The droning, apathetic utterances of SHAHMEN slink about the shady confines of the tune, the playfully eerie synth line painting a bleak portrait of an addict trying to smile through their apocalyptic demise. More shocking than that is how the limited instrumental presence in the verses becomes the more unforeseen event, even with a California hip-hop artist chilling in the mix. It’s a case of clashing expectations, average execution, decreased songwriting prowess, and an unhinged desire to be massive
in every second. The linearity observed in VOLA’s latest product is distressing when knowing what they’re capable of, and it causes a sharp drop in quality once the singles are out of the picture. This new world is dominated by verse-chorus-verse-chorus, having cast out the idyllic landscapes of “Ruby Pool” and “Vertigo.” Shooting for pure heaviness is certainly a commendable objective—most would prefer it, as going ‘soft’ is so frequently derided—but in doing so, VOLA lost sight of some of their more defining characteristics. Though it is far from being a failure, Witness
embodies a disappointment. Plenty of catchy areas can be returned to, yet it is hard to shake off the sense that many other places are stumbling blocks in the way of something greater.