Review: Tanagra Quest for prog-power glory on Meridiem
Tanagra continue their quest for prog-power glory.
Power metal and progressive metal are often many metalheads’ first major entry point into metal as a whole. I still remember being entranced by the title track of Stratovarius’ Destiny back in the late 90’s and for the longest time that and a good number of other works by bands like Dream Theater, Blind Guardian, Rhapsody (Of Fire), and Symphony X defined what I wanted out of it as a whole. It was “epic” for lack of a better term, operating in a grandiose scope of heroism, adventure, triumph, and fantasy that no other music really granted to me, at once archaic yet explosively modern. I’ve since drifted away from these genres primarily to more extreme realms but I can’t say I’ve abandoned that melodic realm, especially in its more 80’s oriented incarnations. This year, we’ve been granted with a highly unusual, specifically configured form of prog/power that doesn’t hide what it is but at the same time, treads a very different path than what we’ve come to expect from Tanagra, previously playing a far more straightforward form of metal. While it does capture the original idea of prog/power when it started out, it differentiates itself from both the traditional and modern schools, its lineage more implicit than explicit, and the end results a fascinating example of the directions this style could go in with a variety of modern developments.
Like the original American practitioners of this style like Queensryche, Fates Warning, Crimson Glory, and Titan Force, Tanagra’s sound isn’t very riffy or aggressive but places an emphasis on elegant vocal-guitar harmonies and carefully unfurling melodies sometimes spread out over fairly long songs. Where they differ is in the particulars, utilizing a stronger level of lead-centric guitar patterns from Josh Kay and Steven Sodenberg whose power derives not from raw impact but the over-arching harmonies typically dwelling at higher registers created in unison with Tom Socia’s carefully controlled and elegantly phrased midrange voice, occasionally taking on a grittier semi-baritone. A good deal of background synths play a part, often with a semi-symphonic approach that occasionally graces the edges of the bombast frequently associated with such instrumentation. However, their purpose is underscoring the shape of these gorgeous melodies and occasionally moving forward to add additional layering but they ultimately play second fiddle to more traditional instrumentation. While it isn’t a very meaty album, its spacious qualities more than make up for that with their expertise in knowing how to create these grandiose swelling arrangements, at times featuring fairly nuanced structures that avoid typical verse-chorus arrangements. Yet at the same time, this never really comes off as technical. Measured would be a more accurate term; even with how lush their sound is, most of the playing is focused less so on cramming every corner full of colourful flourish as much as it is creating very vast almost open ended dreamscapes with guitar and voice almost sounding like they are narrating one another’s journey through an otherworldly domain. In a way it reminds me of Italy’s legendary Adramelch on their cult classic 1988 debut Irae Melanox in the sort of forlorn, distant sense of mystery it evokes albeit in a far more high-tech form.
Right off of the bat the album opens up with an eleven minute title cut, implementing an almost early melodic death metal Eucharist or A Canorous Quintet style tremolo riff during the verses that swirls and encircles a gradually climbing vocal pattern, breaking off into gently unfurling digressions that really show the full range of expression in Tom’s voice. Even its clean break weaves a good deal of gently picked and played instrumentation throug, helping carrying on the sense of momentum behind the prior melodies and actually letting them show off impressive control in dynamics, leading into a properly enthralling surge of soaring melodies in a moment of meticulously built of sheer power. The other epics aren’t any less of slouches; “The Hidden Hand” contrasts 70’s prog style cheery synths with a rare moment of rapid-fire guitar pyrotechnics, managing to steadily navigate through a labyrinth of daring, prideful soloing and enormous synth backup, refusing to take much in the way of breathers but somehow staying fresh and on its toes. The longest of the three, “Witness”, initially comes off as subdued compared to it predecessors but be wary of how carefully mounting swell of strings, choir, and singing leads into a storming, violent antithesis resolved by a jubilant, uplifting final barrage of lengthy soloing and massive vocal-synth harmonization. Don’t slack on its shorter numbers either. The shifty and highly versatile guitar work of “Etheric Alchemy” is where Sean and Josh truly unleash their talents, crafting a highly varied barrage of all kinds of beautifully expressive technique without ever sounding over-burdened by theorybook regurgitation. “Silent Chamber” features an interesting juxtaposition of descending, sliding riffs and gruffer singing against almost vocoder-esque call and response segments, ambiguous and conflicted, outright tormented at moments. “The Ancient Desert” will become a fan favourite quickly with the assistance of Visigoth war-clarion Jake Rogers, the perfect back-up for this climactic almost “final boss fight in a Japanese PS2 RPG or action title” esque monster.
In terms of weaknesses, the album’s enormous and just flat out vast production job does somewhat bury the bass under the rest of the instrumentation while the vocals feel a little distant, as if singing from the top of the nearest mountain. It definitely does help contribute to its atmosphere but at times it can feel like it was supposed to be considerably more powerful in the mix. There is a slight songwriting hiccup in the second track, “Sydria”, which while far from bad does feel a bit diminutive or even undercooked compared to the rest of the album with its incredibly straightforward single string running hyper-European attack. It’s by and far the most normal track here and it’s hard not to feel like it might have been from another recording session sometimes. These however are roadbumps at best on the path to total supremacy and what Tanagra have achieved here is one of the boldest statements of the possibilities of prog/power. It’s familiar and a product of its time; nobody will doubt where they belong but it’s incredibly fresh and full of vivid imagination and the guts and creativity to see its bold dreams through. As someone whose primary domain is the more eldritch and monstrous domains of death metal, I’m thoroughly impressed with this sophomore. It’s a complete transformation of this band into a wholly new form and they’ve earned every single little bit of it.
You can preorder the album and listen to two songs on their official bandcamp.
Four out of Five ethereal latrines.