1. Seamripper (& The Blanket Statement) (8:13)
2. Tip-Toe the Fault-Line (6:57)
3. Ashes To Ear (5:18)
4. Shades Of Hades (5:43)
5. Reductio Ad Absurdum (6:18)
6. On Again/Off Again (7:25)
7. Lotus (6:17)
8. Ashtamangala (The 8 Auspicious Symbols):
Pt. 1 – Pareidolized (The Ocean In The Shell) (10:00)
Pt. 2 – Parasol (1:43)
Pt. 3 – Wave The Banner (1:41)
Pt. 4 – Fish Afraid Of Drowning (2:14)
Pt. 5 – Moebius Knot (2:26)
Pt. 6 – Full Circle (1:55)
Pt. 7 – Let it Wash Away (The Lotus Effect) (5:49)
Paul Adrian Villarreal – vocals, guitars
Marcel Coenen – guitars
Daniel Kohn – bass
Rene Kroon – keyboards
Roel Van Helden – drums
Dutch quintet Sun Caged was first formed in 1999 by guitarist Marcel Coenen and drummer Dennis Leeflang. Their self-titled debut album (mixed by Arjen Lucassen of Ayreon) was released in 2003, followed by Artemisia in 2007 (with new lead singer Paul Adrian Villareal on board), and then by The Lotus Effect in the early summer of 2011 (the first with new bassist Daniel Kohn). All of the band’s albums have been released on Finnish label Lion Music. Sun Caged have also toured in support of established bands such as Vanden Plas and Fates Warning.
As some of my regular readers may already know, I am not the biggest fan of “classic” progressive metal – that is, the subgenre that was made popular by Dream Theater with their 1992 album Images and Words, and since then attracted adoration and abuse in almost equal proportion. While I have always had a lot of time for classic heavy metal, I find its marriage with progressive rock (mostly of the symphonic persuasion) largely uninspiring, with very few exceptions. For this reason, I generally refrain from reviewing albums by bands that follow in the wake of the New York quintet – as it is not always easy to keep our personal tastes and inclinations from getting in the way of objectivity.
Though firmly placed in the classic prog metal tradition of soaring vocals, guitar fireworks and majestic keyboard sweeps, Sun Caged’s third studio album has got enough individuality to separate it from the mass of run-of-the-mill Dream Theater clones that are flooding the market with their CDs. While the album, running at about 72 minutes, and complete with rather esoteric titles (though tinged with a sort of skewed humour that is not too usual in the genre), is undoubtedly an ambitious undertaking, the band’s cohesion allows them to come across as a unit rather than a random collection of virtuosos. Moreover, this ambition does not result in an unchecked proliferation of sprawling pieces with more twists and turns than the average listener can effectively digest. In fact, the songs are all quite tight in compositional terms, making the most of the instrumental and vocal expertise of the members, yet keeping to a relatively straightforward structure.
The vast majority of the tracks feature vocals, making the most of Paul Adrian Villareal’s impressive range and clarity. While a high tenor like most singers in the genre, his powerful, yet melodic voice adapts to the music with remarkable adroitness, rarely if ever indulging in over-the-top antics, and – most importantly – never sounding strained, as unfortunately it is often the case with Dream Theater’s James LaBrie. Though voices such as Villareal’s can be much of an acquired taste, his consistently solid performance on The Lotus Effect show that is very much in control of everything that is going on around him. His skill and confidence are especially spotlighted in “On Again/Off Again”, his voice soaring above the relentless tapestry of riffs and keyboards, and the mellow “Reductio Ad Absurdum” , a ballad in the tradition of Dream Theater’s “Another Day” or “Space Dye Vest”.
The Lotus Effect has a rather distinctive structure, featuring 7 stand-alone tracks and the 7-part epic “Ashtamangala (The 8 Auspicious Symbols)”, most of the tracks striking a nice balance between melody and heaviness. Though driven by often harsh, aggressive guitar riffs, the music relies on the contribution of keyboards for texture and depth, and the piano tempers the high level of energy with its gentle, fluid touch. While Marcel Coenen’s guitar is always at the forefront, its interplay with Rene Kroon’s sweeping, piercing synth gives distinction to tracks such as “Tip-Toe the Fault Line”, the intense but melodic “Pareidolized” and the ultra-heavy “Moebius Knot” (the only completely instrumental track on the album), which borders on extreme metal with its dense riffing and Roel Van Helden’s frantic drumming. Opener “Seamripper (& The Blanket Statement)” is also high on the heaviness quotient, with its energetic riffing reminiscent of classic thrash metal. Here and there, however, other influences crop up, such as in the funky slap bass line in the middle of “Shades of Hades”, and the Eastern echoes in the synth line and percussion pattern of “Lotus”; while “Parasol” has a relaxed, almost Latin feel. On the other hand, closing track “Let It Wash Away (The Lotus Effect)”, with its lush keyboard parts, exudes that sense of melodic grandiosity that is typical of a lot of classic prog.
While The Lotus Effect may not be exactly my cup of tea, it is undoubtedly a finely-crafted production that will not fail to appeal to the many followers of “traditional” progressive metal. A tad overlong for my tastes, but much better structured than many efforts of comparable length and scope, the album offers a nice mix of melody, heaviness and virtuosity – the latter hardly ever descending into mere showing off. Band founder Marcel Coenen is also to be commended for the versatility of his guitar playing, and his avoidance (for the most part) of the dreaded pitfalls of shredding. That said, as talented a band as Sun Caged undeniably are, The Lotus Effect is quite unlikely to convert any naysayers to the joys of prog metal