Album Title: Ktonik
Label: Inner Wound Recordings
Year of Release: 2016
Is there anything more controversial in life than a band changing important personnel or changing their musical direction? The furore such a move causes each and every time would suggest not. And it is no different for Polish progressive rock band Votum. Formed in 2002, they have steadily made a name for themselves, gathering more and more plaudits and fans with each passing album, culminating in ‘Harvest Moon’ in 2013, viewed by many as their very best work.
Since the release of that record, Votum have employed a new singer in the form of Bartosz Sobieraj, who replaces Maciej Kosinski. Additionally, there’s a new guitarist (Piotr Lniany) and, most controversially of all, a new musical direction. It’s not a huge sea-change, but a big enough shift to have caused frustration, bewilderment and disappointment amongst a considerable proportion of existing fans.
I have, up until now, only had a passing interest in Votum and for one reason or another didn’t really listen to ‘Harvest Moon’ all that much either. As a result, whilst taking on board the concerns of existing fans, of which they are fully entitled, I do come at this review from a different angle. In fact, there is something to be said about treating this album almost like a debut from an entirely new band. That way, it can be treated on its own merits unhindered by the baggage of the band’s back catalogue.
In a nutshell, ‘Ktonik’ is a dark and moody beast, full of oppressive and oft-claustrophobic atmosphere courtesy of Zbigniew Szatkowski’s layers of keyboards and synths. It is also a surprisingly heavy record that frequently tips the content from the realm of progressive rock into more metallic territory. The guitars of Adam Kaczmarek and Piotr Lniany are muscular and have genuine bite, the bass of Bartek Turkowski is thick and full, and the drums are wonderful. In the case of the latter, they’re not overly fast or aggressive. Instead Adam Łukaszek’s style means that they sound satisfyingly chunky with plenty of great tom fills, for which I have a real weakness.
And vocalist Bartosz Sobieraj is, in my opinion, a very nice fit behind the microphone. His softer, more sensitive and vulnerable delivery occasionally reminds me of Riverside’s Mariusz Duda, albeit this might be more because of his accent than his overall tone. Sobieraj’s biggest strength however, is when things get a bit heavier as his gravelly, quasi-gruff tone is strangely beguiling and with it, he can certainly convey those darker emotions seemingly with ease.
‘Satellite’, the album opener and lead single sets the tone to the album very nicely indeed. Blending moments of quiet acoustic guitar-led introspection with a heavy riff-led chorus, it is surprisingly catchy and addictive whilst being varied enough to maintain interest over repeated spins. In fact, the more I listen, the more I hear and the more I like the song. The tone of the guitars during the more stomping mid-tempo riffs is utterly fabulous, as is Sobieraj’s final imploring note.
‘Greed’ is dripping with synths, both prog-like in the traditional sense and more modern-sounding. Those more modern effects remind me a little of the likes of Katatonia, which can only be a good thing as far as I’m concerned. The most striking thing about the track however is its drama, created by a huge contrast between the very quiet, whispered sections and the all-out yet controlled aggression of the choruses.
‘Spiral’ on the other hand has the brooding and smouldering intensity of ‘The More Things Change…’ era Machine Head, complete with those familiar dampened high guitar notes atop layers of synths and a rich rumbling bass. The slow and ponderous riffs are a joy and eventually, the track opens up to bear fruit in the form of a simple but effective melody and a swirling, churning monster of a riff to see the track out.
Elsewhere, ‘Blackened Tree’ is a beautiful slow-burning quasi-ballad that builds to a heavy crescendo, featuring some impassioned vocals as well as a solemn piano and layers of synths and effects along the way. ‘Prometheus’ demonstrates more of a classic prog rock vibe early on, a little reminiscent of early Riverside, before building to a point where that guitar tone is unleashed again and the drums pound in unrelenting support. Once again, Sobieraj leaves nothing behind, filling the track with energy and passion. Then there’s ‘Horizontal’, which is an utter delight, creating huge, epic choral-like sounds before dropping away into gentler territory. The calm is short-lived though, thanks to arguably the catchiest chorus on the album that reintroduces the opening melody to great effect.
It is true to say that in terms of progressive music, Votum are not the most technical of bands out there. Would I have liked a bit more in that area? Well, yes, maybe. However, the overall tone of the album, the execution, the textures, the feelings it stirs within me and a myriad of other less tangible ingredients means that I cannot help but seriously enjoy the listening experience that Votum offer on ‘Ktonik’. I can understand the pangs of disappointment from those hoping for an album in the ‘Harvest Moon’ mould but ‘Ktonik’ stands tall and powerful on its own and very much on its own merits. It is different for Votum but it might just represent a brand new chapter for them. And, above all else, this is a very good album indeed.
The Score Of Much Metal: 8.5
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