Artist: Vanden Plas
Album Title: The Ghost Xperiment: Awakening
Label: Frontiers Records
Date of Release: 11 October 2019
I firmly believe that my thoughts towards this disc say more about my own personal mindset than the quality or lack thereof on display on this record. So, with that said, let’s delve into ‘The Ghost Xperiment: Awakening’, the ninth full-length release from the German progressive metal juggernaut that is Vanden Plas.
I have been a huge fan of the Kaiserslautern-based quintet for many, many years. I travelled to Germany whilst I was writing for Powerplay Magazine, just to attend a pre-listening session for ‘The Seraphic Clockwork’, meeting the band and interviewing a very thoughtful and insightful Gunter Werno as part of the day. I remember standing in a ridiculously sparsely-populated venue in the West of England for Fused Festival around a decade ago when Vanden Plas put on a typically fabulous show for the hardcore that had bothered to attend. I think this band are great.
Over the years, with an increased love of the theatre, the music of Vanden Plas has become more and more cinematic and symphonic. It has never led to a dilution of their heaviness or metal credentials but the overall direction of travel has tended towards longer, more overblown compositions and albums that are intent on telling stories that could easily be converted to the big screen or, more accurately to the boards of a theatre.
Again, I have liked this approach, with each record finding favour with me. However, as incredibly professional, passionate and enveloping as ‘The Ghost Xperiment: Awakening’ undoubtedly is, I have had a tough job warming to it in the same way as I have with previous releases.
It is true to say that if you are already familiar with Vanden Plas, ‘The Ghost Xperiment: Awakening’ will contain little or nothing in the way of surprises. Maybe that’s part of the problem I have with this record? It does feel like I’ve been here before and I’m just listening to a continuation of what went before. But based on my love for Vanden Plas, this doesn’t make sense because I should lap it up, just like I lapped up the likes of ‘The Seraphic Clockwork’ and the ‘Chronicles of the Immortals’ double-header more recently.
This album is chock full of metal-worthy riffs and a gargantuan rhythm section led by the wonderfully talented Andreas Lill behind the kit. The songs rip along at a fair pace, led by the urgent, no-holes-barred opener ‘Cold December Night’ which doesn’t waste time with quiet intros or suchlike; it goes straight for the jugular.
So, as I said earlier, I can only surmise that my initial apathy is down to my state of mind rather than the music itself…or is it? For those desperate to know more about the music itself, here goes…
First off, to underline an earlier comment about the compositions becoming longer and more overblown, I can report that this record has a running time of around 46 minutes and yet only contains six songs. That means for the maths whizzes amongst you that the average song length sits at over seven-and-a-half minutes.
My next observation was that the songs initially lacked killer hooks, the kind that Vanden Plas are famous for and bring me back for repeated listens ad nauseum. Over time, some of the tracks, such as ‘Devils’ Poetry’ open up to the listener, bearing considerable fruit. But until that point, at just over the half-way mark, whilst I perfectly enjoy the material that has gone before, rarely am I stopped in my tracks to stare at the stereo to find out which song I’m listening to and the exact time within the track, so that I can commit it to memory and wait with eager anticipation to hear it again the next time I hit the play button. Until the undeniably catchy and epic chorus of the fourth, I’m ambivalent. To explore the near ten minute long ‘Devils’ Poetry’ more, the wonderfully engaging chorus is coupled with an ambitious song structure, featuring a grandiose filmscore-esque orchestral section that takes the heat out of the song initially but which ultimately builds the tension, only to unleash the power in a climactic crescendo. This is the Vanden Plas that I love and want to hear.
Happily, the Germans follow up a winning song with another one straight after, as if the cobwebs have suddenly been blown away. At over nine minutes in length, it starts off slowly and I begin to wonder whether the magic has gone as quickly as it arrived. Thankfully, out of nowhere, within a song that revels in changing pace and intensity at every turn and with a certain deftness, a melodic hook catches me and I’m smiling again. It’s that kind of anthemic tour-de-force that Vanden Plas can deliver so effortlessly when they are firing on all cylinders. And when the choral vocals kick in within the rousing finale, as Andy Kuntz throws his head back to sing with full-power, it’s vintage hairs-on-end territory, making me wonder whether I had been too hasty in my criticism of the record.
My pondering is delivered another dent in the form of the title track, the closer to the album; it features some great punchy and energetic riffs as well as drama and another chorus that I thoroughly enjoy.
Ever the professional, I decide to listen to the first half of the record again and again (repeat , just to make sure I’m not making a huge mistake…
Sadly and frustratingly, I don’t think I am. The inescapable fact is that the second half of this record is, for my tastes at least, far stronger and more memorable than the first. Under normal circumstances, you could just about forgive a band for taking a couple of songs to get into their stride, but when the album is half done when they get to their boiling point, the damage is already done.
I genuinely hate not being able to give one of my favourite bands a higher score, but in order to maintain my integrity, I have to be honest. For the second half of this record alone, ‘The Ghost Xperiment’ is worthy of a purchase. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s a case of an opportunity missed and this release won’t trouble the best within their already hugely impressive discography. I haven’t given up on Vanden Plas though and like all other fans, I’ll be clamouring to hear their follow-up whenever it sees the light of day. Hopefully this is just a blip…
The Score of Much Metal: 71%
If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others from 2019:
King – Coldest of Cold
Alcest – Spiritual Instinct
Port Noir – The New Routine
Nile – Vile Nilotic Rites
Ray Alder – What The Water Wants
Borknagar – True North
Leprous – Pitfalls
Myrath – Shehili
Prehistoric Animals – Consider It A Work Of Art
Voyager – Colours In The Sun
Odd Logic – Last Watch Of The Nightingale
Avandra – Descender
Darkwater – Human
ZW Band / Zonder Wehrkamp – If It’s Real
Teramaze – Are We Soldiers
Rendezvous Point – Universal Chaos
Our Destiny – Awakening
Evergrey – The Atlantic
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: