Album Title: Imperial
Label: Silver Lining Music
Date of Release: 29 January 2021
Without doubt, ‘Imperial’ is one of my most anticipated releases for 2021. A couple of years ago, I awarded ‘Lotus’ a score of 97%, beguiled as I was by its myriad of charms. I therefore come to album number five, ‘Imperial’ with high hopes that it lives up to my lofty, probably impossibly high expectations.
For this album, the band have enjoyed relative stability in the line-up, meaning that the founding members of Joel Ekelöf (vocals) and Martin Lopez (drums) are joined by Lars Enok Åhlund (keyboards and guitar), Cody Ford (lead guitar) and new bassist Oleksii “Zlatoyar” Kobel, who replaces their previous four-stringer Stefan Stenberg.
What this means is that Soen offer little when it comes to surprises. Just like ‘Lotus’ before it, ‘Imperial’ is just a further exploration of the sound that the quintet have created over their career. The key components of their music remain, but it’s more of a further refinement if you will. This record, as I’m sure we all want and expect, has some killer, angular riffs, thunderous drumming and clever, off-kilter ‘prog’ rhythms. But in spite of this, the album just feels smoother, even more ‘grown-up’ than their previous offerings. Tool remain a reference point that retains some merit, although this time around, I’m occasionally reminded of the likes of Katatonia when the pace is slowed, the atmosphere increases, and the elegant, bittersweet melodies do their best to pierce your soul.
Soen were always a band that understood inter-song dynamics, perfectly marrying together the heavy with the quiet and serene, taking us all on an aural journey to use that cliché. On ‘Imperial’, it feels like the peaks and troughs are more pronounced, with a slightly greater emphasis on the quieter passages this time around. It might be an illusion, but it’s the feeling I get. Either way, there is no denying that Soen have hit a home run with ‘Imperial’. It had to be something truly special to improve upon ‘Lotus’, but right here, right now, I’m telling you that they may just have done it.
In light of the fact that ‘Imperial’ features eight tracks, all of which offer something magical to the listener, I am not even going to hide from the fact that what follows is a track-by-track description of the record. To do otherwise would be to unfairly ignore or underplay the songs that combine to create a sub-45 minute masterclass in intelligent, beautiful heavy music.
The album kicks off with ‘Lumerian’ and there’s no gentle intro, no settling-in period. A crash of drums and guitars ushers in an immediately groovy riff, a mix of precise staccato fast-picking and fuller, more chunky churning notes. Very quickly, the initial heaviness subsides, replaced by something much more serene and incredibly melodic. Hints of Katatonia and Riverside can be heard as vague reference points, but the overall sound remains uniquely Soen. Joel Ekelöf’s smooth tones aid the sophistication, as does a minimalist use of keys by Enok Åhlund for added richness. The chorus is a thing of absolute bliss, as Ekelöf soars over a strong melody where the heavy guitars return to great effect. There’s a gorgeously subtle minimalist section, over which a lead guitar sings, albeit gently and with grace before in come the heavy riffs and commanding rhythms courtesy of some superb drumming from Martin Lopez and complimentary dancing bass-work from Oleksii “Zlatoyar” Kobel.
The ebb and flow, the darkness and light, the peaks and troughs are a key component of Soen’s songwriting, and they help to create some wonderfully engaging dynamics, and convey a myriad of competing emotions throughout.
‘Deceiver’ begins in similarly robust fashion thanks to another bruising, yet intriguing riff that again gives way to a quieter verse. The fluctuation between heavy and light is arguably more pronounced with Lopez’s drums front and centre. But then, out of nowhere, Ekelöf takes flight over a sprawling chorus that introduces a nice groove part-way through. Melodies float within the song like gossamer strands of elegance.
The chilling sound of a World War Two air raid siren, or similar, signals the arrival of ‘Monarch’, a track lauded by the band as their heaviest yet. However, after a powerful and technical opening riff, the foot is removed from the accelerator in favour of some more incredible bittersweet melodies and thoughtful lyrics. The heaviness does return at points, but rather than refer to it as their heaviest, I’d prefer to describe it as a stunning, dynamic and intense track, complete with a delicious lead guitar solo from Cody Ford around the mid-point as well as the appearance of some gentle string arrangements at the death, for added depth and poignancy.
By contrast, ‘Illusion’ is a much quieter affair that allows Ekelöf’s vocals and the dexterity of the guitarists to take centre stage, with some blues-like embellishments and subtle acoustic work too. I feel like I’m repeating myself, but the melodic sensibilities are incredibly strong once again, making it an essential listening experience and equally as strong as the other songs. I realise that I’ve yet to mention the production but suffice to say it is stunning, with clarity, strength, and vibrancy, a testament to the band themselves, who are fully responsible for the final product.
Almost inevitably, ‘Antagonist’ dials the heaviness up a notch again, but it is the lyrical content that resonates most deeply with me here. Naturally, there are some killer rhythms, understated instrumental complexity, and strong melodies at play. But when Ekelöf sings ‘Life isn’t just to survive’, I’m hit with one of those ‘woah’ moments; so simple and so profound, it’s a one-liner that will stay with me for quite some time I’m sure.
Drums and synths take the lead at the outset of ‘Modesty’, the track that most strongly calls to mind latter-day Katatonia on this album. There’s a dark sombre misery that permeates every pore, accentuated by the pleading tones of Ekelöf, the increased orchestral arrangements, and the demonstrable frustration and hopelessness that is palpable. The latter is never more obvious than when reflected in the sounds of the wailing lead guitar solo, a despairing cry for help in musical form.
If there is a slight surprise on ‘Imperial’, it’d be that there might be a vague reduction in the overt progressiveness of previous albums. Personally, this isn’t something that in any way lowers my enjoyment of the record because the music is just so well-written and compelling regardless. That said, ‘Dissident’ more overtly reminds us of the Swede’s prog tendencies, being easily the most technical, diverse and complex track on ‘Imperial’. The juxtaposition between heavy and soft passages is the most pronounced, whilst the entire band demonstrate their dexterity and abilities to the fullest, whilst maintaining a piece of music that’s very much a song, with more melodic interplay and hooks to pull us back for repeated listens.
Somewhat unbelievably, Soen may just leave the best to last in the form of the delectable ‘Fortune’. It begins with the air and grace of doom, as it lumbers forth, slow and purposeful, with a simple drum beat, resonating riffs and passionate vocals. But as it develops, it grows and blossoms. In come some of the most glorious melodies, accented by rich orchestration, topped off by an utterly irresistible chorus. The pace never really picks up, but it never needs to. The slower delivery allows more time for the melodies to hit home, acting as the perfect backdrop for Ford to wax lyrical with his six-string. Piano notes are introduced as Ekelöf hums the melody, before a devastating reprise of the chorus emerges, building in majesty and elegance all the while as the orchestration returns, bolder and richer than ever before.
And there you have it. My overly verbose summary of easily one of the best albums I have heard in recent months. ‘Imperial’ is a supreme collection of brilliant songs that together create an even better album. It is an elegant, passionate and intelligent affair, one that also adds plenty of human emotion, eloquently wrought through music and lyrics. Progressive, beautiful, and deep, it resonates powerfully with me, to the point where I just don’t want to stop listening. Please don’t make me.
The Score of Much Metal: 98%
Further reviews from 2021:
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: