Album Review: Soen, “Imperial”

Progressive music, by definition, always likes to push the envelope in some way. In general, many bands that are labeled “progressive” may like to try something new with each release—perhaps they take on an overarching concept, or incorporate new musical styles. But some bands within the genre are more consistent when going from album-to-album; and one of these bands are the Sweden natives, Soen. If you are an avid listener of the band, you may know what to expect in terms of sound, composition, and structure, but that does not take anything away from their sonically empowering music.

Soen hits immediately within the first few seconds of their 2021 album, Imperial—jumping into a frantic, full-band onslaught of low-end grit from the guitars and bass, accompanied by the concentrated explosiveness of drummer Martín López. “Lumerian” holds a similar song structure to most Soen songs. The verses display the softer, ominous side of the band, driven by the controlled bass playing of Soen’s newest member, Oleskii “Zlatoyar” Kobel. When it comes time for the chorus, the band capitalizes and creates a great hook reminiscent to earlier tracks, like “Lascivious.” Singer Joel Ekelöf projects his baritone voice in a way that allows the listener to feel like they’re being taken to the top of a mountain, something he does on many of the band’s tracks throughout their career. What makes Soen a rather peculiar group in the prog community is their ability to remain consistent in song composition and structure, but be able to always keep the audience engaged. “Lumerian” is like many of their songs, yet it is something that feels fresh to listen to every time—it’s almost inexplicable.

“Deceiver,” the second track, takes on a similar approach as “Lumerian,” but the dynamics do not differ much throughout the track. The riffs are quite full and Ekelöf again steals the show during the chorus. Afterwards, we hear one of the three singles in the context of the album. “Monarch” comes in firing after a synth-swell intro, much like “Nil by Mouth,” for all those Haken fans out there. A bit slower in tempo in relation to the previous tracks, the verses showcase some of Soen’s most brutal riffs, while the chorus takes on a rather lush sound. Also in this song is a lyrical solo by guitarist Cody Lee Ford, something that is not a staple on all Soen songs. Branching off from the third track is another single that was released before the album dropped, the elegant ballad “Illusion.” A soulful break from the first three heavy-hitting tracks, do not let it’s softness take away from its rather heavy lyrics. Ford also takes another Gilmour-like solo during the Floydian bridge.

The second half of the album kicks off with the first single, the typical, dynamic, staccato guitar-infested puncher, “Antagonist.” It seems Soen never get sick of dealing similarities in their riffs to their fans, but have never had a problem with making them unique enough to separate their songs. Also, as seen through the lyrics and the accompanying music video, it is clear the band is not afraid to display their take on personal freedoms, empathy, and the perpetuation of social divide. Martín López even came out and said about this song’s lyrics, “Why do we keep on testing and crushing ourselves as a species?” This theme is present through most of Imperial. “Antagonist,” which could be seen as one of the highlights of the album, is followed by what I think is a sleeper track on the album: “Modesty.” The sixth track is one of keyboardist Lars Enok Åhlund’s finest moments harmonically, with singer Ekelöf pushing his voice past the limits we may have thought he had before during the chorus. Everything seems to come together for the band on “Modesty” with regards to production and compositional arrangement.

Probably the most popular non-single on the album would be “Dissident,” which is dynamically diverse and holds what could be the best hook on the album. Maybe I am crazy, but every time I listen to the first half of the chorus I think of a more bombastic, up-tempo version of Dio’s “Rainbow in the Dark,” which sets this hook apart from the rest. Not to mention, Ford’s soloing on this track takes on a different form, melodically speaking, which makes for a sort of hypnotizing, memorable experience.

The album ends with the post-rock-meets-symphonic-metal “Future.” Soen always seem to add in arrangements of stringed instruments in their latest releases, and this concluding track brings these arrangements front and center during various points. On the slower side, it is maybe not the perfect ending, but it is certainly an appropriate conclusion to a rather heavy, dark album.

Although everything is still very Soen, Imperial delivers an experience to the listener that is fresh, with riffs consistent to their 2019 release Lotus, as well as catchy choruses that have always been in the band’s toolbox. If you are expecting something different from Soen with Imperial, then you may be disappointed. Nevertheless, Soen’s fifth album is a fine release by the Swedish supergroup to round out the first month of 2021.

Soen’s latest album, Imperial, was released on January 29, 2021 through Silver Lining Music. Buy it here.

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