Album Review: VOLA, “Witness”

Every now and then a band enters the prog world and really catches people’s attention—VOLA could be considered one of those bands.  Forming in 2006 in Denmark by singer/guitarist Asger Mygind, the band released a few EPs before dropping their first full-length Inmazes in early 2015.  From then, they released their second LP (Applause of a Distant Crowd) in the fall of 2018, and now it is time for their anticipated third album, Witness.  VOLA is one of those bands that has taken elements of djent and progressive rock and mashed them together with a ton of electronics and synthesizers.  The result is something very layered and downright gorgeous with every album they release.  For those who are listeners of the Danish proggers, Witness is an album that incorporates much of the heaviness of Inmazes and the happiness of Applause of a Distant Crowd.

 

Photo Credit: Nikolai Linares

Witness starts off with one of VOLA’s most epic songs to date, “Straight Lines.”  Part of me wishes they did not release this as their second single (even though it’s length, structure, and catchiness fit the bill perfectly), simply because hearing this song in the context of the album would have blown me even more away than as a stand-alone single.  The rumbling intro riff and first verse get the blood pumping early for this record, only to be toned down considerably during the first chorus.  As a VOLA fan since Inmazes came out, I can say with certainty that the turn-around and key change during the first chorus might be one of my favorite moments this band has ever done on record—it still gives me chills and brings a smile to my face after the one-hundredth listen.  The chorus stays in your head for days at a time, not unlike many songs from the Danish quartet.  It is followed by the first single that was released for Witness, the industrial, djent-fest that is “Head Mounted Sideways.”  This song is reminiscent of Applause of Distant Crowd’s “Smartfriend,” as this lyrically dooming track brings that edge we love from VOLA.  The syncopation in the riffs, accompanied by another hot chorus melody, makes for another great product of this band’s formula.

VOLA were very single-happy with this album, releasing each of the first four tracks as singles before the album was released.  At first listen, the third single, “24 Light-Years” could be perceived as this album’s “Ruby Pool,” with its combination of both the ethereal synths and clean guitars and the bombastically precise drumming of Adam Janzi—seriously, drummers who want to learn a thing or two should tune into what Adam Janzi has to offer, because it is enchanting.  But VOLA made this song particularly special, leaving the foot on the accelerator until the very end.  A chorus that counters “Stray the Skies” and “Ghosts,” this track is a highlight not only for this album, but throughout the band’s entire discography.

The fourth track, and evidently the fourth single from the album—wow, just about half of the album’s runtime was released before the album dropped—could very well be the eyebrow-raiser.  With down-tuned riffs that you could hear on Inmazes, “These Black Claws” seems to fit right into the VOLA catalog.  But, VOLA is not a band that is satisfied by doing the same thing over and over—enter Shahmen.  For those who do not know of Shahmen (as I was unfamiliar with them before hearing this song), they are a duo comprised of Amsterdam-based producer SENSE and Los Angeles rapper B L S (aka Bless).  The duo brings something very new to VOLA’s sound, which I will leave those who have not yet listened to connect the dots on.  Passionate, dark, eclectic; a standout on Witness.

The second half of the album consists of no singles and puts VOLA’s wide sonic range on full display.  “Freak,” a softer track filled by acoustic guitars and ‘70s-inspired synths, seems like a peculiar song to kick off side two of the record, but serves as an excellent breather after side one.  And hey, anyone else like little guitar solos reminiscent of Alan Morse?  Is that a spoiler?  Ah, well.

The break is a short one, so make sure you are buckled up in time for the next few tracks.  Although undeniably brutal, “Napalm” has some incredible melodic composition, specifically from VOLA keyboardist Martin Werner.  If you want to get someone into VOLA with a song from Witness, I suggest this is the one you pick.  Heavy, melodic, a great hook, a rhythmic utopia of a bridge; it’s got it all.  It’s followed by “Future Bird,” another sonically full song that encompasses many of the prior track’s most desirable traits.  One thing to note is the Adam “Nolly” Getgood-esque tone of Nicolai Mogenson’s bass is so crisp.  These two songs could have served as perfect singles as well.

Sometimes you listen to this Danish band and forget that you feel like you are flying through the air… only to be clobbered like a Barry Bonds home run ball.  The dissonant intro of “Stone Leader Falling Down” quickly shifts gears when the band travels back in time to their days of Inmazes, sporting one of their most unforgivably scary riffs.  There are many callbacks to this riff throughout the song (I mean, deservedly so), but the track has a lot more to offer, including—you named it—a great chorus.

One thing is for certain: VOLA knows how to wrap up a record.  The latter half of “Inmazes” brings tears to my eyes, and the eeriness of “Green Screen Mother” initially made me sleep with one eye open.  But what if I told you they did something different than both of those, and still delivered the perfect ending?  “Inside Your Fur” is not overtly heavy, nor rhythmically complex; it’s not delicate nor creepy.  It sort of diverts from most VOLA tracks, especially closing tracks.  Full, to the point, and contains what is once again another chorus melody that sticks like glue; “Inside Your Fur” has a great, uplifting vibe that makes me think of the credits at the end of some hero’s journey.

Photo Credit: Nikolai Linares

VOLA has always been known as a band that combined beautiful vocal and synth melodies along with compositionally complex harmonies and near-fatal down-tuned guitar riffs; with Witness, I think it’s safe to say that they are only getting better.  The production is top-tier once again, the composition is thought-provoking, and most of all, the execution is downright perfect.

VOLA’s latest album, Witness, was released through Mascot Label Group on May 21st, 2021. Buy it here.

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