Bursting forth from their Danish homeland with enough ideas to put even the most ardent of musicians to shame, progressive quartet VOLA have set out their stall to become a shining beacon in the world of interesting, inventive and technically challenging rock music. With sophomore album ‘Applause of a Distant Crowd’ featuring more twists and turns than any river you’d care to mention, the burning question is whether or not the Danes have sacrificed quality for the sake of ambition.
Things certainly start off on a positive note, as album opener ‘We Are Thin Air’ starts with a soaring instrumental passage that sweeps you up into the ether, before the clouds part and give way to some floating vocals and an interesting use of pop-influenced instrumentation. There are elements of tech metal and prog littered throughout the record, and while these moments do become rather formulaic at times there is an undoubtedly high level of quality on display from a band comprised of some very talented musicians.
The most interesting passages are those that utilise the more outlandish instrumental structures, with the synths present on ‘Ghosts’ lifting the track to a level that simply wouldn’t have been achieved if it had been left as a simple prog rock song. That said, the higher-pitch of these instrumental offerings does start to grate after a while, with the seemingly sunny disposition of the music juxtaposing the lyrical content that, at times, focuses on the darker side of humanity. While VOLA must be commended for throwing so many different styles and elements into the musical melting pot, the constant tonal shift that seems to happen between each track does become slightly too much.
It may seem as if there’s a lot of criticism being levelled at this record, but there are undeniably some excellent moments on the album that go at least some way to counter-balancing the less impactful offerings. The same tropes that start to annoy also serve to highlight the skill on display here, as it takes an accomplished songwriter indeed to thread all of these conflicting strands together without it ending up as a complete mess. ‘Smartfriend’ for example utilises a gnarly, dirty sound that provides a platform for some searing riffing, and its successor ‘Ruby Pool’ takes a beautifully delicate lead vocal and melds it seamlessly with a restrained, almost fragile backdrop.
‘Vertigo’ is perhaps the most intriguing song on the entire record; a melancholic, haunting piece of music that leaves your mind to fill in the blank parts of the canvas that are purposely left ambiguous. Followed up by the rip-roaring, synth-driven storm of ‘Still’, the contrast that both lifts and at times plagues the record is in evidence again, a fact that is further highlighted by another change in direction soon after in the form of the melodic, pop-esque title track ‘Applause of a Distant Crowd’.
The award for best song on the record goes to penultimate track ‘Whaler’, with the band employing a heavier, tech-metal sound and layering vocals reminiscent of mid-period Katatonia over the top to create a surprisingly crushing yet still overtly fragile offering. Closing track ‘Green Screen Mother’ acts as a sombre lullaby that provides a suitably mellow comedown from the ever-changing swirl of ideas that has come before it, and as the album fades into the darkness you can’t help but feel moved in some way, even if you don’t necessarily grasp the true meaning of this emotional resonance.
VOLA have stylistically swung for the fences with this release, and while they rarely hit the nail squarely on the head, there should be enough here for those of a prog-persuasion to find plenty of moments of enjoyment. With the mish-mash of different genres however, it does beg the question of who this album is really being aimed at. It’s technical, progressive and challenging, yes, but there are also moments that focus solely on the hard-hitting riffs, or the 80’s influenced (yet distinctly modern sounding) synths.
What this record is then is an enigma; a piece of art that is designed to be unravelled over time, refusing to give up all of its secrets after just a couple of listens. In a world of instant gratification that enables the listener to dedicate fleeting moments to an album before making a decision on its musical merit, one has to wonder whether or not this has enough hooks to encourage people to stick with it for repeated listens. If it is given more time to breathe however, then you could be looking at a slow burner that certainly has the potential to become a cult classic.
Applause of a Distant Crowd is released on the 12th of October through Mascot Records / Mascot Label Group.