Frontiers keeps on trying to develop their musical directions – a great move, I think even though I’m not a huge fan of everything they release. From being a label that put focus on AOR, Melodic Rock and reunited 80’s Hard Rock acts, they now include plenty of genres which branches out from the Hard Rock tree. The label has released stuff by progressive hard-rockers before but there are not a whole lot of those coming from their stables. A new signing in that genre comes with new, upcoming British rockers Novena consisting of members from bands such as Haken, Slice The Cake, Bleeding Oath, Ravenface and The HAARP Machine, to mention but a few. Since I’m not overly conversant in the prog-genre, I’m not even gonna pretend that I have ever heard of any of those bands. To be honest, Prog isn’t my first choice when it comes to Rock and there are only a few bands that I truly love.
Novena – Ross Jennings (vocals), Gareth Mason (growl-vocals), Dan Thornton (guitars), Harrison White (guitars, keyboards), Moat Lowe (bass) and Cameron Spence (drums) – was formed back in 2013 but it would take them up to 2016 to release their debut 3-track E.P. Secondary Genesis. If that title is a nod towards the band Genesis is yet to be revealed. Why it took the band first three years to release a 3-track and then four more years to follow it up with a full-length album isn’t really clear but one guess is a lot of touring to establish themselves as a solid live-act on the prog-scene. Be that as it may, the album is out now and me being a guy always looking for new music within different styles, I took to the album with big interest. I do need another prog-band to cherish.
The album opens with two curiously titled songs: “22:58” and “22:59”. The first is an intro and we get to hear footsteps and someone picking up keys all while a choir sings in the background and when a minute has passed we get to the latter, the album’s first full-on song. It opens with said choir going on in full blast before the song takes on a softer and smoother direction only to go heavy and gritty with some aggressive, growly vocals mixed with clean ones. Some tempo-changes follows with a Yes-like melody twist and a jazzy-influenced passage to follow before the heaviness and prog-metal riffing returns. The song ends with church-bells and the returning choir. At first the tune might be a toughie to grasp but it grows with every listen. I think it’s a great tune.
Next up is the album’s third single “Sun Dance”, a song that starts on a more straight-forward note with a groovy rhythm. It’s quite big on acoustic guitars spiced up with a latin flavour mixed with electric dittos and a very direct and even slightly pop-fueled vocal melody. We also get some mean and heavy guitar riffing and a kicking rhythm. With a refrain that’s actually catchy and easy-listened – all in the name of prog-rock, of course – I get why it was chosen as a single. A great song that really makes me look forward to the rest. The album’s leading single “Disconnected” starts out pretty quiet and even soft yet atmospheric with only keyboards and vocals before it continues with a prog-laden groove and a straight forward, direct main melody. With a structure not a far cry from Dream Theater’s “Surrounded” the song treats us with a majestic chorus that catches on from hello. This is pure brilliance, folks.
Latest single “Sail Away” – the animated video was released only hour before I started writing this review – begins softly with a spoken-word before bass, drums and keyboards comes in, still holding the taciturn arrangements. What we’re given here is a ballad which makes me think of lounge-music that holds some comfortable and cozy melodies that brings on a feel-good vibe. After a while the song gets a bit bigger in sound with a melody reminiscent of Flying Colors. It’s a beautiful song, full of gorgeous vocal-harmonies, quite calm and relaxing but never ever dull – quite the contrary. I love this.
On the opposite side of “Sail Away”, “Lucidity” gets going with a piano-riff that reminds me of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, heavied up by a heavy and proggy rhythm. The aggressive, growly vocals makes the brutality come out before the song tones down into a softer, ballad-like mode with clear, high and emotional vocals and some jazzy solo parts. Before you know what hit you, it turns Metal again with big proggy rhythms that comes across as a mixture of Devin Townsend and Dream Theater before another laid-back section – clearly influenced by Opeth – takes form with a vocal melody that brings Sieges Even to mind. But we’re not done with the changes just yet. The singing gets replaced by an eerie spoken-word that alters with with a prog-rock power ballad like refrain that’s actually even catchy. It’s a breathtaking tune that takes a spin or two to grasp, but when stuck, it’s impossible not to love. Phenomenal.
“Corazón” opens with some highly Spanish sounding acoustic guitars on a swinging groove and right out of the blue, a heavy, Metal breakdown kicks in and before you know it, it goes back to the acoustic, Spanish guitars this time with vocals and a groovy rhythm to back it up. Yes, even Latin sounding, flamenco-esque rhythms complete with hand-claps and a spoken-word, in Spansih of course, which later goes all in with guest vocalist Luisa Santiago taking on the song, singing the lyrics in Spanish. To complete this glorious mash-up the song turns heavy and aggressive with growly vocals where the original vocal-melody is kept. Speaking of vocal-melodies, at times more Devin Townsend inspired vocal melodies pops up here and there. The song ends on a calmer note with more grandiose melodies all over. Fantastic!
Second single “Indestructible” is also a very understandable single-choice. It’s a pretty straight ahead rocker, slightly proggy where Hard Rock is fueled by Melodic Rock melodies and an ounce of Metal for the sake of heaviness. There’s a big live-feel over it and the melodies are all very memorable, especially the chorus which brings on lots of hooks and catchiness. It might be the most “normal” song on the album but by that it brings yet another musical twist. Very good.
“The Tyrant” kicks off just as aggressive and dark as the title suggests. Dark, heavy and gloomy Metal riffing with some ferocious, sinister and screamy, growly vocals on a gut-punching rhythm. The solo part is brutal and saturnine yet in-your-face punchy which is followed by a melodic pop-pomp break before the song goes back to how it started. The aggro Metal growly parts returns only for the song to take another subdued and abstemious turn with another touch of Opeth’s calmer moments to give us some respite. The the tempo slows down into a gloomy mood with some doomy, Black Sabbath touches before it ends on a faster, aggressive and more straight-forward note. Again, this isn’t something you listen to while doing the dishes, it’s a very complex song that at times feels like three different songs with in the song. But damn, it’s good!
As a closer, Novena provides us with a real monster, an epic 15 minute prog-rocker called “Prison Walls”. The song begins as a straight-forward, punchy belter with a main-melody that lands somewhere between Flying Colors and Sieges Even and is actually catchy albeit not radio hitty. A short, dreamy passage comes in before a softer verse comes along in a frugal mode. A cinematic spoken-word section breaks in making things more dramatic but also a bit creepy and eerie before a crunchy and raw-riffed metal part with “it’s no-one’s fault” chanting for a while which takes us into a ferocious Metal havoc that actually brings Slipknot to mind. Somebody just ran me over with a steamroller! A laid-back piano part – think Savatage here – comes in before a layer of strings are added. The rest of the band comes in over the same piano riff, taking into a heavier direction, very bombastic. Some blues and boogie rhythms has been thrown in as well, making the song even more unpredictably grandiose. This is a mini rock-opera – and it’s nothing but brilliant. What a closer!
This is a progressive Metal behemoth. It’s a very unpredictable album where you get the impression of anything can happen. And it actually does. But that being said, it takes time to get into it even though many of the vocal-melodies are actually both catchy and easy-listenable. It’s what hides behind those melodies that makes it an album that will need its fair share of spins to grasp. Fact is, I’m not quite sure it has stuck properly as I write this – maybe I should have written this review in a few more months. But still I love it. Probably much because the guys sure seem to know how to write an infectious hook and memorable melodies. This is not a musical show-off – Novena really knows how to write a damn good song. Fact is, this is the best progressive Hard Rock/Metal record I have heard in a long, long time. Highly recommended!
3. Sun Dance
5. Sail Away
9. The Tyrant
10. Prison Walls