REVIEW: SUBTERRANEAN MASQUERADE – “Vagabond”
The world is full of unique progressive rock and metal bands (and any number that are far less so). Indeed, for most of these bands their uniqueness is their trademark; the very purpose of the genre is to strive for new, expanded, and unique sounds. And for over a decade one of the more unique prog metal bands has come out of Israel in the form of Subterranean Masquerade. Combining their own spin on prog metal with Middle Eastern music, jazz, death metal, and a touch of the avant garde, they have traveled their own path. Formed by group mastermind and guitarist Tomer Pink, and drawing members not only from their native land, but as far away as Norway as well, they have released two full length albums and are set to release their newest album ‘Vagabond’ in early September. And it is one that prog metal fans should be paying attention to.
The band is a melting pot of other bands as well with members of Green Carnation (Kjetil Nordhus as lead vocalist) and Orphaned Land (drummer Matan Shmuely) and in some ways this album and 2014’s ‘The Grand Bazaar’ sound like a love child of the two bands, but a child that has gone its own way in the world. Much of the reason for this is due to Nordhus’s vocals, which are easily recognizable by his much laid back style. I’ve been a fan of his vocal work since I first heard Green Carnation’s ‘Light of Day, Day of Darkness’ in early 2003, so I was quite pleased when he joined this band for their last album. ‘Vagabond’ is a direct sequel to ‘The Grand Bazaar,’ a concept album dealing with a man on a journey to discover what is important to him, and it picks up directly where the previous album left off. There is musically a clear kinship between the two, and the opening song “Place For Fairytales” starts with a jazzy meld of Middle Eastern themed music, complete with horns and clarinets and a female vocalist singing in Hindu before being joined by metal music and a greeting to the listener, welcoming them to the album with the lines ‘Hello my friend/ we meet again/ it wasn’t long ago that we visited The Grand Bazaar.’ The song forms an ideal set up for the rest of the album, and sets the tone for the next 47 minutes.
The following track, “Nomad,” fully introduces the listener to the other major element of their music: death metal. Granted, it’s not extreme death metal trying to bludgeon the listener’s head in, but it’s certainly brutal, and second vocalist Eliran Weitzman unleashes a flurry of deep growls throughout, perhaps representing the darker side of the vagabond’s nature, but it works very well and by and large he is clearly discernible. In honesty there have been times in the past (especially their first full length ‘Suspended Animation Dreams’) where I have felt that the death vocals didn’t fit the music very well and were a bit forced. They are integrated much more smoothly this time around, and they never overwhelm the music or are over used.
A major highlight for me comes at the halfway mark with “Kippur.” It begins with a funky fusion of jazz and Jewish melodies, which remind me quite a bit of John Zorn’s ongoing Masada projects. It slows down a bit, and an accordion comes in along with the vocals, before going in a darker direction when the death vocals come back in. The final couple minutes is some of my favorite music on the album, starting with the keyboards slowly playing the main theme, and slowly building into a fierce prog metal/jazz fusion jam, complete with sax work. The guitar work throughout by Pink and Or Shalev really shines on this track as well as the instrumental follow up “Dalad Bavos,” which gives Shmuely a chance to show off his drumming chops as well.
The album proper finishes with “Hymn of the Vagabond” which begins quietly and slowly builds as it goes along. There is a very strong string element throughout the song, as there has been for the whole album, but they really make their presence known as does the female vocalist singing in her native dialect. The song combines all the styles fully for a final time, and forms a very satisfactory ending. As said above, this ends the concept portion of the album, but the final track is a cover of the David Bowie classic “Space Oddity.” It’s a fairly straightforward cover, certainly heavier than the original. It starts almost in a slow doom metal fashion, and the closing parts feature some death vocals in the back, almost as an echo. It is a fitting tribute to one of rock’s great icons.
There are no real complaints I have about the album. The production is nice and clean, with all the myriad of instruments sharp and clear, and the vocals, both clean and harsh, are balanced properly in the mix. It is a tad on the short side, but the listener should come away feeling satisfied and with the variety of things happening and the many layers of sound that is no real issue either.
Subterranean Masquerade have returned with an excellent example of progressive metal fused with Middle Eastern themes and music. And they continue to push the boundaries of their sound, and walk a path that is really followed by no one else in the genre. ‘Vagabond’ is, for my money, the most cohesive and solid album the band has put out to date, and I found myself enjoying it more the more I listened to it and the more the details came through. Any fan of prog metal that is actually interested in music progressing would do well to check it out. High recommended.