REVIEW: EVERGREY – “Escape Of The Phoenix”
It’s that time of year again. The time when Spotify creeps into your emails while you sleep and drops off unsolicited playlists entitled “end of year wrap-up” into your inbox. Later that morning, over coffee, you check it out, expecting to see the richness and depth of your broad musical taste reflected therein. But instead you discover “Rain Sounds for Troubled Sleepers” lording it over all else, those same three Bon Jovi tracks from last year, and what you thought were “guilty pleasures” but may in fact be emotional anchors. So where should you go now? The answer is Evergrey.
In early 2019, the Swedish progressive metal titans closed out a conceptual trilogy of albums with ‘The Atlantic’. A staggeringly good instalment that captured something of Evergrey’s intoxicating live performances. Now the band have set their sights on February 2021 to release their highly anticipated 12th album, ‘Escape of the Phoenix’. Written and recorded during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, lockdown requirements appear to have given birth to a hive of artistic activity for the veteran quintet. Giving life to 11 songs that embody the true feel and spirit of a great Evergrey record, albeit one that marks a dramatic departure in some respects.
Throughout ‘Escape of the Phoenix’ there’s a strong sense of newfound freedom. Which is not to say that previous efforts felt confined or restricted. Yet there’s a fresh feeling of excitement and unpredictability across these songs as Evergrey break free of their continuous conceptual pursuits. ‘Escape of the Phoenix’ also reinforces vocalist and guitarist Tom Englund‘s reputation as a powerful vocalist and profound lyricist. Songs such as “Stories” depict Englund trapped in a riddle. An abstract metaphor that’s made painfully and beautifully vivid by his performance. Thankfully, it’s no short-lived incarnation. This is found again on “You from You”. A piece that also allows the space between the instruments to breathe, for guitars to call, cry and compliment one another through to its final, haunting moments. An achievement in no small part due to the consistently stunning displays by guitarist Henrik Danhage.
While Evergrey regularly bring home the gold for their melancholic moments and underlying torment, they are equally capable of bringing back the brutal bacon too. ‘Escape of the Phoenix’ thrives here, demonstrating some interesting choices. “The Beholder”, featuring James LaBrie of Dream Theater offers an anthem duet that is sure to make fans giddy with excitement. But the best is still yet to come. “Where August Mourn” may have some competition, but ultimately it tops its companions as the standout track. Lead by keyboardist Rikard Zander, with a vocal performance from Englund that infuses his emotive delivery with a seldom heard aggression, “Where August Mourn” best captures the heart of the album. Its even heavier title track counterpart comes close, rejecting the traditional idea of the resurrected phoenix for one that questions whether life has given it enough to even want to live.
Curiously, despite its huge musical scope, you would be hard pressed to find a truly memorable guitar riff on ‘Escape of the Phoenix’. Rhythm guitars dominate as a lead instrument with keyboards tagging in from time to time producing more fruitful results. Even on promising tracks like leading single “Forever Outside,” or the inescapably addictive “A Dandelion Cipher”, hopes are thwarted, and it’s a choice that doesn’t quite pay off.
While endless lockdowns have felt like straight-jackets on creativity for some, Evergrey have used them to produce the interior soundtrack for anyone who found themselves with too much time to think this year. ‘Escape of the Phoenix’ connects the dots within constellations that feel too vast to navigate alone. While it contains some artistic choices that may not work for everyone, Evergrey emerges from 2020 sounding more liberated than ever as they move on to their next chapter.