REVIEW: VOLA – “Witness”
Progressive metal or “prog” for the nerds can be a niche an inaccessible genre for the general populace, the “casuals”. Maintaining or increasing accessibility without compromising the technical prowess that the genre demands are a tight rope very few bands can walk successfully. From Periphery to Portal, prog metal comes in different and extreme flavors: the poppy to the eldritch. Danish quartet Vola are much closer to Periphery in their stylings but are even more accessible for the general masses. The fact that they have gone so under-noticed is a crime unto itself. However, 2021’s Witness is about to change all that.
Witness opens with single, “Straight Lines” instantly showing the listener what to expect from the record, and Vola as a band: poppy verse-chorus-bridge structures, clean vocals, synths, and the occasional heavy riff or two. The most enjoyable tracks on Witness are predictable enough to have the listener bouncing along while waiting for the massive chorus to drop, yet Vola always succeeds to hide a trick or two up their sleeve, usually with unique vocal arrangements. “Straight Lines” hits its first pre-chorus with a deceptive chord change to a higher octave before gloriously resolving into one of the strongest choruses on the record. A brilliant way to start a record! As catchy and mellow as “Straight Lines” is lulling you into a fall sense of coddling, “Head Mounted Sideways” opens with a sledgehammer riff. With tracks like these, the keyboards add depth to simplistic riffs making them more than a sum of its parts. This time around, the vocal twist is the vocoder filter in the first verse, lending heavily to the futuristic cyberpunk aesthetic. The clean chorus is catchy in its own regard but is weaker than “Straight Lines” (truly god-tier catchy), and some of the other tracks yet to come. However, what “Head Mounted Sideways” brings to the table is a Textures level of heavy which old-school prog-nerds will immediately recognize and instantly appreciate. It does help that the outro breakdown is so bonkers heavy that would make even the folks at Spiritbox blush. These tracks are reminiscent of their debut InMazes which pushed deeper into the heavy realm of prog metal
In doing a complete 180 shift, tracks like the single “24 Light Years” and later “Freak” are the ballads of Witness which simply means that the balance between heavy and poppy leans more towards the latter. These tracks resemble the more mellow vibes portrayed in their previous record Applause of a Distant Crowd. Vola does excel in creating space in their sound without ever making the listener feel like there is anything missing, via layers, overdubs, synth textures, tricksy drum arrangements, and lots of lush reverb-delay guitars. Parts of “24 Light Years” could easily be on a Periphery record, and that is praise in its purest form. “Freak” on the other hand, is a twangy-acoustic driven, synth, and vocal-forward track, that serves as the equivalent of coming back up for air after a deep dive into a deep blue ocean that is the track before it.
Speaking of the track before “Freak”, “These Black Claws” opens with a minor off-key eerie keyboard arrangement that forms the verse lick, which gives way to a chorus riff so utterly gargantuan, Meshuggah is probably out there wondering how to harness that singularity. The riff itself is painfully straightforward with minimal notes, but where Meshuggah uses repetition with punishingly complex polyrhythms to garner appeal, Vola uses their keyboard and bass layers to hit us with that black hole of a chorus! Vocal features include rapped sections by Shahmen, which while not particularly spectacular, adds to the narrative that Vola tries something new vocally on each track. Witness opens strong and arguably ends even stronger. The penultimate track “Stone Leader Falling Down” is punishingly heavy, both in verse and chorus, carried by the sonorous vocal patterns. “Stone Leader…” also has the only growl on the entire record and will slap the pants of the listener as it comes out of nowhere, and disappears just as quickly. Just as “Straight Lines” was an incredibly strong album opener, “Inside Your Fur” is an equally catchy album closer with a memorable structure and a Leprous-esque chorus falsetto vocal.
Vola is a four-piece doing the work of ten men. This listener is constantly impressed that Vola is a single guitar band. Guitarist and vocalist Asger Mygind masterfully crafts big verses and bigger choruses by adding layer upon layer of acoustic and distorted guitars reminiscent of early Between The Buried and Me, The Contortionist, Periphery, and Textures. Bassist Nicolai Mogensen and drummer Adam Janzi hold down the fort with strong arrangements. The bass lines are particularly tasteful and bolster the guitar layers formidably. Keyboardist Martin Wener is the mastermind behind what makes Witness a force to be reckoned with. The tracks without the expansive synth arrangements would be a very drab affair. Vola is known for its signature vocals and vocal arrangements, and Asger Mygind is Vola itself after three stellar records. His vocal timbre is graceful as it is powerful. Admittedly he doesn’t have the range of Leprous’s Einar Solberg who is in a league of his own. Yet, his powerful vocals and catchy lyrics as seen on “Straight Lines” should rightfully shoot him into well-deserved stardom.
Whoever did the mix and master on all Vola records, and particularly Witness deserves almost as much praise as the band themselves. Production on modern progressive metal is always top-tier, leaning on the idea that this genre is by audio/gear nerds for audio/gear nerds. Even by the highest standards, the mix on Witness is practically flawless! The guitars are crisp, the bass is audible, occupies its own headspace in the mix, and always prominently adds to the thumping drums. The vocals and keyboards sit pretty on the top of the mix, never drowning any of the other layers, however many they may be.
Witness is a predictably enjoyable record. It follows a tried-and-true, albeit formulaic verse-chorus structure. Ardent prog consumers would bristle at such pedestrian predictability, and they wouldn’t be completely off the mark. The stripped verse to grandiose chorus shtick does begin to get old as the album chugs along, despite Vola’s best efforts to throw in a curveball ever so often. These are minor complaints and don’t take away from their carved niche in the genre matrix, serving as starter-pack prog-metal instead of more esoteric acts who come with their own host of issues.
Witness is a bombastic dose of poppy-djent with amazing hooks and memorable riffs. Vola continues to skirt the lines between true prog and accessible, radio-friendly metal and serves as great tastemakers to the genre.