VOLA – Applause Of A Distant Crowd


Artist

Album

Applause Of A Distant Crowd

Label

Mascot Records

Year

2018

For Fans Of

Contortionist, Steven Wilson, BTBAM.

Summary

Prog-rock & prog-metal armed with a smile.

Rating

80 / 100

The cover of ‘Applause Of A Distant Crowd‘ is what you’ll engage in by listening to VOLA’s latest effort. You’re submerging yourself into a rich pool of uplifting progressive rock/prog-metal soundscapes. You’re diving headfirst into blissful sonics waters full of big reverbs and glittering synths; dense layers of crystalline vocal and instrumental melodies; thickened production backing up great guitar work that channels both classic rock and aggressive metal riffage. Swimming amongst a hopeful underlying message of humanisation in a digital age that sometimes doesn’t allow for such courtesies to happen.

Many prog-rock and prog-metal albums can be more or less grim experiences. Of course, half the time, that’s most of the fun! Yet VOLA – vocalist/guitarist Asger Mygind (who also produced and mixed this album), keys/synth player Martin Werner, bassist Nicolai Mogensen and drummer Adam Janzi – wish to change that. Well, at least for themselves and their own band’s trajectory with this contemplative new record. For the Swedish outfit’s latest LP is a grandiose, expansive mixture of progressive rock and prog-metal, effectively littered with moments of pop and electro undertones. All as it brims with a cheerful heart, an honest soul, and plenty of loving smiles to offer with this thoughtful batch of songs.

The Copenhagen group’s decent debut LP, 2016’s ‘Inmazes’ dealt with a person navigating their own mental maze. Excluding the likes of ‘Emily‘ and certain pretty passages during that album’s title track and ‘Gutter Moon‘, the music mostly reflected this theme. It was heavy in tuning, darkened in sound, and angular in rhythm; all leading you down a winding labyrinth with deformed riffs waiting around every corner. Yet that once inward-looking gaze has now turned outward to the philosophical online conflicts of today, developing a greater sense of melody by doing so. ‘Applause Of A Distant Crowd‘ deals with people’s engagement with current social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, etc. – and how they affect our relationships with others. It’s about how we’re all there on the screens inches from our lit-up faces yet are physically separated by great distances; how many try to present themselves in flattering lights online for this so-called “distant applause”; how we mostly bolster our own echo chambers; and about how we sometimes just look at “cats in shoes” and upload pics of our “latest meals in black and white“, among other trivial matters.

Personally, I find it super ironic when bands demonize and critique these platforms. As their music really wouldn’t exist for long nor prosper without these digital tools in place to help promote their art. Thankfully, this doesn’t seem to be the mindset of VOLA, with them understanding social media isn’t going anywhere and will remain ubiquitous and necessary in today’s world – for artists or otherwise. Instead, it’s the band offering an emotional commentary on how social media simply affects and drives our daily habits, thinking, relationships through a never-ending overdose of dopamine hits. The record’s core intent seems to be to draw attention to the actual human beings that exist behind the digital texts and pics that litter our screens on a daily basis. Rather than lazily writing it all off and going “wah, social media bad“. In any case, I think it’s safe to say that Mark Zuckerberg won’t be a fan of this new VOLA album.

I’m in love with the cover artwork for ‘Applause Of A Distant Crowd’, based on Jessica Lee Ives’ painting, ”Joyful Participation”. Such a beautiful piece!

There’s plenty of gems to be found across the calming waters of ‘Applause Of A Distant Crowd‘. The starry-eyed opener ‘We Are Thin Air‘ announces the band’s style change-up from the heavier ‘Inmazes‘ to the melodious present in glorious fashion. Some comparisons will be drawn to how The Contortionist evolved from their earlier, tech-death days to the beautifully intricate sounds of 2017’s ‘Clairvoyant‘. While indeed not as extreme as that particular acts switcheroo, VOLA absolutely makes a musically bold, tonally colourful and powerful statement with ‘We Are Thin Air‘. Next up is ‘Ghosts‘, which is a positive-sounding and overly fun affair, seeing VOLA aim for a vibrant arena-rock sound with big synths and choral parts, whilst never losing their progressive musicality and strong compositional abilities. This second song speaks of how delicate yet detailed their songwriting is, what with subtle double kick patterns and those driving acoustic guitars that suitably blend into the rest of this track’s massive arrangement.

On the airy ‘Vertigo‘, Asger croons right up close about crushing break-ups over distant unnerving atmos, all before clean, reverberant plucked guitars creep in around ghostly backing vocals. Kinda like a stream of thought running past various other voices of doubt, trying hard to keep its goal and path steady and sure. It’s an abstract piece, but one of the most emotionally intimate songs you’ll uncover within the blue depths of this lush LP. Likewise, closer ‘Green Screen Mother‘ – seemingly a joke about how our world’s current “mother nature” is made up of pixels more than anything else – is a shimmering final outing. Despite it’s soft and melancholic nature about disconnection and isolation, it feels like finally coming up for air after a long swim, with one yearning to head right back into the deep that swirls beneath you. Which is what I adore about this last song: it makes me want to revisit the whole album again. Truly the sign of a great outro piece, I feel.

One of the finest moments of ‘Applause Of A Distant Crowd‘ is the track that shares its namesake. Mostly in how it injects gorgeous post-rock tremolo into the proceedings, along with playful bass playing, great guitar melodies, awesome piano voicings (Martin Werner really is the unsung hero of this record), and showing off how lovely and expressive Asger’s vocals are. It’s a mixing-pot moment of everything VOLA do well here; ambient pop, atmospheric prog-rock, dynamic and widescreen post-rock, with real care for their songcraft and execution. Another album standout that I cannot miss is the tide-turning ‘Ruby Pool‘. My personal favourite track here musically shines through soft surfaces of floating waves with glossy piano runs, moody synth washes, head-bobbing bass lines, dynamic and additive drum performances, bubbly guitars, and lavish vocals all cascading in gentle manners. If there’s only one song that you listen to from this record due to my review, for the love of God, please make it this heart-warming, tranquil-filled cut below:

Not everything about ‘Applause Of A Distant Crowd‘ works all fine and dandy, though. ‘Smartfriend‘ seems awfully out of place. It feels like a leftover cut from the band’s last album, what with its complex rhythms, filthy riffs and odd time signatures giving it a tech-metal sound akin to SikTh and Meshuggah. Which is the issue: this album shares very little with said bands, nor should it be given the music on offer. Other than the lighter choruses and twisting synths, this track is at such odds with the heart-warming, colourful compositions that surround it. This honestly feels like VOLA are either filling time or are throwing a bone out to die-hard technical prog-metal fans, except they’re not making it gel with the rest of this record’s tone and flow. It’s phoned-in. The very same applies to the chug-happy nature of the second-to-last song, ‘Whaler‘. While a longer, more straight-forward prog-metal cut than ‘Smartfriend‘, it too feels out of touch with the rest of the LP. In both songs, flashes of the band’s new-found melodic touches breakthrough in the chorus or bridge, but it’s never enough to mould well with the remaining tracklisting. This pair sticks out like a sore, jarring thumb; the only downsides to what is otherwise a fucking great record.

That being said, a couple of songs that do share the heavier similarities of ‘Smartfriend‘ and ‘Whaler‘ pull things off much more gracefully. For one, the electronic drums, pitched synths, and electro stabs of the lengthy intro to ‘Alien Shivers‘ allows the piece to launch off into the prog-rock stratosphere from 1:21 onwards. Despite the heavier riffage, it matches itself with the wider album so much better than ‘Smartfriend‘ ever does; feeling like a natural, fitting inclusion to the overall release. In another great instance, this can also be said of ‘Still‘. On this seventh entry, the band place aggressive guitar palm-mutes underneath electronic hi-hat patterns and powerful vocal lines at first for a really solid contrast. Right before exploding the piece into a solid feast of massive refrains, huge guitar hammerings, surging synths, and soothing vocals as it goes on; leaving the band’s sole tech-metal moments for sheer dead.

Conclusion

VOLA’s heart-warming new album is a beautiful and magical prog-rock/prog-metal release. It’s vibrant, teary-eyed and happy, and is, for the most part, an infectious progressive listen. More importantly, ‘Applause Of A Distant Crowd’ is a humanizing and emotional listen for our currently social-media-saturated societal climate. It’s an intelligent album grappling with a larger, serious theme of relationships and connection for today’s technologically-driven age, but one that is wondrously encompassed with heart, soulful musical performances, powerful genre-bending, and stunning melodic structure. While ‘Applause Of A Distant Crowd’ is definitely marred by the aggressive, tech-metal baggage of VOLA’s last record (moments that should’ve been cut right off), the good on offer absolutely outweighs any and all poorly placed cuts.

Tracklisting

We Are Thin Air

Ghosts

Smartfriend

Ruby Pool

Aline Shivers

Vertigo

Still

Applause Of A Distant Crowd

Whaler

Green Screen Mother

‘Applause Of A Distant Crowd’ is out now!

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