In the long tradition of keyboard based metal, there has always been the need for a keyboardist that is both transcendent and creative beyond the norm. Without that visionary effort or talent, it is difficult to achieve top level results. Vivien Lalu is the kind of talent you search for; but he isn't a hired gun. His full band project, Lalu, is progressive at heart, but with so many tangential elements at play, that it becomes difficult to put your finger on exactly what they are. With marginally big names attached, both in regular and guest roles, Lalu has surrounded himself with top level talent, attempting to make an album that lives up to their 2005 debut, "Oniric Metal." But what he has done here is dig a talent pool so deep, so dense, that it would be difficult not to release a masterpiece of some kind. As a result, the sophomore slump is no worry, and "Atomic Ark" is a well conceived, well produced, and well executed taken on progressive metal that is as prolific as the name it bears.
You'd have a hard time ignoring the early onset groove of "Greed," nor should you try to. Forming the backbone of the mix, guitarist Simone Mularoni may fill the rhythm role more often than the lead, but he does so in a way that is driving. The verse sections take a simplistic approach, while the tempo and intensity kicks up on the chorus, with vocalist Martin Lemar tasked with the none too easy job of completing the chain. His voice may not grab headlines, but he fits the bill here, providing an airy element to the mix. More pressing is the duel between Mularonia and Lalu himself, trading blows in a combination solo. That dynamic comes into play frequently, with tracks like "War On Animals" allowing the two to coexist in a way that makes them both stronger. The subtle intricacies that you'll find buried beneath the surface make the song that much better, whether they be the smoothness of the bass line, courtesy of the familiar Mike LePond, or the way Lemar bends his voice to fit into tight spaces. The shifts in spotlight are as numerous as the tracks themselves, and "Tatonka" sees Lalu splitting the main focus with drummer Virgil Donati. His bombastic style does wonders in the heavier segments, while his precision is key when the clean guitars take the lead. Lalu takes the refined approach, adding a layer of piano keys that dazzle as much as they shine..
The short but intensely sweet "Mirror Prison" is a ballad by definition, yet it extends beyond that word. Lemar's goes high and low, trembling along the way. The soft picking of clean guitars creates a mood that matches his tone magnificently, as a gently atmospheric keyboards glide you to the finish, and into "Deep Blue." They become parts of the same whole, almost as if one is the appetizer, and the other the main course. With the entree, you might not rise above a low simmer but thanks to the marvelous cohesion between all the pieces, it feels complete. Donati's input, in particular, does a tremendous amount of leg work here. More than how it sounds, though, is how it fits into the scope of the album; that is to say it is a fitting transition. Turning to the more avant garde side, "Bast" is an album highlight, thanks to the varied and ethnically tinged instrumentals. Mularoni hits the chugging passages with a delicate sense of timing, while Lemar soars over the top, only to come crashing back with a series of unexpected screams. The track culminates with a winding, chaotic guitar, drum, bass assault. But where "Momento" begins couldn't be farther away, a beautiful melody that rises and falls throughout the track. Every element shines here, with the rhythm section taking a commanding performance to new levels entirely. LePond and Donati bunker down in the low end, and add punch to a mix that would be little without it.
That same system works for "Follow The Line," one of the larger sounding productions on the album. Lemar, still forming his own identity, is at his level best here. But in addition to strong performances from al the key players, you have a jazz funk thread that runs throughout, eliciting a head nod or ten along the way. Harnessing a lot of the left over raw energy, "Slaughtered" is a track as unique as the band itself. Between the carnival atmosphere of the bridge, and the intoxicating layered vocals that follow, you have a lot to digest, in the best possible way. It leaves, of course, only the closing track to finish the job. When that finale is nearly twenty minutes, it becomes an album in and of itself. It takes on a life of it's own, with a handful of different movements contained with its walls. It hits on all levels, with few flaws for a track that boasts this length. Lemar, however, has a mixed effort here, his grunts sometimes feeling forced, especially combined with a lyrical performance that doesn't stand up to the rest. But as he regains form, so, too, does the track at large. Lalu orchestrates a brilliant mix here, finding that delicate balance between all of the pieces at play.
There are numerous takeaways from this album that deserve mention, and not nearly enough space to mention them all. But what Vivien Lalu has accomplished here is nothing short of a rousing success, keeping the sound all his own, while still absorbing the input and talents of musicians in the upper echelon of their craft. There are no true pitfalls to be found; the tracks are, for the most part, short and deliberate, leaving no room to a listener to get bored or reach for the skip function on their player of choice. But what remains most impressive on the first listen as it is on the twentieth is the ability to flip the switch, and go from blaring and dynamic to soft and brooding. It's as if they know exactly when to exercise restraint, and when to let loose with the bursts of creative energy. Much of that skill traces back to Lalu, and his ability to blend and manage his worthy constituents; but they deserve the shared credit, and they've also bent their normal output to fit into that larger mold. That give and take is exactly what you need to release an album as strong and unique as "Atomic Ark."
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