When one thinks of progressive rock/metal, the most obvious attributes are the musicianship, vocal skills and unusually (but often warranted) lengthy pieces. However, there is also the simple fact that most players are shameless geeks. Hell, Genesis took lyrical content from William Wordsworth, Led Zeppelin referenced Lord of the Rings, and Rush were obsessed with Sci-Fi. This trend continues today with The Aurora Project, which began by jamming out in between sessions of “Magic the Gathering.” The group’s second album, Shadow Border, breaks no new ground, but it doesn’t need to. It satisfies the genre requirement of stellar playing, singing and melodies, and any fan of Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree, Pink Floyd, and Tool should check this album out!
The group is releasing Shadow Border in conjunction with celebrating their tenth anniversary, and they still write primarily during jam sessions. The band describes the album as “…a no-nonsense progressive rock album…firm guitar playing, solid rhythm section and breathtaking vocals!” Surprisingly, the most transparent influences are Pain of Salvation and Anathema, two wholly unique, inventive and overall amazing groups who set themselves apart with remarkable shifts in tone and melody. In essence, this album is just a combination of their influences, but when you’re taking pages from today’s best of the best, that’s good enough.
The spacey guitar patterns and increasingly ominous drums that begin “Human Gateway” effectively set up The Aurora Project as a group who’s heavy on the riffs but sensitive vocally. Indeed the music draws upon King Crimson as singer Dennis Binnekade conveys the fragile purity of Riverside and Echolyn. Actually, anyone who’s heard Riverside will have a good idea of how the music shifts dynamics beautifully and the words are expressed with varying degrees of anger and sorrow. It’s an opener that sets the stage well.
“The Trial” is very heavy from the start, with crunching chords and distorted synthesizers. It’s a madhouse of alien sounds over a more straightforward metal landscape. The emotional guitar solo leads into a the crashing bass and syncopation of the gates of hell, and The Aurora Project handles it all with enough interesting choices to keep it from becoming pure noise (which so many other bands are).
One of the most interesting and memorable tracks is certainly “Photonic Reunion,” which has an intriguing enough verse before shifting everything for the chorus. Actually, this section reminds me a lot of “Hope” from Anathema’s Eternity album (a track originally written by Roy Harper). You can almost hear the instruments cry as Binnekade pours his heart out. It momentarily breaks from convention to hypnotize listeners and lull them into tranquility in the midst of chaos.
A segue leads into “The Confession.” After an explosive instrumental opening, things become very mellow, almost acoustic, as Binnekade carries his melody into a refreshing falsetto that his band is more than happy to complement. Of course things never stay too calm with this band, and eventually Binnekade has the echo of a fallen angel announcing musical apocalypse has his band reigns down sulfur. This then leads back into the delicate verse, which is beautiful.
The production of an Ayreon album blankets “Another Dream.” There’s the threatening Carney voice and computerized future sounds. Other than that, it’s a relatively uninteresting track, lacking any real noteworthy moments. Still, it’s not a bad one overall; it’s just weaker than the rest.
“Within The Realms” has lush harmonies and interesting arpeggios over standard riffing. It has the appeal of a radio single without becoming lazily commercial. Taking a page from any number of psychedelic jams with spoken word samples (i.e., Porcupine Tree’s “Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth”) is the latter half of the track. It effectively builds to a 1970s Jimmy Page guitar solo before ending with an emotional note pattern (i.e., Riverside).
Every prog band has to have their epic, “side long” piece, and for The Aurora Project, it’s the title track (which closes the album). The timbre of the guitar recalls Porcupine Tree’s more recent, heavier sound (“Futile” comes to mind), and the metal virtuosity recalls Riverside again. Afterward we have a nice junction of warm textures, funky rhythms and typically harsh chords. At the halfway point, a new section begins; a solo performance with Binnekade and an acoustic guitar. This is brief, and soon a third section begins, this time panicked and evil but still always showing complex, decipherable music instead of bland noise. The final melody of one of the best on Shadow Border, and Binnekade has one of those classy, angelic voices you never tire of hearing.
To summarize and restate what Shadow Border and The Aurora Project sounds like, you’ll hear a synthesis of Anathema, Riverside, Porcupine Tree and the like, albeit at times heavier than the rest. Granted (and this is not meant to insult) this band doesn’t have the songwriting chops or variety of any of their idols (especially Porcupine Tree, who have produced some of the greatest songs of my generation), but so what? They still make damn fine prog, and if you’re a fan of the aforementioned bands, it’s a no brainer to check out The Aurora Project too.