Sonic Pulsar is quite an obscure group that released two albums in the first half of the 2000’s, of which Playing the Universe is the first and in my opinion, the group’s masterpiece. Unfortunately it can be difficult to find the album on CD at a reasonable price but it is well worth hunting down and even paying that bit extra for it, because what we have here isn’t your run of the mill metal music. Stylistically what we have here is a brand of progressive metal, but it’s also very ambient in nature, sometimes even when the metal instruments are being played. At times they sound as if they have having a jam session, but it’s not (they even have a song here called This Is Not a Jam Session), it’s actually an extremely focused effort. Though it’s Sonic Pulsar’s debut there are no first album hiccups that you might expect (that may be because the main man behind it, Hugo Flores, had already released his solo album Atlantis) from a new band. It’s also a very full album, clocking in at just over seventy minutes so there’s plenty of material on offer, a total of thirteen songs to be precise.
Playing the Universe is a difficult album to compare something else more known to in order to give you readers some mental idea other than words about what to expect when trying this album out. This is because I quite literally don’t know anything else out there was can be compared to Playing the Universe. Sure, it’s progressive metal, that’s a pretty big field and is more popular these days than ever thanks to the rising success of bands such as Dream Theater and Opeth, but I’ve yet to find something quite like Playing the Universe, even its follow up album Out of Place doesn’t quite have the same feel to it. As you have probably guessed from the title it’s spaced themed, which may lead some to compare it to Arjen Lucassen’s work and to be fair, there are some similar traits in how they operate between Lucassen and Hugo Flores. Both doing spacey sci-fi themed lyrics, both have a ‘metal opera’ project with many vocalists, (Lucassen’s Ayreon and Flores’ Project Creation), both have their ‘space metal’ project (Lucassen’s Star and for Flores, Sonic Pulsar itself), but to compare it musically would be wrong, because aside from it all being progressive, there’s no similarity at all. For starters, Sonic Pulsar actually has much more ground to stand on to truly be considered space metal, as it’s very much mood music, best played at night, preferably a clear night when you can see the stars. It still rocks like hell during the day of course, but to play this album at night really captures its mood perfectly. As good as Lucassen’s Star One is at the end of the day it’s just straight up progressive metal with a sci-fi theme. Playing the Universe is an entirely different beast.
So, having deduced that it can’t be compared to anything else let’s move this review onto the songs themselves. For the album opener we’ve got Radio Silent, a seven minute piece and it’s a good choice to get first impressions of the album. I wouldn’t consider Hugo Flores to be the greatest vocalist in the world but I do feel that he’s an underrated one, and he’s also a clearly very gifted instrumentalist. He plays the majority of the music on Playing the Universe, with the only other member, Carlos Mateus, being credited for synths and additional guitars on two tracks, although Mateus is very involved with the albums lyrics. Radio Silent gives us a good introduction to these guys’ traits, but what makes it really special is the way that it effortlessly goes onto the second song, the first of four instrumentals on the album, a track called Dreamscapes. We’ll get to that in a moment, first let’s just round off the first impressions section first. It would be wrong to say that Playing the Universe is an easy album to get into. It’s not, mainly because of that it’s so different it may cause you to stop and wonder what on Earth it is you’ve got here.
Dreamscapes is easily the most ambient piece of music on Playing the Universe. It’s also in my opinion the best track on the album despite its instrumental status. I would go as far to say that Dreamscapes is one of the best pieces of instrumental music I’ve ever heard from any band of any genre. Though the guitar is present in the song it’s very much driven by the keys, and it’s positioning on the album as the second track is perfect. Never before have I heard an instrumental that just works so well with an album’s vocal songs. This is what perfection sounds like. This is where the album really kicks into the whole space metal thing, it’s got a lot of atmosphere that nothing else on the album quite compares to, but with that said the rest of this album is perfection as well, Dreamscapes just goes beyond the boundaries of perfection into something new.
We’ve back to vocal songs for the next three tracks. Sending Dead Flowers is another highlight of the album, good chorus here, while the next two, Wasting and Old Man’s Tale couldn’t be any further apart in style, with the former being a lengthy eight and a half minute piece and Old Man’s Tale not even clocking in at three. This last was kind of recorded live with Mateus on acoustic guitar and Flores on bass and vocals, unlike the other tracks which had the instrument tracks recorded separately with guitars always first and vocals always last. What makes all three of these songs even more exceptional is that each of them feels new when listened to, there’s no reworking of the same ideas in each track, and this is something which continues throughout the album, even the four instrumentals have their own identity even without lyrics to help them flow. Atmosphere is what they do have in common and it’s a good trait to share. There’s just these certain parts in the songs that come along and really conjure up those images of space in your mind. In all honestly it’s the instrumentals (Dreamscapes, Sonic Pulsar, This is Not a Jam Session and Playing the Universe) that are where it’s at with Playing the Universe. The album would work well without vocals and it’s a personal hope of mine that these guys try something like that in the future, not necessarily as Sonic Pulsar since this is already established as a vocal band (though a 3rd Sonic Pulsar album wouldn’t go amiss either), because I think the results would be nothing short of mind blowing. The track Sonic Pulsar is driven along by the lead guitar, first as melody before kicking into more of a solo before returning to the melody again, and there’s that spacey atmosphere in there to finish it off nicely.
Other vocal tracks include I have This Stone, which starts light with clean guitar and synths. It’s very bass heavy as well. It gets heavy with a brief fast bit of lead guitar just before the chorus but overall it’s a pretty light track except for the chorus and lead guitar sections. The last three songs on the album (Made of Dreams, Playing the Universe and ...Somewhere in the Universe) form a trilogy of songs, with Playing the Universe being an instrumental break between two vocal tracks. Although the other songs are considered stand alone the best way to listen to the album is from start to finish in one go.
What’s also great album Sonic Pulsar is that these guys know how to write an actual song as well. The lyrics work and don’t come across as being geeky in the process. Playing the Universe is easily one of the best and most unique metal albums I’ve ever heard, it’s seventy-two minutes of pure musical art that I think all fans of progressive rock and metal music need to hear. It’s easily Flores best project and his best album. But if there’s one problem with it it’s that it doesn’t use real drums, everything’s programmed but somehow they make it so that is such a minor quibble that it’s not really noticeable. I recommend it very much. See you somewhere in the universe.
(originally written for Heavy Metal Haven)