'Exile' - To-Mera (8/10)
Coming from a listener now long bored by the traditional progressive metal style, To-Mera are a go-to source for prog metal the way it should be; musically rich, dynamic, and even original. First hearing them via their member-sharing with the contemporary genre legend Haken, I've only recently discovered that their drummer, Paul Westwood, also offers rhythms for the black metal band Fen, who themselves released one of my favourite records last year. In short, it seems talented folks tend to stick together, and taking into account the other great bands these musicians have been in, To-Mera looks like a meeting place for some of the best of their genre. This latest record "Exile" is no slouch in a line of great albums either. Pairing up dynamic, aggressive and atmospheric metal with a poignant concept, newcomers will be surprised by how well To-Mera are able to digest their influences into something convincing and fresh. Of course, existing fans of the band already knew to expect this!
My first experience with To-Mera was a couple of years ago, with their then-recent EP "Earthbound". Four songs may have not been alot to go by, but it was enough to give a strong look at the band's skill and style. Opeth and the contemporary djent sound were both factors there, but they were overlaid with a strong female voice that one wouldn't normally associate with such technically accomplished music. "Exile" is cut from the same cloth as "Earthbound" and what has come before for To-Mera, but the production and delivery is decidedly improved. Although the band has always had an impressive sense of knowing how to bring out the best in their compositions, "Exile" gives the impression that To-Mera have found a perfect sweet spot between rich production, aggression and atmosphere.
Fans of guitarist and band mastermind Tom McLean's other band Haken will find a similar consistency and fire burning under To-Mera. There is a familiar progressive metal foundation here, the likes of which listeners will have no doubt seen in countless bands by now. Moderate experimentation with time signatures, a fusion of synth textures and guitars, and longform song formats are descriptors that could easily define a large portion of prog metal. They are not separate from some of the more generic qualities (and cliches) of the style, but they ultimately set themselves apart with their atmosphere. Whether its the Egyptian motifs that open up the album on "Inviting the Storm", the playful prog metal freakouts on "The Descent" or the symphonic bombast of "All I Am", "Exile" is doused with a thick layer of dark atmosphere. The vocals of Julie Kiss are a great compliment to the constantly shifting sound. Although her higher register delivery is typical of many female metal singers, the staying power of her voice gives her a great presence. Unlike many progressive metal vocalists- who tend to get swallowed by the instrumental wizardry- Julie brings a sort of proggy weirdness to her voice of its own. While her voice itself is never challenging to the ear, many of her vocal melodies are a little strange in the way they're placed up against the music. It can be difficult to first get into, but it gives her performance a lasting effect that persists far beyond the initial listen.
Even before listening to "Exile", I was struck by the album's concept and lyrical themes. While not a narrative concept like Dream Theater's "Scenes From A Memory" or Queensryche's "Operation Mindcrime", "Exile" does tell a story of sorts. Instead of events or actions however, "Exile" unfolds as a journey through the mind. Paraphrasing from the press kit; the protagonist finds herself conflicted, and seeks to ostracize herself from the world in order to protect herself from harm. With that alone, the psychological allegory fits well with the methodical, atmospheric musical approach they take. In actual practice, the lyrics are decent, but don't quite reach the potential that the concept had, either in its wordcraft or the places To-Mera goes with the idea. Although they bring plenty of musical and stylistic twists to the table throughout the album, To-Mera are not as good with emotional dynamics. Unlike Haken's "Aquarius", in which listeners were taken to almost every conceivable feeling and mood, To-Mera's emotional range feels a little limited, a surprise considering their success on virtually every other front.
Musically, To-Mera sound at the top of their game. If they weren't already, they are at the frontlines of contemporary progressive metal. Especially considering that their style has been tread and explored many times before, "Exile" is a surprisingly challenging and meaty project. Listeners should expect to invest several listens before they unlock all of the rewards here, although it would have been nice to have a shred more of the emotional warmth that Haken excels with. Really, it's a great record overall, and prog metallers will find many nights' worth of enjoyment here. I won't be surprised to see this on many 'best of the year', come the end of 2012.