Apparently it helps to have Brazil as your homeland if you wanna expand your metal horizons.
Best song: CAROLINA IV
Track listing: 1) Crossing; 2) Nothing To Say; 3) Silence And Distance; 4) Carolina IV; 5) Holy Land; 6) The Shaman; 7) Make Believe; 8) Z.I.T.O.; 9) Deep Blue; 10) Lullaby For Lucifer.
The one thing that has always bugged me about “progressive metal” is the difficulty about making these two words actually connect in an interesting way. “Progressive”, the way I see it, is not just about being complex and pretentious – it’s also about being ‘explorative’ in as many ways as possible, which includes drawing in all kinds of influences, all kinds of instrumentation and all kinds of moods. ‘Metal’, on the other hand, is essentially about brutal, heavy guitar riffage, no matter how many different branches you split it into. So, when your style is basically limited to playing one
instrument with one or two types of “atmospheres”, how is it possible to make this stuff truly “progressive”?
Simple answer: it’s not. So, in the end, it all comes down to the question of how much different stuff you can seamlessly incorporate into a basic metal framework to be able to proudly call your work “progressive metal” and not be embarrassed about it. (Not that even the shittiest prog metal bands are ever embarrassed about their stuff, of course – they leave this moral obligation to infortunate reviewers like me. Sob.) Well, to finally get to the point, Holy Land is one of those – not very frequent – albums where this claim can indeed be made.
Holy Land is a not-so-loose concept album which seemingly is dedicated to the discovery of the New World but mostly deals with the “sacral” aspect of the business, presenting the guys’ native country and its whereabouts as sort of a mythical Eldorado and focusing on the old “holy” pagan ways of the country. It’s hard to say whether it’s more like a personal religious fantasy draped in pseudo-historical colours or a lament for the fictitious “Golden Age” of yore (sort of like an expanded and over-pompous variant of Neil Young’s ‘Cortez The Killer’), but it’s obvious that there are bits of both in the final product, that is, Andre Matos’ religious feelings (fake or sincere, I don’t care) and Brazilian rituals all form a part of it.
As such, the music is heavily influenced by “native” Brazilian sounds. Maybe not nearly as heavily as some would have you believe – a large part of the album is still straightforward metal or balladry – but it’s obvious that the ethnic element here is much more than just an occasional gimmick. Tribal percussion, South American pipes, and other local stuff I might not have immediately recognized are used effectively throughout and feel perfectly at ease with the heavy riffs. Which, by the way, aren’t nearly all that heavy: overall, I would say that keyboards, vocals, and extra instrumentation are so important here that these crushing guitar riffs are about the last thing about the record I actually remember!
The impression is that of a passionate religious statement rather than that of a ferocious debacle.
The album’s centerpiece is, of course, the ten-minute ultra-serious epic ‘Carolina IV’, so recklessly daring in its approach it keeps me entertained and intrigued for all of its duration – a rare treat from a prog metal epic. Never staying too long in the same groove, yet always having time to build right up to the necessary atmosphere, combining complexity with catchiness, it should
rightfully be considered the “pinnacle of all things Angra”. It’s got a circular structure, beginning and ending with the same “tribal dance” part, while the middle parts are essentially a big “power-thrash” marathon, and at the very “pith” they place yet another, slightly more aggressive, tribal music part, a classical interlude, and a speed metal solo – woohoo! You might say it’s a pointless mixture of ideas, and it is – in the sense that it’s hard to tell what each and every one of these sections is supposed to mean, but somehow they still manage to form a cohesive whole. Actually, my favourite part is the beginning/ending: effortlessly anthemic and memorable, with nice use of non-irritating backing vocals, pipes, and a heavy, but inobtrusive guitar melody. Apart from ethnic influences, I detect a strong whiff of Yes worshipping here – correct me if I’m wrong – but influence it is, not lame direct ripping-off. Also, the moment where Matos sings ‘so, won’t you come with me my friend’ is achingly beautiful – much as I usually hate to admit these things about pretentious operatic metal singers.
There’s plenty of other highlights as well, naturally. Straightforward metal is represented by ‘Nothing To Say’, which essentially fulfills the functions of a ‘Carry On’ here, i.e. the introductory classical-soaked lightning-speed thrasher to give that starting kick. Later on, the same approach returns on ‘Z.I.T.O.’, another thrasher with, this time, an almost nursery-rhyme-simple chorus
(which actually makes it fun!), but perhaps somewhat less impact; my suspicion is they just really needed something speedy and ass-kicking towards the end when things were already starting to get seriously slowed down. Special mention must, however, be made about the codas to both these songs: both the longer one on ‘Nothing To Say’ and the shorter one on ‘Z.I.T.O.’ gotta rank among the best tension-bursting conclusions to any heavy metal tunes I’ve heard (particularly the symphonic explosion of the latter).
Elsewhere, you get your balladry – nominally pretty, like ‘Silence And Distance’, or flauntingly power-style, like ‘Deep Blue’; I’m not much of a fan of either, but they’re really well made, and as much as I hate power balladry, I have to admit that ‘Deep Blue’ mostly evades the style’s cliches – and then there’s the really weird stuff: the title track and ‘The Shaman’, easily the two most ‘Brazil-sounding’ tunes on the record, and, along with ‘Carolina IV’, its “conceptual meat”. The title track isn’t actually heavy at all; it mixes yet another native dance melody with a pretty piano ballad part to good effect – the idea of lament for the lost Golden Age is carried across pretty well. Granted, I can’t get rid of cheesy images of Indian spirits dancing ’round the fire in the
demented dreams of Walker, Texas Ranger, while listening to that music, but blame this on the murky influence of mass culture, not my own perverted subconscious. As for ‘The Shaman’, apart from featuring a ‘mystical interlude’ of sorts (more Walker, Texas Ranger – hey, what can I do? I’ve seen more episodes of that than is recommendable for one’s health), it has easily the catchiest chorus on record, the one that goes ‘Oh boys it’s all so easy/Warm up the soul/While the body’s freezing!’.
It’s also interesting that they prefer to end the record on an “anticlimactic” soft acoustic ballad (‘Lullaby For Lucifer’ – what a title!) instead of a grand coda or something; most bands would
have probably begun the record with such a song rather than ended it on such a note. Just another argument convincing me of the specialness of the album (and, just so I get the chance to mention
every song, let’s not forget the heavy slide guitar solo on the obviously R’n’B-influenced ‘Make Believe’!). No, it’s not perfect (the ballads could have been better, and the straightforward metal tunes aren’t much of an advance from the Angels Cry stage), but it’s definitely unique in a way, and I’d advise anybody to at least get acquainted with the “core trio” of ‘Carolina IV’, ‘Holy Land’, and ‘The Shaman’ before mentally consigning me to the madhouse.