(In this post, DGR reviews the 2012 album by Soen.)
Talk about a disc about which it has taken forever to compose my thoughts. It’s been floating around since mid-February as a Spinefarm release in Europe but only saw digital release here in the States much later. Soen are a conflicting-as-hell band to discuss because one of the first things everyone does is drop a comparison to Tool. Given that I am a Tool fan and very familiar with their work, I can confirm that the comparison is definitely warranted, but you know what? Soen deserve to stand as their own band.
Yes, they have some elements of the aforementioned band’s spacey prog-rock tone attached to them, but very few bands do it as well; even those who are influenced by it and try to mimic it to a T usually fail. Soen have somehow managed to get close enough to that band’s sound without becoming them or even adopting the Philosophy-101-styled thinking buried in new age mysticism that I’m perfectly okay with Soen.
Yes, getting David Bottrill involved (famed producer, worked with a ton of groups, including Tool) feels like an incredibly shrewd maneuver, and he does his damnedest to give them the exact same mix, but so what, it sounds great. They’re really not mimics. Believe me, Soen are something of an all-star group who manage to do enough things on their own that they feel like a new thing. Cognitive is a really good bit of prog-rock with quite a lot of individuality buried in between echo-heavy bass lines and singalong-worthy choruses, much of which, surprisingly enough, is provided by the drumming work of former Opeth drummer Martin Lopez.
I know it’s impossible to analyze this album in a vacuum, as if I had never heard some of what’s being done here before, but now that I have gotten that rant out of the way, let’s talk about Cognitive.
Cognitive is an eleven- (twelve, if you have the Japanese version with “Writhen” on it) track progressive rock/amorphous-blob-of-a-genre-that-we-tend-to-throw-releases-like-this-in debut from the group Soen. Soen consists of drummer Martin Lopez, legendary bassist Steve DiGiorgio, vocalist Joel Ekelöf, and guitarist Kim Platbarzdis.
Given that line up, it was hard to guess what sort of music Soen were going to create up until the group’s release of a demo of “Fraccions”. However, most people got their first taste of this band with the song “Savia”, which is where all the Tool comparisons began. Vocalist Joel Ekelöf is clearly a tremendously talented individual, taking on the difficult task of providing a voice to music like this, and he pulls it off. However, “Savia”, which is a solid song that grows on you, had him sounding a bit like a hybrid of Mikael Akerfeldt and Maynard James Keenan. His being a thin bald dude certainly didn’t help matters any.
However, “Savia” isn’t exactly a wholly representative slice of this disc, as Cognitive is composed of eleven fairly different songs. Some of them have distinctly heavy, focused grooves, whereas others are moody, bass-driven explorations with very little percussion, short of the occasional bongo or Latin influence. Because of this variety, Cognitive is hard to describe as a solid thematic experience. Instead, it is a collection of eleven really good songs.
The song “Writhen”, which only comes with the Japanese release, is good as well, though it sounds as if parts of it were pulled from an early demo of the track “Oscillation”. Still, it is six minutes of good music that I’ve only found on YouTube so far. If you have the time and you enjoy Cognitive, you should definitely check out that song as well.
“Fraktal” and “Fraccions” are the only two songs that share any real similarity, but that’s because one leads into the other. They’re both pretty straightforward groove songs, even though “Fraktal” does hint at the later moodier bass-filled tracks such as “Ideate” and “Last Light”. “Fraccions” includes a really good passage of singing right at the end that closes out the song. It sticks out in my mind a lot more than the rest of the song, which is probably the weakest on a good album. It’s a good song on its own, but doesn’t stack up as well vs songs such as “Purpose”, “Canvas”, or hell, even “Savia”.
“Canvas” is probably as rock oriented as these guys get, as it is the fastest-moving song on the album. “Purpose” is a little more introspective with some heavy tom work. The main melody of “Purpose” is also driven by the bass guitar, but when you have Steve DiGiorgio handling that particular instrument, you want to get as much goddamned mileage out of the dude as you can.
One of the things I really enjoy about Cognitive is that both the drums and bass are well-represented, since Soen’s particular genre isn’t exactly tied to amazing guitar work. The closest you get to anything like that, because it is fairly contemporary, is the heavy focus on Joel Ekelöf’s voice and singing ability. That’s another example of wanting to make full use of a really talented guy when you have him in that position. If you have someone who can sing this well, you make him carry whole songs if you can — such as “Ideate”.
“Ideate”, surprisingly, is one of my favorite songs on this release despite its sparse instrumentation. Some people will hear it and view it as more of a segue, but I really like the vocal lines that Ekelöf follows in that song. Also, the acoustic version of the song that was recorded by Off The Record (here) is incredible. It’s such a moody, atmospheric piece that you can’t help but imagine it being played in a smoke-filled and dimly lit room.
Martin Lopez is probably my personal MVP for this disc, though. He’s a very good, nuanced drummer, and it really shows here. It was obvious to those in Opeth that he would always try something different than what was to be expected, but on Cognitive he really stands out. He also brings a lot of Latin rhythmic influence to this album.
A couple of tracks are relatively straightforward, with Lopex doing some relatively easy metal beats, but during those times he is accenting a talented group of individuals. Then you get stuff like what he does in the middle of “Slithering” (which is a pretty standard song) where he just whales around on the drums, giving the song a very bass-drum-heavy midsection before going back to a standard beat when the vocals return.
He also manages to fit this motherfucker into the song “Last Light”, which is a great song with a great chorus already. It’s when he breaks that out, and the bongos, that you really get the feeling he had the freedom to explore his influences on this album.
Guitarist Kim Platbarzdis and his tongue-twister of a last name does a good job building up atmospherics in each song. He uses the guitar to create really good soundscapes for the band to explore and play in. He makes use of a lot of echo effect throughout the CD, but he seems to be one of those guys who does a lot with very little when it comes to guitar playing. He can make a couple of notes ring out and have more meaning on Cognitive than you would think.
It’s a very subtle, rhythmic performance, but it’s all in service to a greater whole, which is the song itself. There’s no real guitar wankery or soloing to be found, since this isn’t the type of music for it, so the soft acoustic passages are the closest he gets to really having the spotlight shined on him.
Cognitive will probably be mentioned as being fairly derivative of a couple of artists, but I think it may just be due to the difficulty encountered in describing what they are doing. Yes, they can accurately be compared to other bands, but those are bands who are incredibly difficult to emulate in the first place, and regardless of whether Soen’s similarity was intentional or unintentional, regardless of whether they made a calculated maneuver or just trapped lightning in a bottle, it is an accomplishment.
This is a style of music that we need more of. This is an album that’s a great listen with no weak songs on it. It can serve as an interim fix until you get to your favorite band’s stuff, but you might just find something even more enjoyable in Soen. I’m excited for these guys and I hope Cognitive is just the beginning to a series of truly great discs.