I’ve always been supremely weirded out by those folks in church that sing their songs with fervent clenched-eyelid passion, hands raised to the heavens and slowly swaying. I’ve simply never been willing to drink enough of the Kool-Aid to identify with whatever blissfully disembodied trip they’re on. I spend too much time hunched over in the cynical muck of heavy metal, beady-eyed, cursing and spitting at whoever might taint my darkness with the damned light of social grace. Then again, I’d be lying if I said I don’t envy those folks just a little bit, if only in those moments. They just seem so authentically damn happy. There is, after all, a reluctant human being in me, and he does occasionally welcome the stray beam of light to pierce the otherwise perpetual grey. For many years now, that infrequent salutary dose of sunshine has come by way of prog and power metal bands, and Angra has inevitably shined brighter than most.
From their early days, the Brazilian quintet’s songs have had an undeniable hymnal quality about them that lifts the spirit. It’s not that they’re actually hymnal, just that the melodies and harmonies impart a similar sort of exultant vibe. I don’t know how religious the band is – it’s been the subject of some rather pointless debate that Aqua won’t do much to settle – and I really don’t care. I just know that the music makes me feel good, and Angra’s seventh full length is chock full of the ascendant verses, ebullient choruses and spiritual lyrics that have served as the discussion’s source material. It’s really only important because Angra’s songs can stir up those same emotions you see in those churchy weirdos. Regardless of the motivation, they’re the feelings that make the style so easy to love (or hate). Obviously, Angra’s sound isn’t for everyone, but for those whose bippy it flips, Aqua excites and exalts and empowers, same as its predecessors.
…except when it doesn’t. The danger with upbeat, uplifting, even happy metal is that there’s a pretty fine line between the well-crafted emotive piece and cloying, translucent fluff. Angra’s been on a roll during their Falaschi era with their last three being primarily fast, powerful prog-rockers, though each pays its fleecy tribute to their early days with tinkley piano ballads and the like. As a concept piece based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Aqua has more than a few of these less-than-metal moments. Accordingly, the band has reached back to their pre-Falaschi days for their songwriting inspiration.
The new record opens with “Arising Thunder” which is a clear ripper, straight off Temple of Shadows and full of breakneck bombast. “Awake from Darkness” follows, a track that tears it up for most of its runtime and builds to what promises to be a typically exciting power/prog guitar workout. What we get instead is an abrupt halt to the proceedings followed by a lonely piano and strings bit that effectively kills the song’s considerable forward thrust. It’s a device frequently used in prog approaches, but one that doesn’t play well here.
Despite an allegiance to the riff and plenty of heavy tone, Aqua features less metal-in-your-face than recent efforts, more of the Matos era’s slower, bigger songs, and plenty of the acoustic and traditional instrumentation for which they’re known. There’s much on the new record that smokes, but a few spots too that stifle all that momentum in a super saccharine bog-down. The lighter fare here (“Lease of Life,” “Spirit of the Air,” “Ashes”) can’t be denied its beauty and emotive power, but if your preferred heavy metal experience doesn’t generally include cuddling with your sweetie-pie by candlelight, these tracks are likely to be skipped frequently. There’s a couple of these songs on every Angra album; they’re always well-written, and many of the band’s fans cry ardently for more of them. It just tends a bit toward overkill here.
Angra has always been known for their fine musicianship, and the listener can expect more of that technical proficiency on Aqua, even if Falaschi’s voice is beginning to show a bit of wear. The guitar tag-team of Bittencourt and Loureiro continues to run rough-shod all over their peers, and returning drummer Ricardo Confessori is aces. It all comes together best in “Hollow” and “Weakness of a Man,” where the band slams their prog cards on the table for extended runs, although the latter has to wade through the Karo for a few minutes first. The pure talent of these players might be most notable in the bass play of Felipe Andreoli, exquisitely reflected in Aqua’s best and most exciting track, “The Rage of the Waters.” Ultimately, this is a band as technically tight as they’ve ever been and they continue to make inspiring music. The only real problem is that the intermittent moments of sappiness are as befuddling as those warbling worshippers, so they get in the way of all the awesomeness around them. Nonetheless, Aqua represents yet another solid effort from one of power-prog’s finest acts.