An Abstract Illusion – Woe Review

[Cover art by Adam Burke]

This is an allusion, Michael!

To describe an album as interesting can be damning for some people. It can equate to introducing a stranger as having a great personality. You immediately wait with bated breath for a “but” that’s followed by the caveat that said stranger has a truly bizarre hobby, believes in one completely unwieldy conspiracy theory, or has an uncomfortably large collection of My Little Pony products. But calling an album interesting can also simply mean its value can’t be immediately realized on a single listen. These are the albums that stop spinning, you go, “huh, that was interesting,” and you probably don’t immediately click play for a second run-through. Still, a few days or weeks later, you find yourself thinking about them repeatedly and the inspiration to give it another go strikes. You find yourself wanting to excavate each of its little nooks and crannies for the pieces of gold that glimmered on that first listen but start to truly shine with each subsequent one.

An Abstract Illusion’s sophomore album, Woe, is a really interesting album!

Release date: September 9, 2022. Label: Willowtip Records.
There are songs and individual moments that will absolutely hook you from the start but its cohesive presentation and hour runtime will leave you needing repeated listens to let your brain fully process An Abstract Illusions’ strengths. That cohesive nature has each track flowing into the next with song changes often going unnoticed without a close eye on your display of choice. Also, musical motifs pop up throughout the album to further build a sense of narrative storytelling. Woe is an album made of exceptional peaks and valleys, not of quality but of a soundscape. Moments of uplifting brightness crash against cliffs of dense heaviness like so many unsuspecting vacationing swimmers’ skulls dashed against rocks after being caught in a massive wave.

Keyboards are the rather surprising instrument that best exemplifies this elemental variety from An Abstract Illusion. Robert Stenvall’s keys vary between leading, supporting and simply shading each song. “Blomsterkrans” is primarily driven by the keyboards and even when other instruments take the lead role, the piano notes remain the backbone of the song keeping everything on track. While “Prosperity” offers an ode to “Moonlight Sonata” as an outro, much of the track’s early part sees the key’s sole role as adding textural tones creating a more dynamic layer to the song. Then Stenvall pulls off passages where his keys are dancing between crushing rhythmic batterings, popping out between blasts like whack-a-moles on “Slaves.” You’ll hear symphonic black metal keys, soft jazz piano and prog jam synths, among other influences.

That ability to delicately balance between power and support is seen across the band. About half of the vocals implemented are a harsh roar but there are soft cleans, spoken word and even Cynic-style vocoder passages liberally mixed in. Even the language used varies as “Blomsterkrans” is entirely in Swedish. One of the hallmarks of heavy metal is guitar leads and while Karl Westerlund rips out some wonderful ones, he limits their presence to only a few moments when they are most impactful. Everything is layered so well that a repeated passage can develop and expand to avoid stagnation. “Prosperity” has a staccato beat pattern you could do HIIT workouts to and it repeats for several minutes. An Abstract Illusion continuously builds on that pattern by adding additional guitars, keys and more to make it feel absolutely massive when it finally crashes to a close.

Certain songs call specific influences into the forefront more significantly than others. As an early track, The primary invective of “Slaves” is heaviness featuring battering rhythms and one of the first fantastic leads on the album. “Tear Down This Holy Mountain” leans more into electronics. At the six-minute mark, electronic pulses with clean jamming guitars akin to classic Pink Floyd rear their head. So much so that the passage ends with a burst of sounds and heaviness that would fit on “Welcome To The Machine.” As mentioned, “Blomsterkans” lets the piano shine, but it’s supported with strings you won’t hear anywhere else. Each of these tracks calls on an extra tool to help bring the song a bit more individuality but never at the expense of the overall album or flow of the music. It doesn’t seem to matter how many extra notes, instruments or influences they throw in Woe because it manages to remain a unified album from start to finish.

One of the early release tracks is “In The Heavens Above, You Will Become A Monster,” which is a great title, and it’s a perfect microcosm of what this album does so well. After about a minute, there’s a big Watershed-era Opeth riff with keys that transitions into a driving passage of symphonic black metal. From there, You’ll get absurdly tight rhythms, space-traveling synths, a gorgeous shredding lead, a climbing glorious bit of power metal, and razor-sharp tremolos backed by blasts. Even a late, light stretch with female singing sounds like something Devin Townsend and Anneke Van Giersbergen would’ve written for Epicloud. There’s another fantastic moment of subtle detail on this track as well. Around the 6:45 mark, the song transitions into pure blasting fury, and at 7:02, four brief low piano notes saunter in at just the right time to make the heavy moment 100x heavier. Those little details make such a huge difference and are littered throughout Woe.

To see so many disparate bands and styles of music mentioned throughout this review likely has you thinking this album is guaranteed to be a disjointed mess but I promise you it isn’t; in fact, this album is shockingly cohesive for everything that’s put into it. Every moment further serves the one that follows and anything that feels jarring is done intentionally to balance light against dark.

At the end of the day, even if you don’t end up liking Woe, you’re not apt to have been bored while you listened to it.

Posted by Spencer Hotz

Admirer of the weird, the bizarre and the heavy, but so are you. Why else would you be here?

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