Benea Reach: 'Possession' roundtable review
Norwegian band Benea Reach's third album 'Possession' was a long time in the making: it came out last week, more than five years after their sophomore effort 'Alleviat'. The band has quite a few fans among the got-djent.com team, so we decided it was time for another roundtable review.
Our discussion is divided into seven sections. Scroll down to the end if you're interested in the scores. If you aren't familiar with Benea Reach yet, check out the video clip for their single 'The Mountain' below. The album can also be streamed in its entirety at metalhammer.co.uk.
The participants of this roundtable review are:
Album artwork for 'Possession'
Clarity: I've only heard their first album once, and I don't remember much of it, but I've listened to 'Alleviat' a lot and I liked it.
static07: I've listened to 'Alleviat' a lot because it's one of my favourite albums, but I can't say I've listened to 'Monument Bineothan' so much. I listened to it a couple of times and it wasn't really my thing.
Zyglrob: I haven't listened to 'Monument Bineothan' in a very in-depth sense either. I've listened to it a couple of times, but it was a bit raw for my tastes. You can tell it was their debut album; it's not as mature as their other releases and their sound hadn't developed properly. 'Alleviat', on the other hand, is quite a different album: it's got a very unique sound. Overall, it's very groovy and heavy but also very catchy and quite melodic. I'm quite familiar with that album.
Are we all familiar with the band's musical history? Benea Reach pre-date the popularity of djent quite substantially, and are arguably less of a part of the djent scene than bands like Meshuggah and Textures, so giving 'Possession' bit of a context within the scene will be helpful when listening to the album.
benanne: I disagree quite strongly with the notion that they are somehow less a part of the djent scene. I think they're just as important as some of the bigger names in djent, despite not being quite as popular. Their music is still characteristic of the djent sound.
As for the band's background, they have a lot of connections within the part of the Norwegian metal scene that revolves around bands like Extol and Mantric, who could for the most part be dubbed "white metal": their lyrics have substantial religious leanings. I'm not sure if Benea Reach are also a Christian band in any way, but their former guitarist Christer Espevoll, who also was a founding member of Extol, definitely is. And Benea Reach's vocalist Ilkka Viitasalo guested on Mantric's album, so I guess there's a connection there.
Zyglrob: Another of their former guitarists now also plays with Shining, who are a Norwegian jazz/metal/electro/general mash-up band.
Clarity: I didn't really get into the band's background. The only thing I know about them is that they are from Norway.
static07: I didn't know much of their background, except from their links to Shining and Extol.
What were your initial thoughts on 'Possession' after one or two listens?
benanne: I only really got into it after four or five listens. It didn't really grab me after the first two.
Clarity: It was good after the first two listens, but I expected something more from it actually, perhaps for it to be a little catchier. But it did grow on me after that.
static07: Well, I'd heard 'The Mountain' before and I really dig that track a lot. When I listened to the full album, after only the first minute of the first track, 'Woodland', I knew already that I would love the album. I really liked it from the first listen.
Zyglrob: I would agree with static07 quite strongly: the album really gripped me from the first listen. When I first heard 'The Mountain', I found it hard to get into at first, because it was quite different from 'Alleviat'. It was a lot more upbeat in its approach and a lot more bright-sounding generally. 'Alleviat' is quite down-tempo and has a lot of heavy riffing, whereas 'The Mountain' is really quite poppy, especially lyrically, which threw me a bit at first.
However, after listening to the first track of 'Possession', 'Woodland', I was completely drawn in after the first minute. When I first got the album, I listened to it back-to-back three or four times, it was that good! I really enjoyed it.
The album is generally quite upbeat and uplifting, being very direct in its melodic approach. Like all Benea Reach, the album also has some very groovy and heavy moments, but perhaps less of them than previous albums. It's also quite a bit faster in tempo than 'Alleviat'. Does this approach work well?
benanne: I think they've always had that 'uplifting' sound, to an extent. One track in particular from 'Alleviat' that showcases this is 'New Waters', where the whole chorus is just major chords, but it's still very heavy. It's like a very delightful steamroller! It does sound very uplifting, and I think they took that to the next level on this album.
Clarity: I think it works well on this album. It might have made it more accessible than the previous album because it's more melodic. Sometimes it feels like it's not as heavy as their previous albums. 'Alleviat' sounded heavier to me than this one.
static07: I wouldn't say that it's an approach unique to Benea Reach: a lot of math metal bands take an approach combining groovy and catchy riffs and then just going all out heavy and really hard hitting. In that sense, I don't think that 'Possession' is much less heavy than 'Alleviat', because the moments when they really go all out are in large contrast to the rest of the music, so the album still feels very heavy.
Zyglrob: It's a real refinement of the sound they had on 'Alleviat'. They've taken the elements that made them stand out from the other technical and experimental metal bands that were around at that time, and they've really emphasised those parts of the music a lot more.
The tempo changes in this album are very varied, which gives the album a lot more colour musically. For example, in the track 'Crown', the song starts off with a really full-on hardcore beat. It must be at around 160 to 170 bpm, which is pretty fast for this genre of music: you wouldn't catch Meshuggah going anywhere close to that speed more than once per album.
On 'Alleviat', they definitely didn't explore this side of their sound as much; the tempo was fairly constant. On this album, it really works well: other tracks where it is notably deployed are 'Nocturnal' and 'Shedding Skin'. These tempo changes really add to the dynamic of the album and give it a lot of momentum.
I also think that the times when melody really comes to the fore are very notable. On this album, they really managed to find a unique melody for each song, which allows you to differentiate between the songs a lot more easily. This encourages you to listen to the whole album at once, rather than just the first three or four tracks.
The lyrics are quite direct the say the least! Did this undermine the music for you at all?
benanne: I reckon it's not so much that they didn't put enough effort into them, it's just that they're very direct and also quite simplistic compared to other bands in progressive metal, who tend to try and use words in their lyrics that they barely understand themselves.
With these lyrics, its very obvious what they're trying to say, which is compounded by the use of clean female vocals, which are very easy to understand. Ilkka's screams are also always very clear, and that actually makes me start to pay attention to the lyrics which I normally never do. The lyrics on this album are very hard to ignore, but it doesn't really bother me anymore at this point.
Clarity: I didn't pay much attention to the lyrics, to be honest, even though benanne finds them easy to make out. For me they were fine, and not too cheesy.
static07: Like benanne, I don't put much stock into the lyrics, but if they're catchy and you can sing along to them that's a great thing to have in an album. I don't need to be able to understand the lyrics to be able to enjoy an album.
The difference with this album, compared to 'Alleviat', is that I really couldn't hear any of the lyrics on 'Alleviat', but with this, even after only a few listens, I was able to chant along with some of the lyrics. That's a good thing even if the lyrics are quite direct and not so complex or poetic. Why not sacrifice these things if this makes the lyrics more enjoyable for us? This is definitely the case live: when a whole audience can sing along to a song, it makes a huge difference than if they were only just able to make out what the singer is saying.
Zyglrob: Definitely. There are some bits where the music really breaks down to just vocals with some harmonisations in the guitar underneath. For example, in 'Crown' again, there's a section towards the end where the chorus just goes round and it sounds like they're using gang vocals, which would definitely have the desired effect live if the audience were to sing along. I can imagine that being quite a large part of their live performance.
I would agree that sometimes the theme of the lyrics isn't really to my tastes, but it doesn't really affect the music or the vocal performance at all, which for me are the centrepieces of this album. I also think that perhaps, by using very direct lyrics, he was able to make the vocal performance more clear and direct, and show more variety in the sound of the vocals than the words he is singing, which works well for me.
There are a lot of female vocals on this album, more than on 'Alleviat'. What did you think of this addition to the band's sound?
benanne: I really like the female vocals. I particularly like the timbre she has. It's very unique, and not a vocal style that you hear a lot.
Zyglrob: I found her vocal style quite hard to describe myself. I quite like female singing generally, and I think it adds a lot of variety, especially in metal when you consider the general dominance of male vocalists and musicians.
You could probably describe the sound of Benea Reach's female vocals as quite similar to singers like Florence and the Machine or Bat for Lashes, who have become quite mainstream popular artists, but they started out as being quite apart from the usual strain of female pop singers that you find around. You might call it "alternative pop". Rather than using studio tools to enhance their voice, they instead worked on developing a very unique timbre and style of delivery, and that is what Benea Reach's female singer has done.
Their lyrical themes are another thing which sets them apart from other female pop artists: they've always been set apart from the really mainstream pop, and despite the fact that they've begun to sell records, they managed to maintain this approach, which is why they appeal to me a lot more.
This style of female vocals definitely adds a new dimension to the djent and metal sound: the female vocals you hear from bands like Destiny Potato are a completely different style, much more similar to your typical pop female singer. Overall, I would say that they sound quite folky and saga-ish, as though she were retelling an ancient tale. Other metal bands with female vocalists usually have a much more direct pop approach.
Clarity: Of course, I loved the female vocals! They definitely add to the music and make it more interesting. Most of the female vocals are in quite calm parts, which is very effective in creating a good amount of breathing room between the heavier sections. They combine very effectively with the male vocals as well on songs like 'Desolate', and they also combine very effectively with the music. I think it was a good idea to add more of these vocals.
static07: I'm never really sure about female vocals, and I generally just don't like female fronted metal bands. For instance, Zyglrob mentioned Destiny Potato: that is an example of female vocals which I really can't get into!
However, I really love them on Benea Reach. It's a style I've heard on really old tracks by From Autumn To Ashes as well, and the female singer from Deadlock. The reason I like these vocals is that they are well distanced from your typical pop/metal female vocals, such as those of Within Temptation or Epica. They all sound the same to me, and I've become very bored of them.
Talking of vocals, Ilkka's singing is very much the centrepiece of Benea Reach's music. What do you think of his performance on his album?
benanne: I really like the melodic screams that he does. I think it's something that's really unique to him. There aren't many vocalists that can pull that style off. It's a cool addition to his regular screams and clean vocals. The screams carry an actual melody rather than just varying in pitch. It's one of the staples of Benea Reach's sound. When you hear his vocals, you know exactly which band you are listening to.
Zyglrob: It's a bit like what Oli Sykes thinks he can do, but definitely can't do. If fact, I can think of quite a few metalcore and emo vocalists who have tried this approach but really can't manage it. He's really got it down to an inch, which is great.
Clarity: His vocals are a good balance between screamed and clean vocals, and he pulls off both aspects very well. His vocals fit perfectly into the band's music.
static07: Ilkka has a really large range of vocal styles. For me, that's a big plus for any album, it really attracts me to the music. I might not pay so much attention to the instruments if the vocalist can really tell a story with a song.
Ilkka takes the dynamic of the music all over the place just by varying his vocal style. I think that by applying the right vocal style at different times it gives a lot more emotional variety to a song. For example, if you just growl or sing clean all the time, the vocals won't make any statement. However, by using them alternately and appropriately a singer can make the album a lot more enjoyable. Also, their intermittent use of female vocals brings out his style a lot more effectively.
benanne: There's one section in 'Desolate' where she sings a line and then he comes in with screamed vocals. That was really effective.
Zyglrob: He has a huge range of vocal approaches, and I strongly agree that he uses each one very effectively to tell a story and create a really emotionally driven performance. He gives a lot of dimension to the lyrics, despite them being quite direct, and I get a really specific atmosphere out of his performances.
For example, in the chorus of 'Nocturnal', the line "but every night" is sung clean and the next, "we come alive!" is sung with a really deep, meaty growl. It really emphasises the fact that these beasts are coming out of the shadows and are coming towards you. It really adds to the atmosphere of that particular moment, and gives it a lot more realism and relevance to the music.
It brings out what he's trying to say with much greater effect, and that's the best thing about his performance on this album. He uses each different facet of his vocal repertoire and technical ability with great taste and precision, and it works really well. Ilkka actually said to me that he tracked the vocals for 'Alleviat' in one day, but that on this album he did them over three or four days, and I think that that really tells on this album.
benanne: I think it's not so much a step forward or backward, but more of a step in a different direction. It's a bit faster and a bit more uplifting, and maybe also a little more accessible, but it's still their signature sound and it's still awesome. It's often the case that some fans of a band want their sound to change continuously, and others want them to stick with the same sound. I think this album is a compromise between those two positions. It's an evolution, but it's still unquestionably Benea Reach.
Clarity: I agree. On this album, they've really refined their initial sound whilst adding some new elements, and I think it's only for the better.
static07: Like I said before, I wouldn't say so much that the album is more mellow. I think it's a big step forward in terms of song-writing: the songs and the album as a whole feel more wholesome, and it feels like there was a lot more thought put into it, which I think is mostly due to using more melodic parts in the songs.
I think it works better than 'Alleviat', where I couldn't really make the songs out from each other except a few, but on this album it feels like they all belong there and that they're all unique within the album.
benanne: Maybe that has got something to do with it, I don't know. Were they actually active during these five years? I think they haven't toured much during this time.
Zyglrob: Yeah, they have been active. They've played in a few different places, notably India.
benanne: I think the Norwegian government gives out grants for bands to be sent to India as part of some kind of project, so that's probably the reason why they toured there. They aren't really a big enough band for you to expect them to be able to play India.
Zyglrob: I'm not sure if their activity was continuous. They've had quite a lot of line-up changes since 'Alleviat'. Christer Espevoll left shortly after 'Alleviat' was recorded, and another of their guitarists left to join Shining. They also recruited a new bassist and another new guitarist, so that might have affected their output and touring.
benanne: It's interesting that they've had all these line-up changes but they've still managed to maintain their signature sound.
Zyglrob: I think the pairing of Ilkka and drummer Marco Storm has something to do with that. They were both in a hardcore punk band called Selfmindead before forming Benea Reach. Those two guys are kind of the band leaders: Marco directs all their music videos and album artwork.
static07: I'm not sure that the time that has been spent on the album has a direct positive influence. It's possible, but in a lot of cases where a band releases one album many years after another, the new album often sounds quite disjointed. This is not the case with 'Possession'.
Clarity: I'm not sure if I have a particular favourite song, but 'Desolate, 'Empire' and 'Aura' stand out to me. I think that this album is more even than 'Alleviat', where I thought the opening track, 'Awakening', was definitely the best one and the rest were good but not so special.
benanne: My favourite song is definitely 'Aura', I think it works really well as the album closer. There is a bit of a contrast here, because it's probably the slowest song on the album. There's a really droney atmosphere going on which works well for me.
Zyglrob: It's probably the catchiest track on the album, and I would agree that it's a great closer because it makes you want to carry on listening to the end of the album. Like I was saying before, I have to listen to the album in full, and that's probably one of the main reasons.
benanne: I would say that the start and end of the album are the strongest parts. The songs in between are still good, but they still haven't really grabbed me yet.
Zyglrob: I'd probably say that 'Shedding Skin' is the least remarkable song on the album. However, on the song after it, 'Fallen', there is a cello solo that I really wasn't expecting, which really grabbed me.
static07: my favourite song is 'Desolate'. 'Aura' runs it close, but I also really like 'Shedding Skin'. The whispered chorus on that song really stands out for me.
Zyglrob: Like benanne, I'd say that the first and last tracks are my favourites. I really like the opening of 'Woodland', I think it's really atmospheric.
benanne: That particular section reminded me a lot of Extol.
Zyglrob: I thought that particular section was very Norwegian. It really reflected the sound of the trees in a wood rustling in the wind very well, and was a standout moment on the album. The thing I liked about 'Aura' was that they had one melody which they developed throughout the course of the song. I really like it when artists manage to do that: it's such a good compositional technique, and too few bands try and pursue it. A lot of bands try and cram too many different musical ideas into one song which overcrowds it. On 'Aura' they gave the melody so much time to develop.
benanne: It's kind of a post-rock approach, having one idea which develops throughout the song.
Zyglrob: Another song that I really liked was 'Constellation', because I found the main riff really groovy and I think that it reflects the sound of the album as a whole really well. It mixes a really big melody with really heavy grooves. I also really liked 'Desolate' because of the exchange between female and male vocals. Overall, I think the album is just a really consistent listen. It flows really well, and there are no moments where you think "yeah, they should've rewritten that".
benanne: I also think that the production on this album suits it very well. It really overwhelms you, but it's also very clear and crisp.
Zyglrob: The mix is definitely right for the album. The drums have a strong placing, which really propels the album forward, and the vocals, which are definitely the centre-piece of their sound, are very clear. The guitars also provide a lot of countermelody and support to the vocals, at times carrying the melody alone, and they are great. They have a great tone, and are pretty loud, but they don't overbear the vocals. The album generally has a really big sound, but not in a bad way.
The album is quite long: it clocks in at about fifty minutes. Do you think it could have been refined a little, or is it a good length?
Clarity: I'm surprised to hear that it's almost fifty minutes long because it didn't feel that long! For me it was the perfect length. Maybe that's because it flows so well, the structures seem really monolithic.
static07: I definitely wouldn't say it's too long. When 'Aura' ends, I'm actually quite disappointed that it's already over. It could even have been a bit longer for me. Generally, as far as experimental metal is concerned, you get these really long songs. 'Possession' has eleven songs in fifty minutes, which is less than five minutes per song. That's quite short in progressive terms, I think. It's weird that most of the more mainstream metal albums now are around 40 minutes long. I find that to be quite short. Fifty minutes, for me, is the best length for an album.
Zyglrob: I agree that it doesn't feel like fifty minutes. Usually I listen to the album twice in a row, because I get to 'Aura' and I want to hear it again. It's a really well structured album in that sense. It's very addictive.
benanne: I think it's as long as it should be. I wish all albums were fifty minutes!
The band has a very varied sound, and, at least for us, there is some controversy around whether they're really a part of the djent scene or not. How would you pitch the album to a fan of djent music who wants to broaden their horizons and hasn't heard of them before?
benanne: I would say "hey, listen to this!" Benea Reach has a very unique sound, and you're either going to like it or you aren't. If you're only really into bands like Volumes and Elitist or whatever, then that's fine of course, but maybe it won't be your kind of thing. I don't think there's really a way to 'sell' this kind of music. Aside from that, I think the most notable thing about the band's sound is their uplifting atmosphere and the vocals.
Clarity: I think it's quite hard to describe the sound of the band. But I'd say that, overall, it's not as boring as ninety percent of djent, which is good! It has a great combination of female and male vocals, and a good balance between aggressiveness and mellowness. I think on this album they are not so much djent but more math metal with their riffs.
Zyglrob: The faster sections actually reminded me of The Dillinger Escape Plan a little bit. I'm not really sure why, but I think it's the way they approach the faster riffs too. I'm not sure if they are actually influenced by them though.
static07: I wouldn't describe them as being "djent with something else". I'd start by saying they're progressive, atmospheric, and melodic, with djenty riffs. I don't think djent is the main focus when describing their sound, it's just one element of many.
Zyglrob: I find it very hard to describe Benea Reach in a sentence. They have so many different aspects to their sound that it's very hard to pin down. However, I would say that it's a bit like what Meshuggah could come up with if they ditched Jens and incorporated some actual melodies into their music.
They have a similar style of writing to that which Meshuggah pioneered, which is based mostly around groove, but on this album, they have progressed from that and taken melody to the forefront of their music a lot more. It's a bit more like Textures than Meshuggah now, but that still doesn't really come close.
In reality, I think they are a lot more connected to Norwegian bands like Extol and Mantric, which is why I don't consider them to be wholly part of djent. They have a very Norwegian atmosphere: for example, there's a certtain Norwegian jazz trumpeter, whose name I forget, and, who has a similar drive to his music. I'm not sure, but I think it mostly is due to a connection with nature.
Benanne: I give it a solid 8/10 at this point. I don't want to give it a nine just yet because I gave Disperse a nine, and that album really grabbed me from the start. This album took me a few listens to get into, and I think it will take a few more for it to really grab me.
Clarity: I would also give it 8/10. It's a really good and solid album but I haven't got into it quite yet. I think it will grow on me with time.
static07: I'll go for 8/10 as well. I really got into it quite fast, and I do really quite like it, but it's just not a nine yet. For it to be a nine for me, I will have to find a few more highlights on the album.
Zyglrob: I'm quite generous in my reviewing generally I think, but with this I would definitely give it at least a 9/10. So far, this is my album of the year: I know it's early days, but it's the most interesting and progressive material I've heard of 2013 yet. It's just a completely different sound from other bands in this scene and it sets them apart completely. This album will definitely still be in my playlist at the end of the year, and the band generally are now cemented on my list of bands to see live and follow religiously for years to come!
'Possession' is out now on Spinefarm and can currently be streamed in its entirety at metalhammer.co.uk. It is available for purchase on Amazon (hardcopies) and iTunes (digital download). It is also available on Spotify.
The band will be performing at this year's edition of Euroblast festival, which will take place in Cologne, Germany on October 11th-13th.
Thanks to the reviewers, and in particular to Rob Watson for taking the lead. Thanks also to Ilkka Viitasalo and Spinefarm.
Check out our previous roundtable reviews:
Meshuggah: 'Koloss' roundtable review
Veil Of Maya: 'Eclipse' roundtable review
Monuments: 'Gnosis' roundtable review
The Algorithm: 'Polymorphic Code' roundtable review
Disperse: 'Living Mirrors' roundtable review
Do you agree or disagree with the points raised by the reviewers? Share your insights in the comments!
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