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Review: As Oceans – Willows

The most underrated form of metal presentation is the concept album. Progressive metal tends to have concept album market cornered, but concept albums come from every sect of the metal and core universe. Regardless of what class of metal is being played, a concept album with a strong premise, engaging lyrics, and a complimentary sonic maelstrom will grab my attention and hold it for some time.

That is precisely what North Carolina based progressive (djent-leaning) metal band As Oceans did back in March of this year. Willows is a concept album masterpiece that has not left my music rotation for the last 6 months. It is a 4 song album (with an overture and an interlude) that will lull you in, drag you into the deepest darkest hole, and then elevate you to the highest plane.

Willows is a beautiful tale, one entirely conceived of by the lyric writers, and that is what makes the album wholly impressive. The story, about a warrior named Artaosis and his love The Maiden of Ivory, is seamless and meaningful, as you will soon see, and comes from a place of genuine anguish and lost innocence. It is told against a backdrop of crushing, fast paced, and inventive music that does not bore. The songs coalesce together on all levels, and transition very well into each other.

Unlike most reviews I write, where I opine on an album with nothing but my own context, vocalist/co-lyricist Logan Lawson was nice enough to answer a few questions I had in relation to the story.  The last thing I wanted was to tell the story incorrectly, so I would like to extend my most sincere thanks to Logan for allowing me to see behind the creative curtain.

The album opens with a very soft vocal overture, starting with spoken word, and transitioning to soft singing. It is quite beautiful, and captured my attention immediately. It serves as a great opening for the first track, “Artaosis, Pt. 1.”

The immediate change of pace from a soft overture to the instant ferocity of the next song is astounding, and will hook you into the remainder of the album. The first song is a banger, there is no other way to put it. Being totally honest, I was expecting some slow build, proggy jerk-off fest, considering the song is seven and a half minutes, but I was wrong. The song bounces from the start, and has a lot of nice punch, though the drums feel a little understated. The vocals are raw, and have plenty of range. The lows are full bodied, the highs serve as a nice compliment, and the cleans are targeted and emphatic, not ‘overused’ or ‘whiny.’

“The story starts from the perspective of the Maiden of Ivory, who is a lover to a warrior, Artaosis, who’s been off at war for over a year. She longs for his return, when one day, a Black Raven lays a letter at her feet telling her of the crimes Artaosis has been committing throughout his time at war,” Lawson said. The emotional transition, her longing turning into disgust, her sorrow turning to hate, is told amidst soaring riffs and then an assault of breakdowns that convey her anguish. “The Raven is a shapeshifting manifestation of Artaosis’ sins, and lures the Maiden into his Dark Woods via her pain and betrayal.”

The second song, “The Phantom Hunter,” is filthy. It opens with intriguing chanting, and then goes quite heavy, with an engaging sweep followed by brutal lows accompanied by a lethal bass drop and machine gun drums. The song also features plenty of djent-style riffs, and the breakdowns are creative. These songs all are very deliberate in their heaviest parts, using it to compliment the vocal themes.

“The second song introduces us to Artaosis [via one of his journal entries.] He has been slaying his enemies’ children [committing atrocities] and with each one, has been receiving visions of his Maiden being taken by Darkness. These visions become so strong, he vows to return.”

There are not many times a concept album makes me want to mosh, but the third song, “The Thunder of Steel Clouds” gets me moving. At first the riffs are chunky, with a nice small solo, and an excellent guest spot by Michael Rumple from Lorelei. The song then takes on two distinct, almost dueling, tones. The will play an elevated melody one bit, and then switch to low grindy riffs the next. It makes complete sense in the context of the lyrics.

“In the third song, Artaosis, The Demon [The Shade], and The Maiden all encounter each other. Artaosis’ visons lead him on a journey through a dark forest upon his arrival home, where he finds his Maiden entranced by The [Shade, the vocal part played by Rumple.] They meet head on in battle.”

The song has a dueling tone because THIS CHILD SLAUGHTERING WARRIOR IS FIGHTING A DEMON MADE OF HIS OWN SINS THAT HYPNOTIZED HIS WOMAN AND LED HER INTO SOME DARK ASS FOREST. If you don’t want the album, buy this song at the very least then. It is the best on the album, and is a top 10 song this year.

The climax/interlude “Fragile Fingers” plays next, and is a completely clean, but welcome slowdown following the intensity of the previous track. “This song tells of Artaosis’ perspective after defeat. It is to literally represent the void between life and death,” Lawson told me.

The final song “Artaosis Pt. 2,” tells of his new fate, cursed by the demon to be trapped within the forest for eternity. The song is an odd one, with many shifts, but nothing is disjointed or out of place. The guitar solo is phenomenal, and the drums combine with other sonic oddities to convey Artaosis’ new fate, of being a tree within this dark forest, “of giving life as a tree, rather than taking life.”

I played this album, start to finish, without moving, the first time I listened to it. It has presence, if that makes any sense. This was a random, “Hey, this looks neat…” pick. However, starting with the overture, the EP entranced me. It is well written, the story is full of incredible themes and powerful lyrics. Lawson and his co-lyricist Kate Smith wrote this in the midst of a break up, and as weird as it may be, it clearly did the album favors. The emotion is real, the lyrics reflect it, and the music conveys it. The instrumentals are great, and have all of the best qualities of progressive metal without any of the “fat on the bone” issues that plague my personal enjoyment of prog. The transitions between songs are inventive and don’t take away a thing from the cohesion in the record, which is essential for a concept album.

Take a chance if you haven’t already, As Oceans will not let you down. Metal needs more story tellers. I enjoy albums with overarching themes spread across independent songs, but it was a treat to listen to a single, cohesive story crafted from such genuine emotion, and told with such powerful words, accompanied by instrumentals that accentuate the emotional ride. I could not give As Oceans any more creative praise for what they’ve done here with Willows.

Purchase Willows on iTunes.

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