Evergrey – Hymns For The Broken
Evergrey – Hymns For The Broken (2014)
Reviewed by Jeff Teets
Ten years ago, Sweden’s Evergrey was on top of the musical world for me and many other fans of progressive metal. They were on a hot streak where everything seemed to be turning to gold, they were getting the sort of exposure necessary for a solid US breakthrough, and it looked like everything was going the band’s way. However, for a variety of reasons (both clear and unclear), its career seemed to stall, and a larger take-off never really happened. 2006 album Monday Morning Apocalypse saw the band considerably overhauling its sound, with pretty mixed results and strong criticism. The years since have been a rollercoaster of ups and downs, but all in all, Evergrey has never really “gone” anywhere. Tom S. Englund, the band’s mastermind, vocalist, guitarist, and key songwriter, has now reformed the band from next to nothing for the second time in five years, and its ninth full-length album, Hymns For The Broken, may finally give this group’s career the new lease on life that has been a long time coming.
I make no apologies for being a pretty big Evergrey fan and, hell, I’ll say it – Evergrey fanboy. If one band can evoke blind devotion and irrational enthusiasm from me, they’d have to be the top candidate. I have only one tattoo, and I’m not the least bit ashamed to say that it’s Evergrey’s “Clan” symbol that has graced all of the band’s work. The emotional connection I’ve felt to Tom’s lyrics and this band’s music for a decade now has been nothing sort of monumental. As cheesy as it is to say, this band got me through high school and my teen years as a whole. When I listen to records like In Search of Truth, Recreation Day, and The Inner Circle, I’m not just experiencing three damn fine pieces of progressive metal, but I’m re-living some of the best and worst times of my life thus far. Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and memories of watching the band’s A Night to Remember DVD on many late nights while totally absorbed in every detail of the music, lyrics, and image is something that will never lose power for me, nor will it cease to be a strong component of what makes up my musical and personal identity.
Identity has perhaps been the band’s biggest inconsistency over the previous nine years. Lineup changes had been a pretty strong constant for the band, but in the past five years, the band completely destabilized. Long-time guitarist Henrik Danhage (whose lead playing is a big part of the group’s trademark sound) and fairly long-time drummer Jonas Ekdahl both parted company with Tom for the sake of their personal relationships back in 2010, and 2011’s Glorious Collision saw ex-Royal Hunt axe-man Marcus Jidell (an incredibly underrated and capable player who has gone unappreciated by a lot of Evergrey’s fans) and now-Sabaton drummer Hannes van Dahl step into the ranks and produce a solid and enjoyable (perhaps their best since The Inner Circle) album, but one that still failed to reignite the group’s career. The sound suffered a considerable amount from the departure of the more “classic” elements that made those earlier albums tick, and each of the albums since The Inner Circle have seen Tom and co. veering in one direction or another.
How appropriate then, that Hymns for the Broken tells a loose conceptual story of identity and self-affirmation. Shrouded in the guise of a metaphorical war where the battlefields and the combat exist only within the mind of the album’s central character, Hymns… reprises so much of what has made my connection to the band strong over the years. While I’ll be the first person to say that I don’t think this album sounds that much like classic Evergrey, I’d also be the last person to tell you that that’s a bad thing. Stylistically falling somewhere between the 2004 classic The Inner Circle and 2008’s Torn, this album boasts the group’s best production and mixing job to date by far. I’ve always been fond of the Andy Laroque production of their In Search of Truth and Recreation Day albums, and the stark contrast in overall album sound and mix over the past ten years has done nothing to help the band’s identity crisis. This album sounds exactly like I want an Evergrey record to sound, thanks to engineer Jacob Hansen. Hymns For The Broken is crisp, tight, modern, and heavy as hell, with all of the focus on the right elements. One can only hope that this relationship will last for future releases.
If I have one qualm to deliver in regards to Hansen’s contribution to this effort, it would be the audible use of vocal tuning plug-ins. I frequently get accused of being a production snob (I went to college for audio production), and I’m sure this will go right over the heads of, or out the windows of others, but it’s a sticking point for me. I’m not trying to crucify the group for this – it happens literally ALL the time – far more than most fans would realize, and also comes as little surprise to me, as Hansen’s use of this vocal sound is used to much better effect with groups like Pretty Maids and Anubis Gate. Tom has always had such a genuine, earthy, and character-filled voice that the slightest bit of digital tampering just irks my brain. I’d also like to point out that this has become increasingly common, and there are more records from this year that I can hear this sort of thing on than records I can’t, so please don’t overestimate the amount to which I’m truly bothered by this. I just needed to get that little thing off my chest.
Shifting focus to the music a bit – the album opens with lead single and “comeback”-ready “King Of Errors”. A bit reminiscent of that sort of “A Touch Of Blessing” sound many fans have been longing for, the track features a great solo from both Englund and returning shredder Henrik Danhage. The interplay between Tom and Henrik is heard throughout many songs on the disc, most notably “King Of Errors”, “A New Dawn”, and the title track. Jonas delivers an expectedly solid performance on drums, aided by the fantastic sound of the drums themselves, and Rikard Zander offers his now-standard keyboard fare. Largely concerned with piano work, strings, and textural stuff, you will seldom hear a lead or a solo from the keys in Evergrey, but it has more or less always been that way outside of a couple of songs. The keys seem to be a bit more in the forefront here when compared to most other post-Inner Circle offerings by the group. If there’s one surprise musically, it would probably be the increased bass presence in the mix, highlighting the very solid playing of also very capable Mind’s Eye-guitarist John Niemann. I’ve paid more attention to the bass lines and bass tone on this record than any previous Evergrey album. All in all, the band truly sounds like a unit once again – something that’s been lacking in recent years due to lineup turmoil.
Back to the songs themselves – Evergrey has never been a band that writes a lot of uptempo, fast-paced songs, but this album seems to be among the band’s most reserved, tempo-wise. The deep cut “The Fire” is really the only song where the band breaks out in rocking metallic fashion. This, along with the track’s very strong and memorable chorus. propels it to being a clear favorite of mine on the disc. “Archaic Rage” is one of the more memorable tracks due to Tom’s ever-emotive vocalss as well as an excellent and unexpected piano-driven heavy section that really picks things up after the second chorus. There’s also a very signature “Evergrey”-sounding guitar harmony to be found shortly thereafter. “Missing You” walks the line between song and interlude, as it’s nothing more than a piano-and-vocal acoustic ballad that sits nicely between the excellent title track and the primarily instrumental and super-proggy/riffy “The Grand Collapse”. Worthy of particular mention for me would have to be the album’s closer, “The Aftermath”, which fits nicely into a vibe I am particularly fond of for a closing track. After nearly an hour of ups and downs filled with all of the melodrama that Evergrey fans have likely come to expect and love, the story ends on something rare for an Evergrey record – a sense of hope. Eschewing the completely bleak outlook of prior concept album conclusions (“When the Walls Go Down” and “Mislead”), “The Aftermath” sets a scene of the main character having formed a new sense of identity, and having given themself a new sense of self-worth, and perhaps even optimism. The inner war having now subsided, it is time to make the best out of what is yet to come on the rest of the journey. To an extent, it’s impossible to explain a “vibe” in words – it almost just has to be felt in the music, so maybe talking in circles isn’t the best way to convey my point. All I will say is that the section occurring at 3:18 is among my favorites from any song in recent memory. You can almost sense the chill of autumn’s breeze sweeping in as you head out for the horizon, knowing that what’s gone before has tested you immensely, and though you’ll never make up for lost time, there is so much beauty and promise in what is left to come. This is truly superb use of using music to paint an entire scene, and an outstanding end to a great album.
There are times when an album is elevated to so much more than just a collection of songs, or even a collection of songs that tells a story. Sometimes, the timing of just the “right” album at the “right” time in a band’s career can cause things to become more symbolic than may have been originally intended. I firmly believe that Hymns For The Broken is one of these records, and the unifying theme of identity and reaffirmation couldn’t link up more beautifully or appropriately. The band has not done the “expected” thing and abandoned where they have been recently in a shallow attempt to relive former glories and return to their roots, nor have they evolved needlessly beyond recognition. Those expecting to hear the vast gothic overtones or the more intense progressive elements of albums like Solitude Dominance Tragedy or In Search Of Truth will likely be disappointed, but there are nods to the band’s celebrated past to be found in between the forging of its new identity as a dark melodic metal band. Whether or not this record will truly break the band to a much wider audience and finally deliver them the exposure, success, and respect it has always deserved remains to be seen, but it will almost certainly reignite the passion and enthusiasm long-term fans of the band may have been missing in recent albums. Evergrey has never really gone anywhere, but it has now renewed its attack, and is reinforced with as strong of a vengeance as ever.
4.75 // 5