Some Old-School Prog for a New Year: Silver Lake by Esa Holopainen — Self-Titled Album Review

Part of being neck-deep in the metal hole is an obligation to look into new artists as they appear. Well, in this particular case, I wouldn’t call Esa Holopainen a new artist, but this solo project of his, Silver Lake by Esa Holopainen, is new. Plus, it’s my first time ever hearing of Holopainen himself, so he’s new from my perspective. Anyway, I think I’ve said a number of times that most dedicated metal bloggers only cover the extreme, underground stuff (and the rare time I’ve delved into those subgenres, it’s with bands that they DON’T cover). So yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if the amount of reviews of Silver Lake’s self-titled debut album can be counted on one hand.

According to the Internets, Esa Holopainen is the guitarist of Finnish prog-metal band Amorphis… which have been around about as long as Dream Theater. Cool. Well, I only JUST caught up with Dream Theater, so… Sorry, I’m sure Amorphis is great, but my hands are tied by the march of time. Anyway, I don’t know much about this Silver Lake project other than that Holopainen, well, decided to do it. An interview with him I read on Nuclear Blast Records’ website said that this side project of his might be a one-and-done deal, although he has also considered following it up. Well, if it is a standalone album, then that saves me time in the long run!

The artwork doesn’t look too impressive at first; after all, it’s just a posterized photo of—surprise, surprise—a silver lake, with the project’s name smack dab in the middle like a perfect Pokémon Snap picture. But for some reason, I dunno… something spoke to me about it. It’s very much in the spirit of old-school prog, and that choice of font style for the name is beautiful. Props to whoever designed that.

Silver Lake starts with a three-minute acoustic intro track. Yep, that’s prog alright! It’s melancholy, and weirdly beautiful, a perfect lead-in to an equally melancholy song called ‘Sentiment’. Well… that’s more-or-less how the whole album goes. Overall, it’s a very strange record.

I know it sounds like hyperbole to say that “every song on an album is different”; even I’m willing to admit that a lot of my favorite bands merely expand on an established formula as opposed to breaking it completely. Silver Lake, however, really makes every song stand out. There’s the aforementioned acoustic track, along with whimsical yet epic ballads (such as the MV embedded below), a track that’s just powerful riffs playing over some guy narrating, and even a track with death growling. 

What helps is the wealth of vocalists who perform in this album. I have no idea who any of them are, but they all end up being more than talented enough for Silver Lake. The lyrics, however, I cannot decipher to save my life. In fact, I don’t even know if this is actually a concept album or not. 

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Final Verdict: 8.85/10

The only real flaw with Silver Lake by Esa Holopainen is the possibility that this really is a one-off project. While not album of the year to me, this is a hidden gem that gives classic prog that modern pizzaz. I recommend it if you’re someone with super eclectic taste.

New Decade, New Edge: VEXED — Culling Culture Album Review

I’m not generally a cynical person, but I have let other people’s cynicism affect me on a very unhealthy level. That’s why I never listened to bands like Living Colour; their lyrics were so on-the-nose they would make me depressed. And yet, I decided to give the new U.K. alt-metal band, VEXED, a try, despite the fact that cynicism seems to be their brand. They seem to hate quite literally every aspect of first-world society. And as someone who’s had to get over depression from being around doom mongers who read headlines (and good people who listen to doom mongers), VEXED would definitely not make me mentally ill! Not at all!

According to Napalm Records, VEXED consists of the following: vocalist Megan Targett, guitarist Jay Bacon, drummer Willen Mason-Geraghty, and bassist Al Harper. This is my first ever experience with the alt-metal subgenre, and any alternative music, period. I wonder if there even is a musical distinction to be made in the first place.

But before we can figure that out, I must write a blurb on the cover art! There’s a lot of orange in it… Buuuuut, I think it’s supposed to be a car that’s on fire. One cool thing is their choice to include the track listing on the front cover instead of the back. Also… Oh God, is that a “Parental Warning: Explicit Content”? Well, to be honest, I don’t know what the threshold for that tag is. Disturbed’s Immortalized had it, and that album wasn’t too different from their usual angst. But given VEXED’s brand, I have a feeling that Culling Culture is going to be a bit more explicit.

Right off the bat, my expectations were both exceeded and unmet at the same time. The music, especially for a debut, is very powerful. But here’s the disappointment: How is this alt-metal?! As I initially suspected, there’s nothing that different from most modern metal bands. The only possible explanation is that I’ve listened to alt-metal before, but the million dollar question now becomes this: What bands were those? The only ballpark guess I can make is In This Moment.

And speaking of In This Moment… Holy crap Megan Targett! More like, Megan Targets you and opens fire with a Maria Brink-like combination of banshee death growls and emotive clean vocals. But unlike with Brink, Targett definitely prefers the growling. You might want to have the lyrics pulled up if you listen to this stuff, but at the same time, her growls are surprisingly easy to understand once you get used to them.

So, musically, VEXED definitely shows their anger right off the bat. They already figured out how to make themselves sound, a surprising feat for just their first album. I don’t usually put esoteric descriptors for stuff, but I literally mean it by saying that even their guitars sound “rude”. If you’re not used to metal, then this might give you anxiety.

Speaking of anxiety, let’s address what I’ve been building up as the elephant in the room here: the lyrics. Although I sound like a cool dude, I’ve been having heaps of anxieties over some invisible obligation to give a crap about things that have nothing to do with my life. I was worried about VEXED reminding me of all of this and making me feel like garbage. 

Fortunately, that’s not quite the case here. VEXED’s lyrics are more personal, dealing with the topics of removing—or culling—toxic people from your life (or technically, Targett’s life, but it’s supposed to be relatable). She draws from actual life experience, and the fact that there are this many songs with this theme makes me feel really bad for her, but I also admire her for being able to successfully deal with so many toxic relationships. The lyrics initially come off as that early 2000s emo sh** á la Slipknot, but VEXED already has much more substance:

“This is not a warning” / “It’s a f***ing threat” / “Remember lies have a price” / “And karma’s calling in your debt” / “This is not a warning” / “It’s your demise” / “Remember this” / “Narcissist, you’re nothing but a parasite”

(Disclaimer: I swear that it was a complete coincidence that I chose Targett’s favorite set of lyrics from the whole album for my example. It just goes to show you that she liked them for a good reason.) See? Way better, although Targett is just about as much of a pottymouth as Corey Taylor. Whoever writes these lyrics—be it one or more members of the band—bravo to you. However, it’s still nowhere near as cynical as Oceans of Slumber or Living Colour (wow, America having something super cynical, that’s new). Unfortunately, since my anxieties aren’t caused by people I know in my personal life, it doesn’t exactly help me either. But at the very least, it’ll probably help more neurotypical people who naturally seek relationships.

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Final Verdict: 9/10

Color me surprised. Despite the fact that I have no idea what makes this “alt-metal”, VEXED’s Culling Culture is a great start (and it seems to be doing well too). I’d say I like this as much as I did Avaland’s Theater of Sorcery. But due to the added addition of knowing the band’s background better, and being legitimately surprised at how sophisticated the music is for what it is, I think VEXED might just be my favorite metal debut of the year. I am 100% on board with them, and I hope that their career in metal is a lengthy one. I recommend it if there’s someone in your life who absolutely sucks and you need a kick in the pants necessary to kick them in the pants.