When Scardust’s Sands of Time hit our shores in 2017, we knew that we had something special on our turntable. This was (and still is) one stellar piece of Progressive and Symphonic Metal that ultimately bubbled to the very top of RMR’s annual ten commandments of that same year. And those are some mighty big shoes to fill for any follow-on record.
So, along came Strangers in this unholy year of 2020. Now, I admit that – at first – we got a little hot under our collar. Because a first spin did not quite deliver that warm and cozy hit an immediate injection of molten metal should generate. Especially Progressive Metal should indulge us, right? Only, here things got a bit cranky.
Complexity kills the cat. That’s what I already alluded to earlier in my review of Scardust‘s former piece. But their newest album just heaps a couple of tons of stuff on top of what we were used to from this band. The lengthy opening of the record already is so messy that Ayeron feels like Sunday’s yoga lesson in contrast.
Some sort of a musical, made of that more modern Progressive Metal style that starts to install itself all over the place. A kind of a Mediterranean version of The Lion King without Simba. A 50-shades-of-Scardust thing that will take forever to digest. And indeed, Overture for the Estranged – their firstborn – is the epitome of intros that should never happen.
A 6 1/2 minute blurb to showcase what exactly? That Scardust are great musicians and masters of all sorts of intricate musical geekery? We knew that already. But by starting Strangers off like that, the band just entered nerd nirvana and probably lost half of those future fans that just may have come on board else.
Even if they already quite artfully prepped the recurring theme, which gave us hope. And don’t get me wrong, driving a strong storyline in the form of a musical is perfectly alright. It – indeed – adds a mighty dose of spice to an otherwise extremely erratic concoction.
On the other hand, once Noa Gruman really makes an appearance on Break The Ice, things start to flow. She – yet again – makes all that mastery of all trades look easy. From operatic high notes to growls that will make Alissa White-Gluz pale with envy, she does it all. She even hits a few scat1) lines further down the tracklist. Her performance is often breathtaking and breathtakingly beautiful.
If you look for the essence of Strangers though, then move no further than Tantibus II. It starts with that sublime drum work of Yoav Weinberg that will – by the way – get a repeat on the title song. But boy, the earthy solos and all-out shreds of both Yadin Moyal (guitar) and Yanai Avnet (bass) just took me aback. Already the fat opening riff will make you pay attention. Until the vocalist chimes in with that very Delain-esque overture.
Strangers, the title song2), really makes you feel that passion Noa Gruman projects. To make a complex song sound simple on structure takes pretty awesome songwriting chops. And they’re on full display here. This is that moment when the theme truly comes to life, and it will be revisited all over again throughout the record.
But how they included the Hurdy Gurdy into Concrete Cages just kicked the ball out there – bang – into the desert. A song pretty much made for guest musician Patty Gurdy3). A refreshing track with a slight folksy tinge that perfectly fits into the overall theme. But the duet she sings with Gruman just gave me the goosebumps.
And let’s not forget the artful inclusion of a variety of choirs into this whole piece of art. Strangers gorges with parts that usually underline an arrangement filled to the brim. I liked the thrashy growls on Over when the choir suddenly chimes in to egg the vocalist on. And the way it leads from Itai Portugaly‘s cool key solo into the song theme is state-of-the-art, to say the least. That’s stellar prog right there.
And then, Scardust did it again. Gone blatantly hunts in Amaranthe’s backyard, complete with the typically overstressed growls the latter is famous for. And for a while I wondered if Elize Ryd had the mic, but nope. It’s only a bit later that we’re finding ourselves again on Scardust territory.
Somebody said it already. You need about fifteen listens before things really fall into place. Strangers is no easy fare, but one that demands time and some serious attention. Only then will the record start to show its colors. And no doubt, it needs a Jens Bogren all over again to at least somewhat tame that boundless outpouring of energy.
But in the end, Scardust did it again. With all its shortcomings, Strangers is one helluva record. And it takes the chutzpah that only this band can muster to race their tune beyond the fiery complexity of Haken and the weirdness of Nevermore. And to emerge unscathed to boot.
Oh, and did I mention it? The crew here bemoaned the lack of courageous prog outfits out there earlier in the year. With the aforementioned Haken as the sole real warrior left standing so far. Well, by Loki’s terrible minions, Scardust just joined the latter in that pole position.
Who would have thought that possible?
Ed’s note: And the record made it onto the 2020 Top 10 Records. Congrats!