Axon-Neuron – Metamorphosis

covermetamorphosisI was totally stunned, back in 2012, when Axon-Neuron released their previous album, Dreamstate. Their unique blend of jazz, classical and rock or metal music, the excellent vocal delivery, as well as the proficient use of a 9-string guitar, simply overwhelmed me, and I became an instant fan. Oh, and there was a string quartet in there, too. Three years and two thirds later and a bunch of personnel changes – Jeremey is the only member left from Dreamstate -, the band releases Metamorphosis, an almost two hour-long double album that takes all they’ve previously did and cranks it up. As Jeremey told me: “It’s prog. Go big or go home.”

Let’s start up with what led to Metamorphosis, says he:

I wrote the lyrics to the album in one month after parting ways with someone that had been in my life for a long time, so the songs all deal with change, letting go, and moving forward, hence [the name]. […] Although the lyrics came quickly, it took almost two years to write all the music to it since it’s a much slower and detailed process.

And detailed it is! First of all, the string quartet got expanded to a 21-piece full orchestra, which gives a lot of life to the songs, especially the orchestral preludes and postludes. Speaking of which, each disc starts and ends with a “Prelude” and a “Postlude” respectively, the former being made up of themes and melodies from the songs on their side, and the latter being original material. All of these are orchestra-only instrumental tracks, with the exception of “Postlude II”, which also features the full band and acts as an epic ending to this musical and emotional journey, with the “All things must change” leitmotif being obstinately repeated. This melody was also snuck in all of the previous songs as a way to stealthily introduce it – be aware of the Glockenspiel! -, so it seems familiar when you hear it at the end. Brilliant! Another “pretentious nerd fact” that the guitarist and composer shared with me: each of the twelve songs (not counting the -ludes) is written mainly in one of the twelve tones of the chromatic scale following Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis, which ranks the notes in increasing order of dissonance, based on C.

Now that these details are out of the way, let’s talk about the music itself. “Prelude I” is a delectable overture to the album: the interplay of the different sections of the orchestra and the themes introduced – later fully explored -, are an absolute joy to listen to. It is soft and dreamlike, only rarely will it aim to disconcert, rather lowering you progressively into a water-filled dream pod, where you can focus on the music and nothing else. It also quite ingeniously ends with the beginning of the following song, “Euclid”. In this song, the 6/8 guitar lead is backed by the whole band in 4/4 and, instead of adding four times after the fourth repetition as a way to resolve it with the rest of the band and start the polymetre anew, they keep on digressing and never really come back together. That’s only one example of a cool compositional trick that you can add to your own palette if you so wish, but also demonstrates the quantum entanglement between the concept and the music. The song’s lyrics state:

A pair of parallel lines never intersect, X, Y, Z
Stretching, spreading into the vast, infinite span of space

Traveling along one of these planes
A straight line sees many things
Always marching onward towards the end of all time
[…] Will never meet, will never cross
Will never know of the others existence
Alone in their universe

The 4/4 and 6/8 lines start at the same point, but never intersect again. Of course, the lyrics aren’t about the music underneath, but the fact that they can apply to it as well is the mark of real intellectual composition; the song would indeed lose something if the lyrics or the music was changed. I won’t go into the details of every song on the album; if I were to, it’d be a 300-page thesis. This was only one example of fine songwriting, and there are countless others throughout the album. If you stumble across one, post it here below and maybe our comments section will become a compendium of the idiosyncrasies of Metamorphosis.

If you look at both sides of the album, there’s immediately something different: song length. When we exclude the preludes and postludes, the average duration of the songs on the second disc is almost a full two minutes longer (7:02 against 5:19). This is a subtle hint at more progressive, or more fully fledged and developed song ideas. Indeed, while the first side is heavier, angrier perhaps, the other one sounds more reflective, thoughtful. Could that mean there is also, integrated to the music somehow, the five stages of grief – namely denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance? At this point, this wouldn’t surprise me. Moreover, this sides contain some not-so-subtle references at their previous works. For example, in “Kronos”, there is this guitar part, upon which the song is built, that’s ripped straight from Dreamstate’s “The Fountain”, and supported with those lyrics: “as with my old friend, the fountain”. This was possibly my favourite song off of this album so it was quite pleasant to see it make an apparition here. Also, a guitar line in “Eulogy” seems to reference a vocal melody from “Bloom”, which is nice. This side also seems a bit more unleashed, crazy, as in the beginning lines of “Summit” and the whole of “Kafka”, which are just prog, each in a more Gentle Giant and neoclassical manner.

Now, let’s talk a bit about the musicians themselves. Considering they are all new members, except the guitarist and founder Jeremey Poparad, they integrated quite well and there’s no striking difference in the sound, except in the vocal department. I’ve got to say I preferred Sandra Kung’s delivery on Dreamstate over both Brain Songs’ Kelsey Edington and Metamorphosis’ Amanda Rankin. I won’t say much because I’m no singer myself, and know very little about vocal technique and vocabulary. However, I think she truly shines on tracks like “Keepsakes” where her softer, falsetto voice is at the forefront. On the contrary, on harsher songs like “Suspicions”, I find her gritty voice to be uneven and unconvincing. That might be due to a lack of practice of the technique, or maybe it’s an inherent feature of one’s vocal tract – like I said, I don’t know much, and these are only my thoughts on it. This minor detail didn’t prevent me from appreciating the music as a whole, as there are only a few places where it is more apparent to me. The other members – bass, guitars, drums, keyboards, as well as the whole orchestra -, all do justice to the compositions with adequate tone and musicianship. I’d like to underline the unconventional use of the 9-string guitar on the album, where “conventional” nowadays unfortunately means an overuse of the low register for breakdowns on open strings and palm-muted tritone chugs. Here, it serves to support the bass in unison with distortion in heavier moments, and as a way to play extended chords on lighter ones. I just like to see an instrument being exploited to its full potential instead of being featured as a gimmick.

As a final word, Metamorphosis is an intricate and elaborate album, heavy with the sheer amount of thoughts put into its composition. You’re treated with almost two hours of jazz- and classical music-influenced progressive rock that sometimes turns a bit metallic. It’s truly a wonderful album, where each song has its own personality but still remains under the wings of its overarching thematics and keep a certain sense of familiarity throughout. I’ve been waiting for this album for a while, and have not been disappointed the slightest despite my high expectations. I believe that anyone who likes even a bit of rock, prog, jazz or classical music will enjoy Metamorphosis, a stellar album indeed.

A press copy of the album was provided for this review.
Special thanks to Jeremey Poparad for his invaluable insight on the inner processes underlying the album.

Technical information

CD 1
1: Prelude I – 6:28
2: Euclid – 4:31
3: Suspicions – 5:48
4: Shattered – 5:58
5: Koan – 3:42
6: Eyes – 6:04
7: Erasure – 5:54
8: Postlude I – 7:48
CD 1 running time: 46:13

CD 2
1: Prelude II – 7:25
2: Silence – 7:23
3: Kronos – 7:35
4: Summit – 8:00
5: Keepsakes – 6:40
6: Kafka – 7:43
7: Eulogy – 4:53
8: Postlude II – 8:13
CD 2 running time: 57:52

Total running time: 104:05
Release date: 2016/02/18
Label: Independent

File type listened to: MP3
Bit rate: 320 kbps CBR
Sampling rate: 44,100 Hz, 2 channels