Ihlo’s Debut Album, Union: worth the listen? Yes!

Big update – After a full day and a half, I can say this is even better than I thought, and I may have just fallen in band-love, which makes me feel like I’m cheating on my long term band-relationship, Haken. But Ihlo has me hooked. Seriously, the layering of sound means every listen I notice something new. As a first album, holy cow! I mean, this would be an amazing 5th album. I’m only sad because now I have to wait for more albums from them…

I was browsing Reddit’s Prog Metal group when I noticed a song from a band I had never heard of – Ihlo. They’ve just released their debut album, Union, and the song “Starseeker” posted on Reddit caught my attention. The album cover was a pretty scene of a planet rising over the mountainous horizon, all done in shades of pink, blue and purple with what could be an inhabited cryogenic chamber (or some other cool sci-fi capsule) in the middle distance. Now, I like me some pretty covers, and this definitely piqued my interest more than the typical black-and-white-band-photo-with-everyone-scowling that you sometimes get on debut albums from new metal-type bands. So I clicked play, and am pretty glad I did! The first thirty seconds got me hyped enough to pull it up on Google Play and do a full listen. Or 4. And counting…

Sooooooo pretty. Can’t resist clicking…

From their Bandcamp page, Ihlo is a London, UK based band that is currently categorized as prog-metal, meaning they do some nicely heavy sounds, with plenty of drums, guitar, and bass, but also incorporate elements from other genres and more complicated song structure in general. They describe their music as, “Blending progressive metal, electronic and pop influences; Ihlo’s music is a journey of heavy, melodic and emotional passages.” Think dreamy, acoustic ambient bits, followed by a good heap of thumping guitar riffs overlaid by various synths, and generally clean, clear vocals that soar over everything.

Expect the usual for prog-metal: syncopated rhythms, poly-rhythms, time-signature changes, and a general love of playing with the more technical aspects of music and sound in order to really mess with the expectations of the listener – in a good way! Another key; each song is a minimum of about 5 minutes long and the last song on the album is 15 minutes! The full album is just under an hour, but the music makes it a pretty intense hour of overall goodness.

So, what’s the album like?

It’s not for the faint of heart or ears, but “serious” listeners will seriously appreciate their attention to detail and soundscaping. Non-serious listeners will probably think, “Yea, nice album.” I agree. Union is fairly melodic and ambient, in the sense that the songs have really long sections that melt into each other, or slam, like an 18-wheeler at high speed hitting a cement divider, but again, in a good way! The style uses a lot of synths, similar to what you might find in psychedelic/ambient electronica or some of the better 80’s bands (Stranger Things style at times, though less dark). The total sound, however, is very modern with the guitar and drums keeping everything tightly in line.

There were hints of TesseracT, Haken, and Symphony X in the composition, as well as a little bit of TesseracT, Rush and Dream Theater in the vocal style, though only in the best sense as on their very best albums. But while Union hints at these influences, it doesn’t recycle them. Ihlo does their own thing very well.

Andy Robinson’s singing is spot-on; he uses a nicely clean style which I personally prefer. It’s not quite choir-boy pure like Leprous, but I never cringed anywhere and I am pretty damn picky about my vocals. He tends to a higher register and hits the notes without ever going shrill/piercing. It’s a little reminiscent of Linkin Park, but less melodramatic and more varied! He emphasizes and harmonizes with the music rather than dominating it. This is important, because the instrumentals are certainly worth hearing as well.

I really enjoyed the wall-of-sound heaviness that came from layering aggressive guitar and drums with occasional acoustic bits and buzzy, textural synths (a trend that, when done well, gives the music a lot of body, but otherwise muds up the low-end). And they DO do it well. The sound-layering means I’ll get a lot of listens out of this album as I try to follow each instrument, each separate theme. The more mellow bits between these heavy sections refresh and center, adding emotion and musical depth while also giving your ears a little break so they can be ready for the next wave of massive sound.

As a huge note here, I’d highly recommend listening with decent headphones or a good sound-system. My first listen was with my crappy USB computer headset. It flattened the hell out of the album, turning everything into very artistic mud. With my real headphones, man… so much better! Each instrumental track gained distinction, so you could really hear what was happening with each individual instrument. Indeed, my biggest critique for the album would have been that the density of sounds and effects overwhelmed the songs at times, but the right headphones got rid of that almost immediately. So pro-tip: if you want to really listen to music, get decent headphones.

(For the semi-cheapos like me, you can grab the Audio-Technica M20x for about $70 bucks Canadian and they work much, much better than standard ear buds (and double as ear-warmers in the winter, woo…). I’ve had mine for about 5 years now and they’re as good as they day I got them. The hubs, being a music creator as well as listener, uses the M40x which are a bit more expensive but fold to be more compact and have even better audio definition. Worth it.)

Buy it, you won’t regret it.

Anything worth noting?

My personal favorite song was “Starseeker”. Andy really works his range and style here, crooning, almost whispering at times and then soaring high with fervor and passion. The lyrics really stand out as well, and are filled with simple yet vivid images implied from rather abstract poetry. There are no direct story lines, only the thoughts of the speaker given voice and form. I love that kind of stuff. Emotional and reflective, letting moments of your own life resonate with the music and providing plenty of room for interpretation. And while “Starseeker” is my favorite, the other songs manage to keep that feeling and form going as well. This is an album where I’ll be pulling up the lyrics later to double-check my impressions. But again, the clean vocals don’t let the pronunciation get lost, it’s more that I kept letting my focus wander to take in the whole of the song.

From their Facebook: With Michael Roberts, Phil Monro, Andy Robison and Clark McMenemy at Matt Jolly Photography. Keep it up guys!

So it’s totally perfect..?

The only critique I can find is that there could be a few little solos here or there for the instrumentals. You can tell the whole band is great together, but due to the complicated nature of the music and the lack of spotlights, you never get a feel for the individual players. Being a relatively small band for that many (complex, layered) sounds, this may just be a technical limitation, as each person probably has more than one role and not a lot of time for musical shenanigans. Computer automation lets even small bands sound amazing now, but gives you a bit less room to improv without simply sounding weirdly repetitive as the “background” loops… Still, good job guys!

The takeaway?

Union certainly manages to get a signature feel while still providing enough variation to keep discerning listeners engaged. Overall, the album requires a good amount of concentration due to the constant, nuanced sound and dramatic style. It’s an epic journey, not a series of shorter stories on a specific theme. Each song leads to the next, and each song changes several times within itself, ensuring there is enough contrast so the whole album isn’t just a drone-fest you’ll want to put down before it’s done. It was worth several attentive listens for me, and I’ll certainly be keeping it on my rotating album playlist, right up there with Haken’s Vector and The Mountain, Leprous’s Coal, and Pomegranate Tiger’s Boundless, which are my current default albums.

If you enjoy TesseracT, Cloudkicker and Modern Day Babylon, you’ll likely enjoy this as well. It’s not quite as varied as Haken’s sound (yet) but sometimes you don’t want to be lovingly smacked around by an album as it changes styles faster than a celebrity change spouses. If you’re looking for about an hour of coherent yet gorgeous music, you can safely put Ihlo on your list. Union is a fantastic first album and I’ll be listening for their next album with hopeful, perked-up ears.

Buy the album on Bandcamp or listen on your favorite streaming service. You can also find them on Facebook and Instagram! They’re friendly too!

Have you heard this yet? What do you think? Anyone else as happy as I am, or is there a glaring oversight here?

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