Instrumental progressive metal seems to have been on a steady rise in recent years. A lot of this could be attributed to ANIMALS AS LEADERS revolutionising the genre, but instrumental prog-metal seems to be getting a lot more attention, particularly, and somewhat unfortunately, on the djent scene. As a result, more often then not instrumental prog-metal usually seems to involve the djent sound stomping its way through the spacey riffs like an attention-starved six year old. So it makes a refreshing change of pace that Sunyata, the debut album from instrumental progressive metal supergroup VIPASSI leaves djent behind entirely and focuses on a more subtle, layered and mesmerising balance of aggression and beauty.
This is an accomplished, emotive and thoroughly enjoyable listen, which should surprise no one familiar with the members’ discographies. Guitarist Benjamin Baret, bassist Brendan Brown and drummer Dan Presland are all part of the extreme metal titan that is NE OBLIVISCARIS, and freed from vocals and sweeping violin, their instrumental prowess is given a chance to shine and, along with guitarist Ben Boyle of HADAL MAW and A MILLION DEAD BIRDS LAUGHING, they certainly do not disappoint.
Whilst the title relates to the Buddhist term for “emptiness” or “voidness” and a doctirine regarded as way of gaining an intuition of ultimate reality, the album cover depicts the 7th Bolgia in Dante’s Inferno, where the thieves are attacked by serpents, which also serves as a nice metaphor for the riffs on this album. The music is packed with tremolo riffs that manage to be aggressive whilst swirling and coiling with serpentine grace throughout, particularly on the sinister second track Benzaiten. Baret and Boyle do a wonderful job of demonstrating their musical diversity. The polyrhythmic riffs are swirling, complex and spacy throughout, but they twist and turn on each track in a way that’s noticeably different each time, so, either obviously or subtly, each riff stands alone on the album as different and unique. It’s also nice that the guitarists are willing to take their time and slow down, rather than succumb to the allure of a note onslaught.
As for the rhythm section, it becomes even clearer how tuned into each other this ensemble is. Presland’s drumming is absolutely arresting. More built around the guitars than the bass, entwining with them wonderfully and underscoring them with rapid-fire blast beats, striking a magical balance of ferocious and yet oddly soothing, as well as stepping back and letting the riffs carry the song. The same goes for Brown, whose bass lines blend seamlessly with the guitars. Together they achieve that wonderful feat when a band’s music becomes less a collection of instruments and more a pure, sonic force of nature, thanks in part to the phenomenal sound mixing. The band’s sense of atmosphere is amazing as well. As the album goes on, the songs move between sinister and ethereal with startling fluidity, somehow managing to become both more atmospheric and aggressive as they progress, and the band walks this FALLUJAH-style tightrope in a way that makes it seem effortless.
The album is not entirely instrumental though. Ghostly, echoing female notes kick off the album and are interwoven throughout to great effect, adding a lot to the music’s atmospheric tone, like moments of zen hovering underneath and occasionally breaking through the turmoil of the instruments, extracting the listener from the chaos before it sucks them back in. Furthermore, the rumbling, ritualistic chants on the breath-taking Elpis add an extra dimension of ominous spirituality to the music that contrasts with the unearthly cleans in a way that is utterly entrancing.
Haunting, emotional and epic but at the same time subtle and introspective, VIPASSI’s debut album is an enrapturing and surprising listen from an astoundingly talented ensemble of wonderful musical resourcefulness. This is instrumental prog-metal done very, very right.
Sunyata is out now via Season of Mist.
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