Sweden’s Soen have been taken behind the woodshed throughout their career for sounding a good bit like Tool. Sure, a lot of groups have utilized the famous US prog group’s rhythm-heavy template for their purposes (Karnivool, Rishloo, TesseracT, etc.), but few have been given such a damn hard time for daring to evoke the comparison (and let’s be real: there won’t be a new Tool record out before the end of the world). It doesn’t hurt that vocalist Joel Ekelof sounds like a more evocative mix of Maynard James Keenan and Mikael Akerfeldt (Opeth). Plus, given that the band was started by former Opeth drummer Martin Lopez, it made sense that their first album, Cognitive, while being really damn good, gave off some major Tool and Opeth vibes. To be fair, there were some strong A Perfect Circle hints too, given both bands’ love of Pink Floydian melancholy. I thought the band started coming out of the shadow of their influences on their sophomore record, though an overly-loud, compressed production brought down the enjoyment just a tad. So where are we at with Soen with their third album?
The third time’s one Hell of a charm. Lykaia is a beautiful, somber, and eloquent modern prog record that utilizes obvious influences to great effect. That said, I’m not thinking at all about influences while listening to this wonderful release. The beginning of “Orison” is immaculate, cresting in a prayer-like (a nod to its title) chorus and some delicious progressive noodling in between some fuzzy bass lines. The record delves into the darker side of religion, as its title stems from the ancient Greek ritual to Zeus, relating to ritual sacrifice and fears of werewolves. It may seem odd to look at archaic religious acts in modern times, but even the best-intentioned religions have their darkness. That pervasive wicked nature is the perfect topic for Soen’s entrancing tunes. I’m often reminded, both in sound and tone, of Leprous’ excellent The Congregation, which touched on how humanity’s desire for community can be usurped for evil.
Oh, the music’s pretty great, too. Lykaia is a much broader listen than Soen’s previously records, with moody, Floydian cuts like “Lucidity” and the aggressively psychedelic Middle Eastern-tinged “Jinn” contrasting nicely with heavier songs like “Opal” and “Sister”. The album sounds much nicer, with the band’s decision to embrace retro recording resulting in a lusciously warm listen. Sure, the moments when Lykaia is at its loudest are a tad piercing, especially those cymbals, but this is certainly Soen’s best sounding record to date.
Thankfully, it’s also the best prog record I’ve heard in the past couple years. Sure, some minor nitpicks are noticeable on first listen (the chant-like bridge on “Orison” goes on a bit too long), but they fall away with subsequent listens. Soen’s talent was never the issue, nor was their songcraft. Being docked for sounding like seminal modern acts is hardly a capital offense, and Lykaia proves that the band just needed time to figure everything out. Utilizing a broader range of styles and leaning into each song’s topic for sonic flavor has resulted in a stunning modern prog gem. Is it too early to talk about the best records of the year?