Released By: Ascent Records
Release Date: September 27th, 2019
Genre: Progressive Metal
Rogue Marechal – Vocals
Jack Kirby – Guitars, Keyboards
Andrea Arcangeli – Bass
Michael Brush – Drums
2. Point of Arrival
4. Darkest Hour
8. Innocence Lost
9. The Aftermath
10. Closer to Heaven
11. The End of Time
Debuts can be exciting and interesting to review, as they show a band at the very beginning of their career, looking to establish their sound, and attempt to figure out what does and doesn’t work. Some bands over the years have managed to instantly succeed with their first release, while others, even some of the current most popular bands in the world, took a slightly longer time to reach their full potential and really standout. One band looking to make a strong first impression with their debut is UK progressive metal band Ark Ascent, featuring current and former members of bands such as DGM, Sirenia and Shadowkeep. I was instantly impressed by the lead single, “Sanctuary”, and immediately jumped at the opportunity to review their first full-length album, Downfall, and while I think the band has a lot of untapped potentials, this debut is an enjoyable listen, and the band shows a lot of promise.
Ark Ascent is led by guitarist/keyboardist Jack Kirby, and his performance on this album is excellent across the board, with some very technical, heavy guitar work that sometimes channels Symphony X’s Michael Romeo, while at other times he plays a much more melodic, emotional style that feels very similar to Seventh Wonder, while his keys are often very atmospheric, and add a lot flavor to the music, while sometimes having a more classic prog-rock feel to them. He’s the band’s main attraction, but also in the lineup is DGM bassist Andrea Arcangeli, and Sirenia drummer Michael Brush, who both do a great job with the rhythm section. Musically, the album does a nice job of alternating between some very technical, heavy passages, as well as some more emotional, melodic passages, and tracks are split between more flashy show pieces, some catchier tracks, some soft, piano and vocal driven interludes, and one huge epic that closes out the album. Songwriting is quite strong across the board, with every track having moments of greatness, and most songs are quite enjoyable on the whole, with the one weakness being some occasionally bad vocal melodies, with choruses in particular often falling flat. However, intros and verses are generally quite strong, and the extended instrumental sections are both the highlight of the album, as well as in general being truly excellent, and some of the best sequences I’ve heard on a prog album this year, especially on the final track. Sound production is also very good, with everything sounding very polished and high quality, for a debut release, though that shouldn’t be too surprising, since Aeon Zen’s Rich Hinks (who has a ton of experience in the field), was brought in as a co-producer.
If the band has one obvious weakness, it’s, unfortunately, their vocals. I’ve never heard anything by Shadowkeep before (aside from a couple tracks on their newest album), but their original vocalist Rogue Marchal is the lead singer on this album, and his performance can best be described in one word: Inconsistent. He has a powerful voice, and shows a good amount of range, but I find the struggles a bit at times, both because his accent gets in the way a bit, but also because his delivery seems just a bit strained and awkward, at times, most notably when singing more softly, and going for higher notes. He tends to sound just a bit off on most choruses, which hurts my enjoyment of some tracks, though this is a case where mileage may vary, as he certainly isn’t a terrible singer, and I’m sure many folks will either be more forgiving or take no issue at all with his vocals. He sounds best when singing with more aggression, which tends to happen a lot during verses, as his lower register is quite solid, and he does sing with a lot of energy, which helps a lot on the heavier passages. Unfortunately, because the album has a lot of softer sections, my enjoyment tends to slip off a bit during a lot of the vocal passages, though not nearly enough as to ruin the album or anything. Overall, though, he does a pretty decent job, especially during heavier parts, and again, I can see it being a case where many people like his vocals fine enough, so it’s very much a personal criticism, more than anything else.
If the musicianship on the album is perfect, and the vocals are inconsistent, then the songwriting could best be described as solid. Opening track “Arrival” is a very nice intro, which showcases all aspects of the band well, opening up with some soft atmospheric keys, before moving onto some explosive riffs, which carry on into a pretty impressive display of technical musicianship and small hints of power metal, and then the second half is mostly very calm, melodic and quite beautiful. It’s a great indication of what to expect from the album, and serves as a nice lead into the official opener “Point of No Return”. This track is very indicative of what to expect from a quality perspective, as instrumentally it alternates nicely between upbeat, heavy guitar-driven verses, a nice, slow and melodic chorus, and some great instrumental work in the second half. Vocally, Rogue sounds strong during the verses, getting to sing with some intensity, but he struggles a bit during the chorus, though not enough to hurt the song. His one weak moment comes during a soft part near the end, but overall, it’s a great track. Next is lead single “Sanctuary”, which starts off at a decent pace, with some heavy riffs during the verses, as well as more strong verses, and then the chorus is slower, but actually does a good job of letting Rogue sing with some power, and so it’s a pretty good performance overall, and definitely one of the catchier choruses on the album. Obviously, though, the instrumental work is the highlight of the track, as always, and there’s a ton of great guitar work on display here. It’s a strong track, overall, and a great pick for lead single.
The momentum keeps up with “Darkest Hour”, one of the heaviest and most upbeat tracks on the album, coming fairly close to power metal territory during the verses, with more excellent guitar work, and nice atmospheric keys. The chorus is slower and is pretty decent, with the vocals being mostly fine, aside from the final run where Rogue’s voice sounds a bit strained. Musically, though, the track is amazing, and the instrumental section in the second half goes full throttle, with excellent guitar work that brings Symphony X to mind in the best way possible, while the keyboards are just as impressive and are quite epic. Next is the first interlude track, “Farewell”, a very brief piano piece, with some soft and rather nice vocals. The next full-length track is the title track, which opens with a beautiful guitar melody that feels like it was ripped straight from a Seventh Wonder track, and then the guitars get heavier for the verses, which are quite entertaining. The vocals are a bit rough, though, with Rogue struggling slightly during the verses, and then on the chorus he tries to deliver an emotional performance, but for some reason his voice just can’t quite handle it, so he ends up sounding a bit whiny and strained, with the final run-through being the one moment on the album I struggle to sit through, due to how rough his voice sounds. The track is still enjoyable, overall, thanks to the excellent guitars and melodic keys, which have a very retro feel to them, and the melodic guitar solo in the second half is excellent, but it’s definitely one of the weaker tracks here, just because the chorus falls flat, and I think it may be an equal case of the vocal melody itself is poorly written, as well as the vocals not being up to par with the music.
Following that, we get another brief but very beautiful interlude, “Ascension”, which leads in nicely to the largely acoustic ballad “Innocence Lost”.The track starts softly and has some pretty solid vocals early on, but when it gets heavier in the second half, Rogue starts pushing his higher register a bit too far, and the results aren’t the greatest. It’s still a pretty nice track, though, with some beautiful melodies, and great lyrics. After two of the softest tracks on the album, we get “The Aftermath”, which is one of the heaviest. It’s actually a fairly complex track, as well, going through a lot of different moods and changes throughout, starting with some heavy riffs, before slowing down for a fairly melodic opening verse, and it has a lot of atmospheric sections throughout, while also being quite heavy and technical, with more absolutely killer guitar work, especially during the extended instrumental section in the middle, where Kirby gets to fully showcase his glorious skills, including some awesome keyboards towards the end. It’s an excellent track, overall, and the vocals are quite solid throughout.
Moving to the end of the album, the final interlude is “Closer to Heaven”, another nice acoustic track, with some pretty good vocals, and it’s a nice, emotional lead into the 13-minute closing epic “The End of Time”. As expected, this track has a bit of everything, going through a few different movements, though to sum it up: It starts soft, with some nice acoustic guitars and keyboards, and a pretty decent vocal performance, before going all out with some aggressive riffs and powerful vocals around 5 minutes in, and then the middle section is an epic extended instrumental section, with tons of awesome guitar work and keys, and then ending is again soft, but with more beautiful instrumental work. The first four minutes or so are probably the weak point, though they’re still quite good, but once Rogue is allowed to sing with more aggression, the track picks up big time, and then obviously that instrumental section in the middle is some of the absolute best musicianship I’ve heard on a prog album this year, even close to the levels of Dream Theater. Overall, it’s an amazing track and is easily my favorite on the album, making it the perfect way to close things out.
Downfall is an interesting release, in that parts of the album show a confident, extremely talented band that clearly has the instrumental talents and songwriting to challenge the best prog bands in the world, but it also has some points where it comes up just a bit short, largely due to some weak vocal melodies and an inconsistent vocalist. However, the good far outweighs the bad, with the instrumental work being truly outstanding, and most songs are highly enjoyable, with the closing 13 minute epic, in particular, being amazing. Ark Ascent is a band I’ll be watching out for in the future, with hopes that they can improve their choruses and vocal melodies just a bit, so they can hopefully reach their full potential. Prog fans looking for very technical, at times heavy, at other times melodic and emotional, guitar work, are highly recommended to give this album a listen. Honestly, for people who either don’t pay much attention to the vocals, or enjoy Rogue Marechal’s performance much more than me, you can raise the score below by either 1 or 2 points, as musically, this album is a real treat, and Ark Ascent shows a ton of promise.
Written by: Travis Green
My Global Mind – Staff Writer
Travis Green is a Canadian based writer for My Global Mind, with a particular passion for power metal, as well as an interest metal in all its forms