It has been six years since Aghora released their eponymous debut. It seemed whenever Formless was about to come out, something else got in the band's way, and with numerous line-up changes, including the replacement of original singer Danishta Rivero with Diana Serra, the band have finally completed their sophomore album Formless, which, in many ways, matches (or even surpasses) the brilliance of their first effort.
It is true that original bassist Sean Malone of Cynic and Gordian Knot fame does not appear on this disc. Without doubt, Malone was the reason why so many fans, including myself, discovered Aghora, but worry not, new member Alan Goldstein has done a phenomenal job on this record. He plays both fretted and fretless bass, and is featured in some of the most key moments on the album. On "Atmas Heave", a piece filled with crushing riffage, there is a great slap bass section to complement the crunch of the double bass drumming. Santiago Dobles' guitar playing is insanely wicked, particularly his sweep picking and unusual chord progressions. Likewise, Goldstein totally shines on "Dual Alchemy", a song that allows him to lay down a killer fretless solo following a busy yet equally melodic guitar solo. Dina Serra's vocal melody is infectiously catchy whilst Sean Reinert recalls his days in Death with those incessant kick drums. I just love the vast, spacious Middle Eastern elements this track is decorated with.
Aghora's approach to the vocals have taken a completely new turn. The vocal tracking (done by none other than the great Neil Kernon) is simply awe-inspiring. Serra is a very young talent, and they've made great use of effects this time around, with cool layerings and dual harmonies happening in the background. She steals the show during the most unexpect moments, such as the slightly Tool-like "Open Close the Book", thanks to Sean Reinert's perfect sense of timing, where she inserts huge choruses into the otherwise complex number. Dobles experiments with a plethora of guitar sounds and concludes with yet another killer solo (that sweep picking at the end is gorgeous). However, Serra's finest moment on the album is the dazzling "Skinned", which also features some lyrics from the former vocalist. This is one of their most diverse cuts, as the band plows through a Latin-flavoured guitar theme to another superb bass lead and climaxes with more Tool-inspired riffery where Serra sounds like a female version of Maynard Keenan (which is a great thing), but that's where the similarities end, as Santiago Dobles feeds the song with innumerable threads of elements: his vibrato tone is terrific as is the curious ending of the song.
The drumming duties have been split between former drummer Sean Reinert and new member Giann Rubio whose relatively more aggressive style serves as a catalyst on the heavier (yes they even get heavier!) pieces. On "Dime", as the title suggests, dedicated to Dimebag Darrell of whom Santiago Dobles was a fan, Rubio proves integral, supporting Dobles' liquidy guitar work and jamming along with him. The style of Dimebag totally comes through in Dobles' solo after the clean ostinato melodies and it's truly moving. As a matter of fact, there are lots of subtle homage moments on this album, from John Maclaughlin on the opening track "Lotus" to others including Jason Becker, Nuno Bettencourt, Eddie Van Halen, and Allan Holdsworth among others. Some of these seem like note-for-note sections paying homage to his inspirations whilst some others are more indirect, but they add a lot to the sonic depth of the album.
Special mention goes to "1316", whose 13/16 time signature in the main riff is stunning. The band is tight as a machine here, much like Meshuggah or perhaps To-Mera (another great band with a female singer). This song is a study in the duality of society at large, and it also seems to have a political subject matter giving off an anti-Bush air. Sean Reinert's clever snare drums are enough to remind why I consider him an all-time favourite. Last but not least, I have to mention the title track, with its 12-plus-minute running time. This song consists of so many nuances, each equally rewarding on repeat listens, sweet percussion work (by Dobles himself), and an incredibly touching, goosebump-inducing lead solo - perhaps Santiago Dobles' finest in his career. It gives me shivers when I play this tune cause it's so easy to get into it. His majestic clean tone experimentations, unorthodox stop-start moments, and swift, unusually plaintive guitar expressions are simply in a league all their own. Yes this guy has his influences, but he sounds like none of them, and that's why he is going to be a much revered player in the future.
Aghora's debut easily stood the test of time garnering lots of repeat plays from their fans. Time will determine how Formless will do, but to me, it's not hard to foresee it will eventually top its predecessor and become all the more rewarding. By the way, the packaging of this disc is excellent. It's a nice digipack with a nice booklet in it. Please do not pirate self-released records. These artists deserve all the support they can get, which is the only way they can carry on putting out music. I got my CD directly from the band - you could do the same. They're all very down-to-earth and friendly guys to say the least.
- Atmas Heave
- Moksha (Liberation)
- Open Close the book
- Dual Alchemy