On their fourth album, Sweden's Ritual expand on their multi-genre aesthetic of progressive rock, mixing elements of rock, folk, and world music, as well as a small dose of jazz which helps carry their songs to the verge of avant garde.
Primarily influenced by prog bands such as Gentle Giant, King Crimson, and Camel among others, The Hemulic Voluntary Band encompasses six amazing tunes, all of which are both strictly rooted in the 70's and open to outside influences. While the songs are structured in a traditional prog rock sense, the production and the exuberant instrumentation are very modern-sounding, especially on the title track, comprised of theatrical vocal styles, cool percussion, unusual synth tones, and a cool mini-jam.
Compared to vocalist and guitarist Patrik Lundstrom's other band Kaipa's most recent release Angling Feelings, this record is much more interesting stylistically and aesthetically. For starters, Lundstrom sounds much more emotive with his vocals, and his guitar work is simply stunning. On the bass-driven "In the Wild", for instance, the band combines a curious mix of genres, from vocal-centred melodies to solo piano passages to RIO-inspired guitar work. Lundstrom's playing evokes that of Fripp's on the more recent King Crimson albums (think The Power to Believe for instance), as he opts for the same scintillating guitar attacks which get more and more intense with each passing second.
The band's bassist and drummer, Fredrik Lindqvist and Johan Nordgren, have always brought in a great folk presence to Ritual's songs. The same tradition continues on this album: "Late in November" moves on an entirely folky landscape, driven by cool harmonica, flute sounds, acoustic guitars, and beautiful vocal harmonies (including some female chanting far back in the mix). Likewise, "The Groke" sees the band moving into more avant-garde territory, at one point evoking The Flower Kings' underrated work Adam & Eve due to the overall darkness of the theme and discreet folk elements.
The only track that resembles a pure 70's vintage prog is "Waiting by the Bridge", essentially developed within a poppy song structure bringing forth a thick bass groove. That said, one would have no problems whatsoever distinguishing a Ritual song from most other prog bands' current material. This is also where Ritual's strenght lies. Despite priding themselves on playing a form of 70's prog rock, their songwriting is a lot more courageous, informed by elaborate ideas and utilising modern production values.
The last song is the aptly titled "A Dangerous Journey". Clocking in at over twenty-six minutes, it is indeed a journey on which Ritual takes the listener, touching on various moods and sound motions. All the characteristics of their music apply here. It starts as a standard Scandinavian folk tune, based on largely acoustic instruments, including the bouzouki, keyed fiddle, and harmonium (a keyboard generating airy tones that wander across the piece). The song also has a cool recurring theme that gets more recognizable upon repeat listens; so you will discover a wealth of the melodies during the acoustic beginning and electric ending of the track. With hard-to-notice Middle Eastern scales applied to the guitar, the band also shows their approval of Gentle Giant's more classically driven songcraft before venturing into brisk instrumental pasages. From here on, they dabble with weird-toned synth lines, jazzy overtones, theatrical vocal parts, as well as folky melodies courtesy of drummer Jon Gamble's harmonica.
Towards the end, they increase the speed of the song, playing a harder-edged form of rock with aggressive vocal leaning before retreating to a calm mood with lots of harmonies and acoustic guitars. Though some may argue that the length of the song is more than most can handle, I feel the connections between the 'movements' of the song are very swift and almost seamless. In a way, this is like the last track on Frost's Milliontown album, which is also highly recommendable. In parallel, this disc also merges traditional ideas with updated production.
If you like the darker side of British prog, and would love to hear a Swedish band incorporating influences of Gentle Giant, early Jethro Tull, and Comus into their sound, you must check this album out. The reason why this album is such a success certainly stems from their Scandinavian background.
- The Hemulic Voluntary Band 4
- In the Wild
- Late in November
- The Groke
- Waiting by the Bridge
- A Dangerous Journey