ÄNGLAGÅRD: VILJANS ÖGA (2012)
1) Ur Vilande; 2) Sorgmantel; 3) Snårdom; 4) Längtans Klocka.
«The Return of Änglagård» does not exactly bear the same stunning force as «The Return of The Beatles» (or «The Return of Jimi», for that matter), but for those in the know it will be a pleasant surprise nonetheless. Furthermore, there would be little sense for the original lineup to get together in order to try out something completely different — whatever little fan support this band had in the first place was all due to the «Änglagård brand», and now, eighteen years after their second and last studio LP, the retro-oriented Swedes come back together to prove to the fans that the brand is still in place.
If anything, Viljans Öga (Eye Of The Will) is not just mere proof that Mattias Olsson, Anna Holmgren, and the rest of them «have not lost it» — it is an almost mathematically accurate proof. Play this back-to-back with Epilog and there will not be a single seam: the album is a direct time machine back to 1994 (and, considering that the band's original albums were almost like a time machine back to 1973 or something, we are now battling chronospace with even more verve and efficacy than before). And, in a certain way, the very appearance of such an album in 2012 is even more of a «miracle» than it was back then. At least the early Nineties were sort of an age of musical turmoil, with both the mainstream and the underground currents at a crossroads — in that context, even the conservative / «unhip» retro-proggism of Änglagård somehow had its place. But in 2012, with most of the musical directions either stiff and rigid, or fragmented to minuscule bits, it must require even more bravery to put out this kind of record.
Four tracks, running from twelve to sixteen minutes each. No singing (for Änglagård, we already know that is a plus). No English titles (good reason to brush up on your Swedish). A symphonic structure, overall — the tracks definitely feel like four separate, but atmospherically unified movements of one hour-long whole. Medieval folk acoustic guitars, processed psychedelic electric guitars, faraway Mellotrons, and pastoral flutes as dominant forces. Tricky time signatures. Key and tempo changes every minute. Moody autumnal main themes. Yup, this is Änglagård all right. And they have not been influenced by Radiohead or The Flaming Lips or The Animal Collective in the meantime. In fact, it certainly looks like they haven't even heard of any of these guys. In fact, it looks as if they spent those eighteen years safely resting in their coffins. (Come to think of it, some of these parts could have made a great soundtrack to a movie on aging vampires and their existentialist problems).
Some of the reviews I have read (and there have been very few reviews, apart from prog-specific resources) were highly critical of it all — what is the very point of a «progressive» band with no «progress», they said? Naturally, they had a point, but, come to think of it, Änglagård were always a «regressive» band rather than a «progressive» one. They loved their King Crimson, their Yes, and their Genesis, and wanted to keep that old spirit alive in their own vessel. They offered no genuine «innovation» — they wrote their own melodies, but strictly according to the old recipes, and they never had any inclination to come up with something radically new. They did it rather well, too, and in these circumstances, there is something admirable about this iron-will obstinacy. Something three-hundred-Spartanic, if you know what I mean.
A different problem is whether Viljans Öga is altogether more «boring» or more «academically stiff» than its predecessors. The fact that all of its four parts are roughly the same length, roughly feature the same instrumentation (with minor variations, such as the presence of a guest cello on one or two tracks, etc.), and roughly follow similar symphonic patterns — alternating quiet and loud parts, climactic build-ups and fall-downs, etc. — might, indeed, suggest unnecessary rigidity. At least Epilog had those little interludes that varied the flow. On the other side, lack of self-discipline and the entire «break-all-the-rules» routine, which has been the norm for intellectually oriented pop music for so long, is so all-pervasive anyway that, from time to time, it is actually interesting to see musicians lock themselves into a pre-set ball-and-chain structural pattern, especially when nobody actually forces them to do it. (I would say that the only occasion here on which they break out of the formula is the «mad» coda to the album — where, once the main theme has been played out, some free-form noise is followed by an eerie circus music part. Open to creative interpretation for everyone!)
Hence, Viljans Öga is not so much the «Eye Of The Will» as it is the «Triumph Of The Will» — a severe, ultra-academic, disciplined, somber tour-de-force. But it is not entirely mechanistic or manneristic — Änglagård is a band born out of sincere love for certain forms of music, and their skill at creating musical landscapes of morose, melancholic autumnal beauty, alternating with «battlescapes» inspired by ʽLarks' Tongues In Aspicʼ or ʽThe Gates Of Deliriumʼ, is... well, I wouldn't dare to say «unmatched», not being all that familiar with the neo-prog scene of the last twenty years, but let's just say that, even without a serious effort, Viljans Öga can easily induce visions, and that is what separates «progressive» music that lives and functions from «progressive» music that, impressively constructed as it is, seems to lack the «power on» button.
None of which is to say that this is «great» music. The main themes are imbued with epic stateliness (ʽLängtans Klockaʼ), or repetitive melancholy (ʽSorgmantelʼ), or both (ʽUr Vilandeʼ), but the melodies are not sharp, shrill, or «deep» enough to arouse any emotions above «pleasant» — exactly the same way it has always been with Änglagård, so no big surprise here, either. But, on the other hand, this is where undefendable subjectivism comes in — so you might just want to skip this part where I award the album a «mild» thumbs up, approximately three-fourths respect and one-fourth heart's content, and just look it up for yourself, particularly if somber, stubborn, slightly somnambulous, but sympathetic Swedes soothe your senses and sweeten your spice.