Spheric Universe Experience are back after a 10-year hiatus with a spellbinding, distinctive and well-honed smorgasbord of Progressive Metal delights that blasts you across the galaxy in a firmly enjoyable story of a futuristic humanity fighting for survival against an existential threat that looms amongst the stars. Around since 1999, Spheric Universe Experience are a band with plenty of expertise in creating rich soundscapes dripping with intricacy and laced with flourishes of genuine harshness and abrasive riffage and this particular release is no exception. With gloriously bright synths and crunchy guitars contributing to an interesting Jekyll and Hide dynamic that shines bright in the earlier parts of the album even if an over-reliance upon it becomes apparent in that later half and renders the lasting impression of the album to be somewhat formulaic and too content to stick within its admittedly very well constructed sonic core.
The first song, “On Board SUE5-2469” opens up with these glittering, finely balanced synths twinkling away as if the stars themselves were inviting us up into the cold void of space. Soon these shimmering synths are joined by a rough and somewhat chuggy guitar that crushes its way into a brief and intricate solo conveying a real a sense of excitement whilst also perhaps indicating that the SUE5-2469 is taking off or undocking from somewhere, and it’s ready to begin its mission. It’s a wonderful way to open an album such as this and it perfectly sets the mood for the grand narrative that lays ahead in the rest of the album. Also worth of note is how well it blends into the second track, “Final Fate.”
It’s not always easy to follow up an intro track that is already so beautifully poised, but the racing guitar and viciously syncopated drums of “Final Fate’s” first minute really grab your attention and provide a wonderful cacophony of noise that has you tapping your foot and banging your head, raising your excitement levels through the roof. The song calms somewhat as Franck Garcia’s high up vocals cut in, with rich tones and a great display of range and control. His voice is easily one of the greatest parts of the album, and here it shines very brightly. Later in the song we have some fantastic keyboard parts as the guitar takes a back seat, they really sell the futuristic and cosmic nature of the album. Around the 4 minute mark of the song, we’re introduced to some of the softer melodic and almost ambient elements of Spheric Universe Experience’s sound, I’d be lying if I said I was a fan of this particular segment, it’s too go nowhere, and I feel it came out of a want to change the pace of the music to provide some contrast, yet I think the contrast is too stark and non-descript, an issue that does sadly repeat itself further in the album on multiple occasions. Still, the segment is brief, and gives way to another more welcome segment of intensity before fading out into a very peaceful and quite endearing piano segment.
“Back Home” is clearly not content to just to slowly lull you into its sound, it’s an all-out assault right from the very start, with an unexpectedly chaotic sound subverting any expectations you had that this album may well be on the softer side of prog metal. Sure, there are no harsh vocals here, but that’s not the only way to be heavy.
“Where We Belong” leaps into life with a magnificent riff accentuated by a stunning piano glissando that matched by a backing guitar that wouldn’t sound out of place in the cheesiest traditional metal song. It sounds fantastic and I defy anyone hearing it not to crack a little smile on their face upon hearing it, it’s addictive, I could loop those first few seconds for an hour on end and not be sick of it. The song progresses into its first chorus which is characteristically melodic and is mixed in such a way that the vocals really pop out, allowing the lyrics to be easily decipherable. There’s a sense of occasion in this song that fits really nicely into the vibe set by the two songs previous. The vocals here again are faultless and delivered with real passion, I can’t get enough of the soaring highs that Franck hits without even the slightest sign of strain. A lot of exposition and narrative is deployed in the songs just under 6-minute runtime, and it’s a testament to the song writing ability on display that it is deployed in a succinct, enjoyable and natural feeling way.
One has to wonder at this point in the album if the band spent the last 10 years planning this album out? It feels like a magnum opus, like an unimaginable amount of time and effort went into perfecting every composition and aligning it with a detailed vision shared by Franck, Vince, John, Fred and Romain. Lots of music sounds good, lots of music is interesting and lots of music has a clear vision, but to have something that sounds good, is interesting and is crafted in the image of a definitive vision is rare and is one of the most commendable parts of this album.
“Transcending Real Life” has a very proggy opening 4 bars before reconnecting with the harshly energetic and trad-metal inspired riffs that I’ve come to expect by this point. The chorus of this particular track is disgustingly catchy and inspiring, with a real determination to it both vocally and lyrically. It’s complimented by a brief bass solo that wouldn’t sound out of place in a 70’s funk track and it’s a bit of fun and an appreciated bit of sonic variety. I don’t often like to compare bands to other bands too much, but I think it has to be said that vocally and in terms of the general sound, the album sounds a lot like something a future obsessed “Rush” would put out. High praise for a prog band I would say! This song in particular smacks of Rush vibes and is all the better for it! If I did have to pick a hole in the song at this point, I’m not entirely sure a song about transcending real life in an album about an existential threat is entirely coherent; the album is all about fighting the threat, if you can just disappear then it’s not really a threat. An odd criticism, but it just stands out to me as a rare example of the album contradicting its concept. It doesn’t really happen elsewhere to my knowledge, so it doesn’t majorly impact the enjoyability of the album, but if you’re going to make a concept album you’ve got to be ever so careful to always stick within that concept.
So often throughout this album there’s a twinge of Power Metal and there’s simply not a better influence out there to bolt onto a Prog Metal album about an existential threat in space. The album up to this point is filled to the brim with this awesome, heroic atmosphere that really helps provide an emotional subtext to the music. Sometimes, prog can be guilty of focusing on technicality too much and leaving the emotional side of music a little unincorporated, but it couldn’t be further from the truth here. You actually care about the story; you get enveloped by the overarching plot and it just makes the album so much more enjoyable than some others in the field.
Heading into the second half of the album, we’re treated to a nice little acoustic melody accompanied by synth strings in “Legacy.” What’s nice here is that the song here actually starts somewhat differently to the five songs previous, with the melodic nature of the intro carrying through to the chorus. It’s a good change of pace and helps break some of the staleness that has arisen in the album by this point. The funky bass guitar is back again briefly too which is a pleasant surprise. It’s not the best song on the album, but it feels well placed and adds a touch of variety to the proceedings.
Spheric Universe Experience were never going to stay that mellow for long though, and Defenders of Light is perhaps the heaviest song on the album. It’s high tempo, hectic guitars and slightly harsher vocal approach lend the song a nice edge that ensures that if “Legacy” was too passive for you, you won’t be ruing it for long. There are some genuinely intense passages here that border on displaying extreme metal sensibilities, it’s an awesome track and shows Spheric Universe Experience at their best – when they’re rocking along a breakneck pace.
It’s at this point though where a change of pace comes in, “Synchronicity” is clearly in the album to lead into the “Absolution” section of the album and is a peaceful work of ambient, with some delightfully incorporated synth sounds and even an organ! It’s one of the better melodic passages on the album for sure and there can be no complaints about the wonderful production on display here, yielding some beautiful sounds ranging from the enchanting to the ethereal.
Interestingly, the melodic passages seem to be rather inconsistent, often times they feel very anti-climactic and lacking in direction, it’s probably the greatest flaw of the album and is present frequently enough to cause a drop in enjoyment. It’s easy to see what they were going for, but the way they’re composed and implemented is formulaic in the sense that it just creates songs that are not particularly distinctive from one another on the album.
Despite this, when I saw “The Absolution Pt.1” and “The Absolution Pt.2” coming up I was initially excited. Who doesn’t love it when prog bands create little symphonies within their albums, they’re often the greatest parts of an album so imagine my disappointment when the only difference between the two songs included in “The Absolution” phase of the album from the rest of the album was the brief addition of a choir. I was really hoping for something perhaps more orchestral or that had some kind of a twist on their songwriting approach but none was to be found here. It feels like a massive missed opportunity to catapult this album into the highest echelons of albums released this year. What’s even more egregious is that “The Absolution Pt.2” isn’t even particularly great, meandering about and feeling a bit lost and without direction at points. A small saving grace for the song though is that the bass enjoys some extra prominence at points in the track and frankly sounds excellent.
With only three songs left in the album 50 minutes have passed and the hour mark is quickly approaching. The album does feel quite long, and it’s probably not suited to those who needs an awful lot of sonic diversity to keep their attention as this far into the album, despite some minor variation in strong structures, the album is the same as it has been all the way through. It is always commendable when a band is uncompromising in its diligence and its will to tell a story but if you’re going to ask an hour and nine minutes of listeners then you’ve got to change things up a bit more than this album has. It would be inaccurate to say the album is dragging by this point, but the interest levels are certainly declining and are in danger of descending into the oh-so-grey realms of boredom
The final stint of the album is introduced to us with some spoken word in “Rebirth” The speaker doesn’t have a particularly engaging voice, but to the credit of the idea, it does a great job of explaining to us where the story is at, we have a sole surviving member of the SUE5-2469’s crew who is explaining that they had to fight the same aliens that had attacked them previous. A new paradigm begins, and it’s an interesting twist to have the humans lose for once, especially with the heroic nature of the music and the grit and determination displayed by our protagonists. The song itself is your standard fare, some intense parts, some melodic, all in the same vein as the songs that came before it with the odd synth choir hit that is deployed with relative aplomb. It’s a solid song and it does what it needs to do at this point in an album, and blends superbly into “Of The Last Plague”
Towards the end of the album, things are much of the same, with not an awful lot of note barring the enjoyable vocal melody in the chorus of “Of The Last Plague” there’s nothing wrong with these songs in and of themselves but by this point in the album they’re a passive listen, especially the nine minute epic “Dreams Will Survive” which goes on far too long for its own good. It could easily be half the length it is and still feel conclusive, but it carries on and on and on until finally culminating in an ending that actually doesn’t feel conclusive at all.
“Back Home” has a very distinctive sound, some fantastic instrumental talent on display and a concept that is a welcome breath of fresh air. Spheric Universe Experience are clearly a band that have a good eye for detail and possess immense compositional potential, yet after 23 years as a band this album remains only good and not great. The album is front loaded, with many of its most memorable (and by god believe me they are memorable) coming within the first four songs and it feels like the other songs have to ride on the backs of those to provide much interest. It’s a shame really as an album with a screwed-on vision such as this really ought to score much higher than it actually does but in the end, this great foundations of this project aren’t enough to save it from becoming a little stale and ultimately a little less than the sum of its own parts.
Released By: Uprising! Records
Release Date: May 20th, 2022
Genre: Progressive Metal
- Franck Garcia / Vocals
- Vince Benaim / Guitar
- John Drai / Bass
- Fred Colombo / Keyboards
- Romain Goulon / Drums
“Back Home” track-listing
- On Board SUE5-2469
- Final Fate
- Where We Belong
- Transcending Real Life
- Senses Restored
- Defenders of Light
- The Absolution Pt.1
- The Absolution Pt.2
- Of the Last Plague
- Dreams Will Survive
“Back Home” is well worth a listen for those who like the cheesier side of prog or enjoy Sci-Fi themes in the media that they consume, even if it doesn’t have much differentiation in its sound or approach throughout