Soen's 'Cognitive' development expands on 'Tellurian'

Complexity, melody not mutually exclusive for progressive-metal think tank
By Peter Lindblad

Soen is Martin Lopez, Kim Platbarzdis,
Stefan Stenberg, and Joel Ekelof
There's a domesticated rhinoceros sitting down to a meal of very small, naked human beings – possibly children – on the cover of Soen's sophomore album, Tellurian. Even for prog, that's some pretty bizarre artwork.

Designed by artist Jose Luis Galvan, the piece is striking and thought-provoking, and when asked how it tied into the lyrical themes of the new record, singer Joel Ekelof talked of a strong connection between them.

"We just thought his work and our work, as it sounds on Tellurian, fitted right away," said Ekelof, who released two albums with the band Willowtree before joining forces with former Amon Amarth and Opeth drummer Martin Lopez, bassist Steve Di Giorgio (Testament, Death, Sebastian Bach and Obituary) and guitarist Kim Platbarzdis in Soen in 2010.

As enigmatic as the album art is, Soen's byzantine brand of melodic progressive-metal – imagine if Tool were more song-oriented – is just as difficult to pigeonhole, and that's just how they want it. Poetic and dark, Tellurian is elaborate, multi-layered and full of exquisitely crafted detail, like the artwork of M.C. Escher, and in the same way Escher's work is delightfully strange, Soen, too, creates sprawling music that is both accessible and challenging.

Tellurian, a word meaning "of or inhabiting the earth," may seem a series of complex corridors leading to uncharted territory, but the melodic character of the music makes it approachable. And therein likes the genius of Soen. They make beautiful sounds, while still managing to be quirky and arty.

Recruiting people like Dave Bottrill (Smashing Pumpkins, King Crimson and Muse) to mix the record and Adam Ayan – both of them Grammy winners – to master it only speaks to Soen's passion for musical quality control, as Platbarzdis produced Tellurian.

Di Giorgio having been replaced on bass by Stefan Stenberg, Soen appears to be solidifying its lineup and growing more confident in its abilities, as Tellurian is one of the more interesting releases of 2014. Ekelof and Lopez recently talked about Tellurian and the band's inner workings in this interview.

What's the significance of the album title Tellurian? Do you see the music as having a very earthy quality?
Joel Ekelof: Not necessarily earthy, but sometimes we could take a step back and reflect on the implications of our actions. Whether we do it to ourselves, people around us or our environment.

These tracks sound so intricate. Is that important to the band, to make something complex and yet record an album that flows and is accessible? And is that especially true of this album, as opposed to Cognitive?
JE: The complex parts of the album never come from a decision that we should do a complex part. But the small change in a part that makes it complex might give it a tension that resolves in a release when a more straightforward part follows. In the same way that dissonant chords make you hold your breath until [their] released. Still, this is not a "theory" that we follow, rather a pattern that can be read out of the result.

Talk about the concept for the video for "Tabula Rosa" and how it relates to the lyrics of the song. Why did it make sense to release that as the first single?
JE: It was very hard for us to choose one favorite of the album, so we decided to let people around us have a say. The concept of the video is addressing the fact that people feel they cannot affect their lives.
Martin Lopez: The fact that we're not in charge of our own future, and that humanity and solidarity are very rare these days. That's the key concept of the video, to somehow show the anger towards injustice that the majority of us share.

How has the songwriting and recording process evolved for the band from Cognitive to Tellurian? Did the process remain the same for both?
JE: Both are the same. But for this album we had more time to work on the music. We spent a lot of time going through details, something we didn't do with Cognitive.
ML: We also gained some experience while recording Cognitive and that helped us save time and avoid error while recording Tellurian.

How is it different from other bands you've been in? What do you enjoy most about this experience, as opposed to your experiences in other groups?
ML: There isn't any pressure from the outside, and there isn't any economical expectations behind Soen. We do the music that we love without any outside factors affecting our mindset and all our decisions are made based on how they'll affect us as a band and as individuals, and that can be hard when you're part of a band that has a greater following and that many people economically depend on. Also, we maintain a very relaxed and positive relationship within the band and that makes everything a lot smoother.

Were there things you tried on this album that you didn't on Cognitive?
ML: Not really. The main difference is that we eliminated every part we considered filler and put a lot of effort on being more direct and "close" to the listener.
JE: Basically, we have refined the sound from Cognitive.

Soen - Tellurian 2014
The album art is amazing. Tell me about the artist and what your reaction was when you first saw this work? In what ways did it relate to themes you explored on this record?
JE: Jose Luis Galvan designed it. He's an amazing Mexican artist.

The band's musicianship is something that really stands out with Soen, and yet, there is a real emphasis on song and melody. Have there been times in the studio where you had to rein yourselves in because you thought you were going overboard showing off your chops at the expense of the song?
JE: No, we always try to look at the song as a whole. Sure, we've cut away a few complicated parts that didn't make it to the album when we wrote the songs, but it was never an issue about it was too ... complicated, "show offy," hard to play. The only interesting parameter is if it has a purpose in the song.
ML: Our music is about balance. Song comes first, musicianship second, but both are every important and need to illuminate each other.

"Kuraman" is probably my favorite track on Tellurian. Talk about how that song was conceived. It reminds me of System of a Down a little, with really heavy, complex parts and big melodic choruses and that violent drumming in the middle.
ML: I pretty much wrote the whole song as a bass line, and we added vocals at a very early stage so we had quite a good song before even adding guitars and drums. So it was all about choosing wisely while adding drums and guitars so that the vocals and bass would still carry the song.

I wanted to get your thoughts on some other tracks on Tellurian, starting with "Koniskas."
ML: "Koniskas" started as a ballad and while going through it with Joel, we noticed that we should make it heavier, add drums and distortion but still try to keep the warmth of the song.

"The Other Fall" has some really interesting rhythms, as do a lot of the tracks on the record. How did that song come together, especially with regard to the drums?
ML: Drums came first, then bass and then we noticed we could build a song around that theme, so we picked up the guitar and keyboard and wrote some harmonies as a platform for Joel to sing on. We wanted the song to be really heavy and proggy in a violent way.

What do you feel is the heaviest song on the album? I might argue that it's "Pluton."
ML: The heaviest emotionally, at least for me, is "The Words" and the heaviest musically may be "Pluton" or "The Other's Fall."

There are a lot of passages to wander through as a listener on this album. It's almost like a series of tunnels or a maze. Do you think of albums in that sense?
JE: Not in general. Most albums give some kind of abstract feeling. I guess this kind of music consisting of many different parts that take many turns have a tendency to give more of a maze-like feeling, rather than an open landscape with rainbows ...
ML: I'm glad you feel this way because we wanted the album to have some kind of adventurous aura over it.

What would be the greatest compliment you could ever get regarding this record?
ML: Don't really need compliments ... just coming to a show and sharing a moment with the band is more than enough.

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