Controversy is something I routinely try to avoid. I despise the idea of making enemies, and causing conflict with my own opinions. As a result, I tend to keep my mouth firmly shut on big and unpleasant issues like inequality, abortion and religious conflicts. But sometimes my fairly reserved attitude towards them just has to take a sharp and sudden turn.
When I saw on Dream Theater’s website that keyboardist Jordan Rudess was involved in a collaboration with Michael LePond, the bassist from Symphony X, I fanboyed momentarily (I’m not entirely sure what that action entails). This was basically my two all-time favorite bands coming together in an all-new project which I had spectacularly managed to miss since its formation in 2011. The band in question is Affector, and after a small amount of investigation I found that they had put the thirteen-minute-long title track of their debut album Harmagedon on SoundCloud to listen to absolutely free of charge.
I listened, then thirteen minutes later my music collection was one album greater.
I excitedly hit play and started to document my thoughts as the ensuing notes swarmed my skull. What I ended up with was an opinion I found myself reluctant to share, on the grounds that doing so would probably… well, spark some controversy, which, as already stated, I am terribly averse to doing. But I have attempted to be as objective as possible in my overview of this album, and tried not to let my own beliefs (or my lack thereof, if you like) interfere with my approach to reviewing a piece of musical work by a group of musicians whose skill in the art far exceeds my own. Far be it from me to act superior to them.
As I did with my Adrenaline Mob review, I’ll first take a look at the album’s cover art. Seems only fair, that way.
Ooh, gritty. A ruined city, viewed from the perspective of who is presumably the sole survivor, crawling up the side of the enormous burning crater where his home once stood. The fact that we don’t see who this person is – only his frail, bloodstained hands – adds a nice little extra to the disastrous, post-apocalypic air that’s evoked, as well as the ominous clouds of smoke covering the top half, and half the bottom half, of the image.
I like what’s going on with the logo and font, as well – it’s adorned with some very nice smearing, almost like it’s caked in blood or something.
Now, onto the tracks themselves. Some of them are pretty massive, so brace yourselves for a wall of text reflective of their massiveness.
- Overture Pt. 1: Prologue
Well, I’m really liking the sound of this so far. From the opening chord, to the marching middle melody, to the foreboding flute finale, this is a massive (but short), orchestral introduction which evokes a real sense of dramatic tension purely through the instrumentation. Suitable for the “end of the world” concept that this album focuses on, really – a sense of loss and desolation, with the occasional faint shimmer of hope for its survivors. Seems odd calling it a prologue when there doesn’t seem to be any kind of narrative whatsoever – only music. No personal qualms with that, though. Let’s move on.
- Overture Pt. 2: Introduction
Oh, so, this is the introduction? Okay. Another instrumental track but this one is nearly six minutes and features all three of the band’s instrumentalists (Daniel Fries on guitar, Michael LePond on bass, and Collin Leijenaar on drums) performing what seems to be the actual album overture, judging by the numerous jumps to different motifs that we will no doubt hear later. There’s several very clever riffs and gripping melodies, replete with odd time signatures and very clever layered sections. Towards the end there’s a really cool dominant Phrygian section accompanied by a manic keyboard solo courtesy of Dream Theater keyboard god Jordan Rudess. A very good and very well-composed opener – this really sets me in the mood for some serious progressive rock/metal!
Opens with an exceedingly cool mellow acoustic guitar line (which also closes the track very nicely). Here we witness Ted Leonard’s vocal skill for the first time on the album. Throughout the whole album he remains fairly consistent in his delivery. His harmonies are super-smooth and his phrasing is often clean and clear. As soon as this section is over, suddenly Collin starts hammering the drums and Daniel brings in a killer guitar melody offset by some odd drum rhythms from Collin, which was heard extensively in the overture (it’s in 4/4 but its rhythm syncopation makes it hard to follow). The chords that follow this are rather excellent, with Ted’s harmonizing staying strong over the insanity that Daniel’s laying out. He seems to be singing about something fairly fantastical, but right now I’m taking a power shower in the veritable barrage of notes flying my way from Fries and LePond. Who actually cares about the lyrics, anyway?!
- The Rapture
This track opens with a catchy guitar riff overlaid with a really cool organ courtesy of Alex Argento, who seems to be the band’s “unofficial” keyboardist for this album. The song screams progressiveness right from the outset, with the opening verse changing time signature and even tempo quite erratically. The chorus jumps in soon after that with a really nice dominant Phrygian guitar riff accompanied by some orchestral strings, prefaced by some lovely licks from Daniel Fries. Possibly one the album’s many musical highlights. After a short interlude during which Collin takes a quick break and allows Argento and Fries to have a subdued battle against one another, the song continues belting out the notes. However a lot of it sort of washes right over you instead of blowing you to bits like the first three tracks did.
Jordan friggin’ Rudess features as a guest musician on this track as well, and lays down some wicked keyboard solos over the top of all this musical madness.
Wowzers, this song is long. At 14 minutes 5 seconds, it’s longer than the title track. What’s Ted even going on about? *flicks open the album leaflet* Hang on, these can’t be the lyrics, these are just…
Now, obviously Affector are a Christian progressive metal band, and the idea surrounding the album is clearly a religious one, what with armageddon being one itself. But what Affector have decided to do, to that end, is forego traditional lyric writing processes and instead make everything that Ted Leonard sings a direct quote from the Holy Book. That’s right; virtually everything on this album is Bible verses.
There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose. I won’t judge these guys on their religious practices. I will judge them on their ability to take this slightly unorthodox approach to songwriting and turn it into something impressive. So far they seem to have done a good job, although I haven’t been paying much attention to the lyrics so far – I will be keeping a watchful eye on them from here onward.
- Cry Song
Hmm. I think by this point, Ted Leonard – and maybe the rest of the band – are actually getting a bit bored. That title is about the most unoriginal thing you could possibly call a song. It’s on par with “This is the Sad Bit”.
Talking of originality, it seems this is the only song on the album to have unique lyrics. But there’s not a lot of variation in the words, and over the period of the five-and-a-half minutes this song goes on for, every word gets repeated. I mean every word. The chorus is the same thing repeated twice – and each time it’s repeated (three times over the course of the song), only the last line changes. It’s a bit tiring – you just want the band to get to the next section and past all this repetition.
This song is relatively short (compared to the other tracks on the album), but actually quite nice. The chords are very pleasing to the ear, and the three separate time signatures (5/8, 6/8, 7/8) help to keep the musical variation at an interesting level. It’s just ruined by Ted’s needlessly repetitive vocals. Without them, this song would totally be no worse off. It seems to serve as a light interlude for the middle of the album, anyway – and Daniel Fries even dedicates it to his late father. It’s a very beautiful song in its own right. If not for the awful lyrics, this’d be my favorite on the album.
- Falling Away & Rise of the Beast
Here we have a slightly longer track (just over eight minutes in length), but there’s really not a whole lot to say about it. It follows exactly the same formula as Salvation and Rapture – Ted wails about the goodness of the Lord while Daniel, Mike, and Collin all thrash their respective instruments impressively.
About a minute in, the song seems to continue the ending chords from “Cry Song”, which I have no objection to, but still Ted sings over them, at one point proclaiming how “there will be famines, plagues and earthquakes in various places”. A lot of the Bible verses used throughout this album obviously weren’t afraid to be vague, and as they are, really weaken parts of the songs.
That said, there are some really cool ideas going on in this track thanks to Daniel. One of the better tracks – definitely on par with Rapture in terms of coolness.
We have another monster of a track here, clocking in at precisely 13:00. Once again, the musical capability of the band members is undeniable – we get some nice little neoclassical flourishes, some heavy Metallica-esque thrash riffs, and some cool acoustic sections. For that we have to commend Daniel Fries, Mike LePond and Collin Leijenaar for their combined musicianship.
But dear me, is Ted still yammering on about the Lord Almighty? Admittedly, he does try to conjure up some doomsday-like imagery (mouth of the beast, white horses, unclean spirits, lakes of fire), but like many of the other songs on this album, Ted’s performance relies overly on breaking the song’s flow/structure in order to fit the entirety of the Bible verses into one section. The verses are comprised of 18 bars instead of 16. On top of that, he’s definitely struggling with his phrasing by this point. In places, even the melody gets the better of him – and if any of the previous tracks are an indication, he has an arguably rock-solid voice. Right from the start of the song, he sings in time with the fast guitar riff coming from Daniel Fries, but he virtually spits the words out because they just don’t really go with the melody. I get the feeling that it’s not his fault, like the other band members kinda just shoved him into the recording booth and said “Here’s the bit from the Bible we want you to do. Sing it or the baby Jesus will cry”. It’s pretty clear that he had to improvise with the phrasing on some of those “lyrics”.
But going back to the music itself, this song seems to have two different refrains. One is considerably better than the other, but both are definitely repeated a few too many times as though to very deliberately pad the song out past the 10 minute mark. Oh, and we get that syncopated riff from Salvation once again. On the upside, this track features a few more mind-destroying keyboard solos from Jordan Rudess, who also does the outro of the song a fantastic justice with his Haken Continuum.
- New Jerusalem
Starts out nicely with another acoustic introduction, which quickly descends into a mad crescendo of heavy guitar riffs, and more Hammond organ madness from Alex Argento. The chorus sounds nice as well. A nice, power-ballady track which serves as a break from the musical insanity of the previous two tracks.
Hang on, why is this the album closer? It’s only six minutes long. The ending chord isn’t even a proper cadence! Oh, dear. Things really have gone downhill since the beginning. You set my expectations so high, Affector. You’re capable of so much more consistently quality work than this. All of you are incredible musicians but you really couldn’t deliver your absolute best under the restrictions you set yourselves.
…Jesus, is this chorus over yet? It seems to have repeated about four times now, and isn’t showing any signs of stopping. GOD, SHUT UP. Literally, God – I’m talking to you, you big beardy man in the sky. Shush. Stop making Ted shout your words over and over and over again.
After these, two more tracks follow: acoustic versions of “Harmagedon” and “New Jerusalem”. I won’t bother reviewing those because they’re cut-down versions of the last two songs and, while clearly excellent compositions, are simply boring to listen to by the end of the album.
So as you might’ve been able to gather, Affector’s Harmagedon is definitely a musical journey – after all, the whole album is just over an hour and a quarter in length. But if you were to expand on that journey metaphor, listening to the album would be akin to a 75-minute car drive through the middle of the desert with four evangelists sitting in the back, constantly playing the works of Bach on electric guitars. It’s tiresome, with a tendency to just drag on without bringing anything terribly new to the mixture.
Would it honestly have been that sacreligious to give your own spin on the Good Book’s words, Affector? You obviously only quoted passages that you’d specially selected yourselves – would it have been too much of a stretch to modify them at all, as per your personal standards?
Overall Rating: 3.0/5
Three stars for some absolutely exceptional music, but minus two for the needlessly imposed limitations placed on Ted Leonard. I’m pretty sure even he was sick of the sound of his own voice by the end of the recording sessions – his sole contribution to the album leaflet is:
Ted wants to thank:
My wife and kiddos for putting up with this near profitless pursuit, and God for not ditching me a long time ago.
Those are the words of a man who is clearly now completely jaded to the holy word of the Lord. And who can blame him? He’s had to yell them into a mic for weeks on end, take after take, harmony after harmony, and it shows in the music itself that he was thoroughly bored and drained by the end of it. Honestly, this whole album feels like a particularly loud and extended sermon, all due to its lack of lyrical originality.
For those of you seeking to write new material based on existing works, please take note: If you want something that befits the metal genre, then try something like The Divine Comedy, or a John Milton poem. And even in the case of literary works which are considerably darker in content than the Holy Book, definitely don’t quote directly from them. A little creativity tends to (and does) go a long way.