AsZension is the brainchild of Canadian multi-instrumentalist Kevin Thiessen. The idea: to fuse metal with progressive rock aesthetics, bound together by a glue of ambient space music and exotic ethnic soundscapes.
Their latest album, Biosphere, opens with a track called Star Stream, beginning with the trippy twang of a sitar and some deep space drones. A female voice, wordless, singing in the distance enters the mix as the energy builds, till a stab of notes begin to ring in a circular pattern. Other instruments enter, taking the piece to the next level, as melodic keyboards weave mesmerizingly around metallic guitar riffing, creating a whirlwind, sonic spiral that launches the listener into AsZension’s vision of reality, or non-reality, as the case may be. Biosphere is AsZension’s second album, following their self-titled debut in 2012. Thiessen plays 7 and 8 string electric and acoustic guitars, synths and percussion, and he’s also joined on this album by Evan Arnott playing rhythm guitars, Gabriel Palatchi on keyboards, Etienne Girard on bass, Lee Campese on drums and Lana Benson on background vocals.
There definitely is some metal influence on the album, evidenced by the edgy, staccato guitar riffs, particularly in the second song Elliptical Orbit, but to my ears AsZension is more about complex rhythms and superb interplay between guitars (whether they be acoustic or electric), and the keyboards (piano, organ and synths). So, the progressive tendencies outweigh the metal tendencies for me, and that’s not even to mention the ambient passages and exotic instrumentation which add a very spacey and psychedelic vibe too. Electronic pulses propel the third song Alignment along, leading to a softer middle passage with flute like sounds and exotic cadences, conjuring up images of lush alien gardens under purple skies hung with three moons. Dark, acoustic textures dominate Eclipse until the piece breaks out into a dazzling and funky organ solo, before taking on a much brighter tone, as if the eclipse has passed at this point, and the sun comes shining through. The centrepiece of the album, the four part title track (clocking in at 14-minutes) from its opening of drifting winds, acoustic guitar and twirling synths to its mellow, sailing off into a sea of imaginings finale (complete with crashing waves), covers just about all of what AsZension is trying to do here, each part flowing naturally and organically into the next, from hard edged guitar rhythms, to sumptuous and dreamy soundscapes, it’s all here. It’s like Tangerine Dream meets Ozric Tentacles meets Rush. Rounding out the album is the metallic march of Spin Axis, the smooth glide and hallucinatory textures of Aural Illusions (which bely an underlying heaviness), and the final melodic waves of Hypnosis, that break spectacularly into a washing surf of heavy metal towards the end. On the final, bonus track, the band is joined by vocalist Geoff Ross on the sole song with words on the album. Here, AsZension let their love of Rush show through in a cover of Jacob’s Ladder (originally on Rush’s Permanent Waves album). The band does their own take of it though, with deeper electronic textures and soaring piano runs. It’s very cool!
If you like any of the bands I’ve mentioned (AsZension also cites influences as diverse as Camel, King Crimson, Dead Can Dance, Steve Morse, Porcupine Tree and film score music), you’ll find plenty to like on Biosphere. It’s certainly one of my favourite albums of the year so far.
Reviewed by Jeff Fitzgerald