Nothing comes easy for the average Indian metal band. With new acts evolving practically every alternate day, the base of the heavy metal pyramid has never been this crowded. Rising to the next level is a constant struggle and most bands do not seem to get very far. Indeed, it really isnt just about hard work or luck. What is required is that special something, that extra ingredient, to take you to the pinnacle of success. Very few bands have this quality the majority of them burn out quickly despite their dedication and determination. All the Facebook likes in the world make no difference to these acts if they are destined to be ground to dust, then that is their final outcome.
Mumbais progressive sludge metal quartet Midhaven has not found the going easy in their short journey up the scenes ladder. While many people have praised the bands efforts on their debut EP Tales From The Tide, there have also been those who have been scathing in their criticism. With the house so divided in their opinion of the band, Midhaven required a herculean effort to shut their critics up and prove to their growing fan-base that they indeed had it in them to rise above the mass of mediocrity.
Spellbound is the product of their labor a concept album, a tale of power and vengeance that is heavily influenced by Hindu, Greek and Norse mythology, where Lord Shiva and the sun god Apollo are the main protagonists. Very few Indian bands have tried their hands at story-telling via the sounds and rhythms of heavy metal, so is this the X-factor that Midhaven hopes will bring them the success that they are looking for? Does a concept album really work for the masses?
A quick spin of their debut full-length effort may actually find you leaning more towards the ayes than the nays. Spellbound is indeed a compelling listen, and the music does hit you hard. The album consists of nine tracks, and this tale of bombastic godly power opens with the melodic post-rock influenced Lunar Blessing. A well composed track, but as an album opener it seems a tad clichéd. Nowadays many metal bands have adopted this trend of including similarly sweet, saccharine coated intros as their album openers and while this popular approach does not seem to dying out very soon, it would do a world of good for these bands to sit down and actually try and justify the inclusion of such tracks.
So to be fair, Lunar Blessing probably does add to the plot of Spellbound. Unfortunately how, is not very clear to the average Joe non-proghead listener. And this is a major drawback. Concept albums are tricky. You can either convince the listener to fall hook, line and sinker for your tale or you cant. You are expected to view the story through the eyes of the musician and allow him/her to transport you to their world, their storyville. Metal concept albums like Nightfall In Middle-Earth by Blind Guardian or Operation: Mindcrime by Queensryche are two gems which have stood the test of time, and the success of these albums owe a lot to the above fact that the respective bands were able to sell their stories to the listener in their entirety. Unfortunately, if your vision is myopic, then no amount of hand-holding is going to help you appreciate the bands efforts in story-telling. And then it all comes down to the music can the music and the originals, as individual components, stand out on their own and help to carry the album through?
Back to the album, things start to become a whole lot clearer musically from the second track Seeking The Divine. This song opens to a barrage of sound that include some crunching drums and scorching guitar tones that instantly set the albums mood. The growling and clean vocals are both impressive, and overall this is a track which clearly points to the musical direction that Midhaven is planning to go down.
The title track Spellbound is the third original on offer, and this too carries on in the same vein. This is a heavy track and the drumming is relentless. The incorporation of the sludgy riffs is absolutely delightful and so are the various changes in tempo. Spellbound also includes all three tracks from Midhavens debut EP Tales From The Tide, and its title track comes next. This newer rendition is, without a doubt, a more wholesome and heavier composition than its previous avatar. But more than the heaviness, it is the clarity of sound and the depth in the music which makes this song a far more superior version of its previous self and the band seems to have obviously learned and grown from their debut effort, which is heartening.
If all on Olympus deny me my vengeance, then all on Olympus will die this is how Ascension, the fifth track on the album unfolds. And the listener is suddenly jolted back into Midhavens world of gods and divine vengeance. The story continues to steadily unfold in the next track Fall Of Olympus a powerful track, probably the heaviest to be featured. The listener gets to hear a lot of styles in this one composition, including a bit of progressive death as well. The menacing growls add a lot of depth to this song, as do the steady drumming.
Tracks seven and eight are again reworked versions from the bands EP Tales From The Tide but the listener should have no complaints as these songs, The Third Eye and White Wash, have been highly polished and are as good as brand new. The guitar work on The Third Eye is beautiful and you cannot help but get lost in the details that this song seems to project into your mind. The tempo of the album has slowed down considerably by now, and this is reflected in White Wash. However, the mood of the album is retained, and the soothing guitar solo which brings White Wash to its conclusion is probably one of the highlights of the album.
The final composition of this nine-track album is Death Row. It is a good song, where the band brings back the heavy quotient into the album. However, it isnt the most powerful of compositions in the musical sense of the word.
Spellbound is no doubt an interesting listen. The production (under the watchful eyes of Reverrse Polarity member Jordan Veigas) is definitely above par. Even the album art work (courtesy Aakash Dwivedi) is impressive. Being one of the very few Indian bands to have bagged a contract with Universal Music India, Midhaven has probably not had to deal with the perennial nightmare that is distribution and promotion allowing them perhaps to concentrate on what they do best. Indeed, Midhaven has left no stone unturned in their battle to the top. But with so many positives in their favor, why was I left with the feeling that this talented band has failed to play their trump card?
It all boils down to the story: this is the crux of the matter as far as Spellbound is concerned. A tale of godly vengeance interspersed and influenced by elements of science-fiction and fantasy, and painted on a canvas of heavy metal would be the stuff of dreams for any prog/sc-fi fanatic, including yours truly. However, try as I might, it was not an easy task to really get into the story nor did I find it any easier trying to understand it from the bands perspective. So in a nutshell, as ambitious as their efforts might be, Spellbound as a concept album does not work too well. I must say however that mine is no generic view there are probably many listeners out there who are absolutely thrilled with the plot of Spellbound. And the band would be happy to have fans able to understand the message they are trying to convey.
The music though, is a different topic altogether for a young band like Midhaven, this debut album displays a sense of maturity and confidence that most bands fail to achieve. And this fact alone makes Midhaven stand out within the sea of metal mediocrity. Even if listeners arent necessarily spellbound by the concept, the nine featured tracks as individual elements are more than capable of allowing you to sink into the album and enjoy it.
Midhaven is definitely a band to watch out for in the future. They have a lot of things going for them, and that surely gives them an advantage above the rest of the pack. And having the patronage of a major record label is a huge blessing. But maybe, just maybe, they can try weaving tales that are far less confusing and easier to decipher. The reason why Spellbound works is more to do with their music than the story behind the music. So, for their next effort it is hoped that both of the above elements can be seamlessly woven together into a concept album that Midhaven would not only love to tell, but also one that the listener would love to hear.