As I walk over to my board that says ‘Times I’ve Written About Avandra,’ erase that four, and put a five, I find myself with a lot of questions. Maybe it’s the band’s often philosophic theming or introspective tone of progressive metal they’re so good at. It just kind of happens when you’re faced with questions of eternity and existence, or larger-than-life events like our totally not crippling and well-managed viral pandemic.
The Puerto Rican quartet return with a new album called Skylighting, surprisingly soon after their last one, to confront not only our increasingly unbelievable world, but also my albums of the year list. It’s something I’ve looked forward to for a while, and now that it’s here, I see that not only have they kept the radiance they captured on Descender, but brought it to new heights I couldn’t see coming.
Seriously, with stories of gods and lyrics of mental clarity and an almost spiritual peace, I didn’t think there was much higher to go in terms of topical focus for Avandra, but I seemed to have neglected one teeny, tiny thing: our future. With everything literally or metaphorically on fire as it is, it’s been very hard to look at the future with anything short of alarm or severe doubt, especially as we sit on the precipice of a generation-defining election and voting day (it will have passed by the time this is published – future me, I hope things are marginally better over there). While Avandra don’t shower you in positivity nor ignore some of our greatest challenges to befall our impressively self-destructive race, they do offer an interesting and calming perspective to bask in, and it feels so refreshing, healing even.
I saw them get compared to Cynic a lot when they were coming up with their last album. It’s an apt comparison, sure, and one that likely had to do with me falling for them as hard as I did, but where Cynic would take turns into the abstract and experimental, or venture more abruptly into full-bore metal, Avandra is more upfront and clear with their approach. If you listen to the songs “Eternal Return” or “ProcGen”, you get exquisite progressive livery with less showy setpieces, and more heart and care.
All over the album, accomplished composer and keyboardist Vikram Shankar lends his lush and elegant touch to already ethereal music as a special guest. While I can’t tell if he contributes only in part or in whole, it’s clear by some inclusions, the likes of which haven’t been part of Avandra‘s repertoire before, where he has trod. The most standout of which is on “Afferent Realms”, a piece with some neat, magical synth flourishes and a shiny instrumental break near the end that leads into what I believe is the first time the band has utilized some harsh vocals. More on that later.
Starting with the somber and ironically grounded “Celestial Wreaths” – which I talked about when we had the pleasure of premiering the lyric video – and ending with a spoken word instrumental outro in “New Origins”, I detect a loose theme of rebirth. “Celestial Wreaths” seems to take stock of where we’re at as a people, flanked by death that could have been avoided were it not for extreme mishandling of efforts on behalf of our governments and leaders, or the myriad other ways we choose to kill ourselves slowly in order to live on in the increasingly clenching fist of capitalism that only makes the rich richer, and sees a cry for help. Throughout Skylighting, it’s like watching a crisis call in action, working to reset the planet before it’s too late, at the hands of someone far more powerful and benevolent than any of us earthbound creatures.
I can’t even feign to claim I’ve understood even most of the lyrics on Skylighting, but there’s something to be said of the musical storytelling and expressive instrumentation that doesn’t wallow in the despair we’re faced with, but confronts it head-on with an opposing force of some sort. Somewhere around or within “Life is Not a Circle, But a Sphere”, this kicks in. The title itself is telling of life’s many paths, not bound to one flat and linear plane, but rather a near-infinite, multi-dimensional spectrum through which movement in any direction is possible, even backward perhaps.
“ProcGen”, a common shortening of ‘procedural generation‘, is a term you find in computer with AI or even video games, and refers to the creation of data or assets by algorithm in a random manner, though from a predetermined set or pool of objects with rules and expectation of some sort. In the story, at least the one in my head, I see a new world being formed procedurally. Each pensive guitar strum is a valley of fauna sprouting up from the ground in a manner not unlike our scarred earth. Drums beat the jutting, pointed peaks and slopes of mountainous regions, and shimmering synths fill the lowest levels of this surrogate planet with crystalline sea water. The vocals, ever smooth and wind-like, propel the air about to facilitate weather patterns with the help of a reinvigorated sun; a symbol of a new, brighter future.
A veritable orchestra brings another world to life, and it’s during “Afferent Realms” that things get the most interesting. The twilight of the album rests in this penultimate song which is rife with more quickened and keenly displayed performances, especially by the guitar. It’s as if the track bottles up excess entropy to place in the core of this new earth – perhaps that’s where the primal, curdling bellows at the end signify; the outcry of a natural force that shall bind the planet by laws beyond what man can do. “New Origins” is a rapturous transference of life from our doomed world to this new one, built on a promise that more would be done to care for it and each other – a promise written in light on the sky.
My interpretation of Skylighting likely says much more about me than the music itself, but I do want to make one thing clear: what Avandra have done here borders on unexplainable phenomenon. It was something for Descender to bring us closer to things we have no way yet of understanding, but it’s another entirely to seemingly enact them upon us by way of a progressive masterpiece that is leaps and bounds greater than before – somehow. Music hardly ever wields a tone so tranquil and exacting while also maintaining its monolithic scale. It’s the least condescending manner by which something grand and exalted can come down to your level, to meet you eye to eye in a bid to foster understanding and bring about an inner peace that just isn’t possible in any tangible manner. It shows a life to be lived if we unbind from perceived limitations and walk along the sphere of life.
With one more album to their name, Avandra have parted an ocean of peers to clear a path to sonic dominance, one likely humbly taken. Skylighting is imaginative and harmonious, not just in how it approaches the craft of music, but in how it builds upon the loose thematic universe of progression and existence with its melodic stories. I couldn’t even predict the arrival of this album, and so I stand no chance of reaching further out. All I know is it will be exceptional, worthy of great conversation, and another proud tally on my wall. Your move, Avandra.