Swedish progressive metal band Soen have been around since 2010. The group was founded by drummer Martin Lopez, formerly of Amon Amarth and Opeth, guitarist Joakim Platbardzis, and vocalist Joel Ekelöf. On their debut, 2012’s Cognitive, the band also included bassist Steve DiGiorgio. By 2014’s Tellurian, DiGiorgio was gone, replaced by Stefan Stenberg and Christian Andolf. On 2017’s Lykaia, Platbardzis and Andolf were gone, and keyboardist Lars Åhlund and guitarist Marcus Jidell were added. On their brand-new album, Lotus, Jidell is gone, replaced by Cody Ford.

On their first album, Soen sounded a lot like Tool. It wasn’t even arguable; the way Ekelöf crooned and howled over DiGiorgio and Lopez’s churning, thudding bass lines and busy drumming were almost in cover band territory. Even the song titles—”Delenda,” “Oscillation,” “Ideate,” “Slithering”—were Tool-esque.

By the time they made Tellurian, they’d gotten a lot of that stuff out of their system and were moving closer toward having their own style. There were elements of doom and blues, and some Moody Blues-ish balladry, and Tool was still lurking at the margins, but the biggest new element of their sound was latter-day Opeth—not their death metal material, but the weirder, proggier direction they began exploring with Heritage. The guitar riffs were often almost shockingly Mikael Åkerfeldt-ian, and Ekelöf’s vocals seemed to be aping the Opeth frontman’s unique style, too.

Lykaia was more Opeth than Tool, but also more arena-rock. The riffs were bigger and simpler, often almost headbang-worthy in a Tremonti/Alter Bridge kind of way. The year after its original release, they switched labels (from Spinefarm to Silver Lining Music) and reissued it as Lykaia Revisited, with two more studio tracks and three live tracks appended.

The band’s new album, Lotus, is their cleanest and slickest to date. They’re still camped out on the border of Opeth-land, but the songs bear passport stamps from the land of Dream Theater, too. They’re aiming for arena-sized singalong choruses, but Ekelöf doesn’t really have the pipes for that, so he stays in his comfort zone as the band revs up behind him. The first track, “Opponent,” allows the guitar to come chugging in from the edges of the sonic field, then vanish; meanwhile, the keyboards vacillate between spacy synth tones and vintage prog-rock organ. Lopez’s drumming is thunderous, and mixed loud. His toms sound like paint buckets, and his snare thwacks like someone hitting your front door with a sledgehammer, but the cymbals are kept sensibly quiet.

The album’s third track, “Martyrs,” is also its heaviest, faster and punchier than anything before or after it…to begin with, anyway. It has the same modern-classic feel as the work of Trivium, but a keyboard-and-vocal interlude at its exact midpoint, which builds back up very slowly as bass and drums return, beating out a tribal rhythm, takes it in a very interesting direction—and then it becomes positively anthemic in its final minute.

Putting “Penance” and “River” back to back in the album’s second half was a mistake; they’re both slow songs with too much space given to the synths, and they drag the energy level down substantially. “Rival,” the album’s penultimate track, is almost as heavy as “Martyrs,” with a pile-driver groove and a chainsaw riff, but it never raises its energy level beyond the middle of the band’s established range—it feels like they’re marking time. It’s the kind of song song a band plays an hour into an 80-minute set. But the eight-minute album closer, “Lunacy,” is a moody, multifaceted piece that’s not only a great way to end things but one of Lotus‘s best tracks, period.

Soen are an ambitious band, with seemingly contradictory goals. They want to be as exploratory as the bands they clearly worship (and, in Martin Lopez‘s case, used to play for—there may be an element of regret-for-what-might-have-been there), but they also want to appeal to modern rock listeners, who just want a chugging riff and a chorus they can sing along to. Soen and a few other bands walk a narrow path between the brain-twisting realm of Tool, Dream Theater and Opeth, and the more structured world of Alter Bridge, Tremonti and Disturbed. They may not always succeed, but they’re trying, and in decidedly unambitious times for heavy rock, that’s enough to earn them some respect.

Phil Freeman

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