Novembre existed amongst a group of progressive bands in the early-mid 2000’s that filled a niche between progressive rock and metal, playing melodic, accessible music with a slight heavy edge, attempting to bring the best of both ideologies into one product. Led by Porcupine Tree from 2002’s In Absentia onwards, groups like Green Carnation, Nightingale, OSI and Wolverine all developed this style, which at the time was where some of the best material within progressive rock and metal existed. I admit to being a fan of all of those bands (except OSI, but that’s another story), but in 2016, when both progressive rock and metal have moved onwards and upwards in sound and style, those bands already sound incredibly dated, and this is what affects Novembre the most in their first album after nine years, Ursa.
Novembre merged the heavy progressive rock of groups like Wolverine with a gothic metal tinge, coming of course out of their late 90’s period as a Paradise Lost-esque doom metal band. They cast a gloomy glow over their progressive era, with all the melodies being melancholic and mournful, but never at the expense of prog’s energy or vibrancy in structure. Ursa is a continuation of this style of sorts, but Novembre have clearly pushed the gothic far further forward in their influences this time, creating an album that is easily their most gothic-centric since Classica at the turn of the millennium. Novembre haven’t gone straight down the path of repeating themselves this time around, but the range of influences on this record doesn’t seem to include much from 2005 onwards, which does undermine its attempts at being a relevant album in 2016, but does not stop it from being of quality.
Because regardless of the fact that this sounds dated, it still contains some good songwriting and potent moods within. Many of the vocal melodies are subdued beneath the atmosphere and hidden from view, but when you zero in on them they are quite good, creating a solemn mood without quite going to full doom metal over-melancholy. The use of progressive structuring is more secondary to the mood-creation and vocal melodies, but there are several longer songs on the record that ebb and flow wonderfully, though the one true attempt at prog in the mostly instrumental “Agathae” is a total flop and is easily the weakest track here. The vocals for much of this remind me of Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley, in both good ways and bad. The melodies are frequently excellent and contain a wonderful balance of melancholy and tasteful happiness, but the limited timbre of the vocalist and his seemingly obsessive reluctance to move out of the central octave in his range does tire after a while, especially on a long album. For many of these songs, the melodies are constructed from three or four notes only.
The production and atmosphere on offer here is something that could make or break this for many people, and it is undeniably central to its appeal. The clean guitar tones and the ultra-triggered snare sound call to mind Dream Theater’s Images and Words in the most vivid of resemblances. The entire album is painted over in a gothic mirk, with all the guitars and vocals creating an almost engulfing gothic tone. It’s a distinctive atmosphere that does reek of cheese in places (especially whenever the keyboard strings get going), but it has a clear aim to sound like it’s from the 90’s and it definitely succeeds in that manner. Some of the atmospheric and acoustic parts, particularly in the way that the vocals are layered with guitars, remind me of Alcest’s acoustic parts, and there’s a slightly shoegazey flavour to a lot of the heavy guitars that is refreshing in terms of production. It can occasionally get in the way though, with a handful of segments of the album suffering from over-crowding in terms of layers.
Ursa is an album that without a doubt is going to get a few snobs turning their noses up at. It has some guitar tones and some gothic metal tinges that are about as 90’s as you can possibly get, but beneath that lining there are some great pieces of music in here that any fan of prog or goth metal can appreciate. Rich melodies, moody atmospheres and occasional doses of total cheese are here, but for a band that’s been out of action for bordering on a decade, it’s a solid listen.