Two thousand seventeen is looking to be a truly stellar year for progressive music. Now, this is definitely true for long-awaited releases from cherished bands, but it is also true for less established acts that are seeking your ears. I received the promo for the new album from Amsterdam’s Hologram Earth, and I was at first a little apprehensive due to the harsh vocals that dominate their style. So, I decided to grow a pair. “Black Cell Program”, I am happy to say, is truly amazing from beginning to end.
Hologram Earth consists of Michiel Meurs on vocals, Bram Heijs and Steven Hulshof on guitars, Luuk van der Velden on drums, and Thomas Cochrane on bass and brass instruments. They do indeed play progressive metal, but unlike most I’ve heard. They themselves call it black jazz metal. The style is hefty and huge, but also melodious and spacey. It’s monolithic and thunderous, but also jazzy and thoughtful. While being earthy and dark, it also burns brightly with an ethereal glow. So, the album is one of contrasts between the darkness of the metal riffs and the brightness of the horns and electronic programming.
There is also this strange eeriness to their music that feels, well, like an alternate earth or something. Due to the horns that are commonplace throughout the album, the album ends up having several different textures all at the same time, from jazzy to surreal to heavy. Tracks like “Outnumbered” and “Circadian” feature this eccentricity to the max, paired with off kilter grooves.
The band is definitely fond of the stuttering attack and the associated time signatures, but it never feels overbearing. You might call some of what they do “djent”, but it never becomes something incessant or unrelenting. It’s used as a tool to move between portions of the song, not as the main attraction in the first place. The guitar work here from Bram and Steven, then, is sublime, appropriate, and definitely brutal at points.
Thomas outdoes himself on brass and bass. The bass especially might be the best I’ve heard this year. His bass lines are inventive and odd, with plenty of gusto and a good sound in the mix. His bass is often the hinge upon which the music swings. His brass offerings, too, are fantastic. His style is dirty and gritty, with lots of eerie atmosphere; adding tons of personality to the whole album.
Luuk’s drumming is definitely outside the box here. It is used, not as a technical show, but as something that drives the rhythm and melody, keeping things interesting and off kilter. It works so well with Thomas’ bass, both keeping you on your toes with what might come next. Finally, Michiel’s vocals are quite amazing. His gruff tone reminds me a bit of Mark Jansen from Epica, but his style of delivery is very different at times. His vox are definitely another texture to add to the many layers in this album, and he also delivers clean vocals a few times during the album, especially as an atmospheric tool for harmony.
Speaking of texture, “Black Cell Program” overall is an album about bending time, space, and texture; forging them from sublime tones and hammering them into place for greatest effect. The album feels very layered and whole, even natural and organic. There is this sense of class and exquisite artistry that pervades the whole album, giving it a serious tone that I really appreciate.
My favorite track is absolutely “Rebirth”, a sweet ambient track of haunting sax, electronic accents, and a steady rhythm; absolutely stunning and riveting. I also love “Circadian”, a beautifully odd track with some riveting guitars as well as some clean vocal accents that sound wonderful. The bass work on this track is specifically something to behold, too. Another similar track is “In Ashes We Sleep”, which contains more clean vocals than any other track on the album. Finally, the title track, another favorite, ends the album with oomph, featuring lots of beautiful transitions with underlying grooves as well as some very strong stuttering jams.
Hologram Earth has produced an album of meticulous art here. It’s haunting and dark, but bright and beautiful, too. It flows so well from start to finish, almost effortless in its technicality and melody. “Black Cell Program” has won over another believer in myself. I might just need to buy a vinyl copy of this one.