Polish prog is without a doubt my favorite, and they do seem to have a distinct style. There are numerous bands from Poland active today that just seem to hit that sweet spot for me, and Amarok is more of that sublime variety. Now, I remember hearing a past album from this project, but this new album “Hunt” has completely swept me off my feet.
Amarok is essentially a solo project from multi-instrumentalist Michał Wojtas. When I say that he plays multiple instruments, I’m talking about more than just the normal guitars, keyboards, or drums. Michał plays those (and various iterations of them), too, but on this album he also plays the harmonium, theremin, low whistle, ebow, lapsteel, and wavedrum; in addition to the programming, sampling, and loops that he provides. A few guest performers appear here: Marta Wojtas plays the wavedrum and also wrote the lyrics, Paweł Kowalski plays bass and drums, Sebastuan Wielą dek plays the duduk, Michał Ściwiarski plays the keys, and a few backing vocalists appear, as well. Michał also provides lead vocals, though Mariusz Duda of Riverside and Colin Bass of Camel guest on two tracks.
As you can tell, “Hunt” is a complex affair with an eclectic nature at its core. The overall style here is obviously reminiscent of dark Polish prog, like Riverside; but Michał himself describes the style as “space/progressive rock/ambient/folk/trip hop”. This plays out similarly to the Georgius album I rated as my album of the year in 2016, with lots of mournful instrumentation, off kilter electronic beats, and world music vibes. Indeed, Amarok marries dark progressive rock with electronica and world music so seamlessly that it seems completely natural. So, a typical song on this album features a spunky electronic beat (sometimes real drums, too) paired with emotional guitar pronunciations, a wonderful vocal performance, and lots of hefty accents from other instruments.
This mix of genres does not just work on novelty alone. An artist could release an album with numerous genres, but the album could still fall flat. “Hunt” works primarily because the compositions and choruses are all very strong, too; and there is plenty of variety in the structure of the individual tracks. In other words, the songs are varied in style, but the core necessities of melody and writing are still golden here.
Much of this album plays like what I would call post-progressive rock. In the middle of the dark textures and melancholy that are staples of Polish prog, I find that the basic use of the instruments would be akin to the way post-metal progresses upon metal or post-rock advances the rock formula. What I mean is that Michał uses all of these instruments as tools to build layers of sound, but the results couldn’t necessarily be called “rock” or “electronica” specifically. Some of the tracks, like “Two Sides” (mostly played with a duduk), are almost entirely ambient in nature, but they still have this wonderful force to them that really grabs your attention. Much of the ambient music on this album, even when it is mixed in with the rock portions, is rather intoxicating.
Keeping in line with my post-prog statement, guitars on this album are just one tool of many to reach the destination, but they are elongated and high strung in tone, and there are still plenty of fantastic and emotional solos to be found. There are also some tracks, such as “Unreal”, that are led by some very haunting guitar musings for which I, to be honest, am a sucker.
It’s definitely difficult to decide on my favorite tracks on this album. Mariusz Duda does guest on “Idyll”, and the song is predictably awesome with its slowly climbing structure (most people know Riverside is my favorite band). Colin Bass guests on “Nuke”, and the results are also fantastic, as the song is potently cinematic, explosive in a subtle way, and the chorus is addictive. But this album isn’t just about guests, and Michał himself has a superb voice. Surprisingly, while I love both of these tracks, I don’t consider them to be the best on the album.
I really love “Distorted Soul”, with its wonderfully subtle chorus, and the combination of the pulsating electronica and haunting theremin in the second half is so sublime. I also love “Winding Stair”, which has this back-and-forth beat to it with a cool effect from the harmonium, not to mention a near perfect vocal melody. Other favorites would be “Anonymous”, the fantastic opening track with lots of guitar and a climactic ending; “In Closeness”, an awesome song with a pounding rhythm and wonderful chorus; and the 17+ minute title track that closes the album. That title track features some spoken word which does come off as a little bit strange and overly rehearsed, but it does not detract from the song overall for me. This track is hardly an “epic” in the typical idea of the term, as it is filled with ambient interludes, soaring guitar reflections, and thoughtful ideas.
Speaking of ideas, the album centers lyrically on individuality in modern society and the ways that social media and the powers-that-be try to distort and depower this greatest of human possessions. So, you will hear longing and despair throughout the album, but with that you will hear a melancholy determination to defeat the threats to our being. It’s a cry to discover yourself within your own self, not through the plastic friendships online or the societal norms that are thrust upon you.
In the end, my only question after hearing this album is, “Why isn’t Amarok more well-known and supported?” This music is stunning and honestly exactly what I needed to hear right now. “Hunt” doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve heard this year, honestly. Michał and his crew of guests are all incredibly talented performers, but it’s the eye and ear for the bigger picture and the musical structure that has really won my admiration for this album. “Hunt” is available now, and I think you need to hear it.