Sometimes, an album really surprises you. This happened last year with Jarod Fedele’s masterful keyboard album, A Collection Of Color, and some time ago with King Crimson’s classic debut, In The Court Of The Crimson King. I was not expecting Skylake’s debut to be nearly as good as it is. I literally only asked Jason for this album because it was the last unclaimed release on the spreadsheet, but this young, talented band has been an extremely pleasant surprise for me.
Who are Skylake? Skylake is a progressive rock band founded by students in the Netherlands. They have undergone several lineup changes since their classic-prog-cover-band beginnings, and now consist of vocalist and harpist Suzan Van Den Engel, guitarist and vocalist Bart Laan, bassist Charlie Feld, and drummer Arjan Laan. (Bart and Arjan are, incidentally, the sons of Erik Laan of the band Silhouette.) Their predominant sound, in my opinion, is Porcupine Tree, although they are not nearly so melancholy. I also hear traces of Neil Peart in Arjan’s skins and Steve Hackett and Trevor Rabin in Bart’s soloing. The music is very melodic and riff-based, and every song is instantly hummable. Add in Charlie’s solid bass grooves (Greg Lake and Colin Edwin come to mind) and Suzan’s powerful soprano voice and atmospheric harp, and you have a solid modern rock/metal sound. In Orbit is their first album, and it’s as mature a debut as I’ve heard in recent memory.
The first track, “The Storm,” opens the record perfectly. It begins with a harmonic vocal before shifting into some intense drumming. The song’s first real “section” (kind of a first verse) is heavy and melodic. It soon gives way to a slowly-building atmospheric section, which gradually gets louder and heavier until the sudden stop at the end. It’s a fully-formed prog epic, which is rare in a band of this age and experience level. “Haste” begins with an incredible drum fill followed by a heavy, memorable riff in an odd time. The chorus is also one of the catchiest on the album and it’s followed by an emotional guitar solo and a lower-key bridge. It ends with a really cool bass lick (which of course I noticed).
The next track, “Prisoner,” has arguably the best riff on the record, and the song is built perfectly around it. It’s very “programatic,” in that it doesn’t go verse-chorus-verse in any normal sense. Instead, it explores several different ideas, which are all based around the central guitar riff and Bart’s exceptional soloing. The subdued outro, featuring violinist Felix Kessels, pulls the entire song together. The song does a lot in less than six minutes!
The next track (at least, I think it’s one track) is entitled “Smooth Skin – War Within,” and begins with some very nice acoustic guitar. This section gradually builds into more of a groove. I really like the sound of Arjan’s toms; they have a really big, John-Bonham-esque tone here. Suzan also hits notes which I was not aware the human voice was capable of reaching. This, as far as I can tell, is the “Smooth Skin” section. The “War Within” section is where it gets a bit iffy. It starts strong, with a great acoustic-electric riff and a very cool guitar solo.
Unfortunately, it is here that Bart decides to start scream-singing. He’s a brilliant guitarist and exceptional composer (he wrote all the music on this album), and I don’t mind his clean vocals at all, but his screaming is really not pleasant and it overshadows one of the best songs on the album. “Vicious” begins with a soft, ominous acoustic riff and later shifts to a verse with an incredible bassline (I believe it is played on a fretless). The song slowly builds into the djenty, palm-muted riff near the end, which has a great release-of-tension effect. It’s one of the best songs on the album.
“Crossroads” is another lower-key song, which Arjan describes as a “pretty mellow song but not quite a ballad.” I’d describe it as an acoustic progressive pop song, and a very good one at that. It features one of the coolest drum grooves on the record in the second verse. The solo near the end is also one of Bart’s best and most economical. “Luna” is the final track, a mini-epic of sorts. It begins with some soft guitar picking before shifting into an awesome drum-and-bass groove. After the verse and the chorus, we hear my favorite guitar solo on the album, which is saying something. Bart is given more space here (many of his solos are only a few bars long) and he capitalizes. The song explores several mood changes, including a synth-driven atmospheric section and an acoustic, “Mood For A Day”-esque thingy at the end. It’s a fantastic closer.
I do have one minor quibble. The production hasn’t really blown me away. It’s not bad, per se, it just feels a little bit lacking. It’s not really a “big” production. Other than that, this is a rock-solid album by a band which clearly has great things in store. I really enjoy what I’m hearing on this record and I’m excited to listen to their next release!