I look forward to some albums more than others. And with lineup changes, even those highly anticipated albums can be stressful until I get to hear them. ISON is back with a new album, something I wasn’t sure was going to happen. I was afraid of how it would sound, but my fears ended up being unfounded. The album is called Aurora, and it releases on June 25th.
I discovered ISON a couple years ago, so I was late to the party, so to speak. The band was originally a project between vocalist and lyricist Heike Langhans (Draconian/Light Field Reverie) and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Änghede (Venus Principle, ex-Crippled Black Phoenix). Heike, however, left the project in 2019 after the release of the band’s first full length album. I have no idea why this happened. Maybe she just wanted to work on other projects. But I can tell you that it was a silent and mysterious departure, and she didn’t even mention it publicly until a few months ago. Whatever the reason, this left Daniel in a bind: should he abandon the project or continue it? Well, he chose to continue, and instead of finding a new vocalist, he chose to procure high quality guests.
This fact is very important to the sound of this album. ISON produces Gothic, ambient, electronic, doomy shoegaze, almost in the blackgaze department. There are post-rock elements, such as the stunning use of crescendos, but much of the music is downtempo, shadowy, and vastly melodic. With this record, I would say the sound is less shadowy and mysterious, and more ethereal and high concept: less shades of grey, and more brightly burning beacons within the cosmic ocean of the night, if you get my meaning. To achieve this, Daniel brought on eight guests: Sylvaine, Cammie Gilbert of Oceans of Slumber, Tara Vanflower of Lycia, Vila, Carline Van Roos of Lethian Dreams/Aythis, Gogo Melone of Aeonian Sorrow, Circle&Wind, and Lisa Cuthbert. Let me just stop right here and say this: every single one of these performances is a show-stopping, glorious, and beautiful experience.
Do I like the record? Absolutely I do. I want to say, though, that Heike’s voice is missed. As amazing as these guest performances are, Heike would have been able to do all of this, and probably more. So, there is still a sense that a piece is missing from the sound. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake that feeling. However, kudos to Daniel for continuing, and for taking on the lyricist role, too. He has managed to recover mightily, and has produced an album that will probably be the highlight of my year.
So, what is Aurora? The album is structured much like a guided meditation. Some of the tracks have voiceovers that lead us through calming our minds, claiming our higher selves, and finding a peace that transcends reality itself; that is the foundation of all of the emotion, hope, and introspection that takes place here. In the end, the album feels very much like an emancipation of every regret, sorrow, unmet desire, and inhibition. Like a liberation of the soul and mind.
With this release, I feel that Daniel tweaked the sound ever so slightly towards metal, more so than the first three releases. There is more drumming and the number of energetic sequences has increased. Yet, the music retains that otherworldly, hovering, and blackgaze-y ambience that is the very definition of what ISON does. So, while the guitars are more prominent, the music still features plenty of ambient, pensive segments. The balance here is extraordinary.
I can say that each of these eight tracks is an outstanding and beautiful work of art. Thus far, Daniel has released “Jupiter” with Vila, “Waves” with Cammie, and “Meridian” with Sylvaine. I love all three songs. “Jupiter” is a slow-burning opener that really sets the stage well; you will find it full of wailing emotions. “Meridian” is a fantastic song with an extended crescendo that just never gets old. I love the chorus and the subtle melodic hints that give it character.
The other songs are massive, too. “Aurora” is actually mostly instrumental, but Daniel performs a duet with Lisa that sounds existential and abstract. “Celestial” might be the catchiest song on the album with Gogo’s soulful voice driving a memorable chorus. The last two songs on the album are both superb, as well. “Penumbra” is also a catchy one with grand vocals from Circle&Wind, and “Aquarian” is a mysterious closer that burns and flickers with Daniels’ vocals alongside Tara’s. It’s a wonderful ending.
I skipped a couple tracks because I want to discuss them separately. “Waves” will certainly be one of the best songs this year. Cammie sounds in her element here—I’ve thought for a long time that she would thrive in a more abstract, emotion-based environment. Her voice cracks with emotion so perfectly as she delivers a powerful, precise, and vulnerable performance. The cinematic grand finale is simply breath-taking. My other favorite on the album is “Retrograde” with Carline (I recently reviewed her new Aythis release, as well). It has the most “metal” sound to it, and the chorus is memorable because Daniel’s vocals crisscross over Carline’s in the most pleasing fashion. They are like waves moments apart, and the effect is undeniably soothing.
I am extremely happy with the results for this new ISON offering. Daniel took a difficult situation, and turned it into a magnificent work of art. Aurora bleeds from a heart that is sick with this reality, and calls us to delve deeper and ascend higher than we ever dreamed we could. This is a gracious work of transcendent beauty, more than just music to my eyes—something so human that it almost feels alien. Perhaps that is the entire point: finding the true humanity within us.
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