ISON – Stars and Embers

ISON has become one of my favorite bands over the last few years.  There is something within their music that makes me feel whole and assured, and I need all of that vibe that I can get.  They are releasing a new album on April 7th called Stars & Embers, and it may be one of their best yet.

The band has changed.  Or is it a project?  I’m not sure what to call it.  Anyways, the mastermind behind the music is Daniel Änghede, who provides vocals, guitars, bass, drums, keys, synths, and programming.  Appearing as a guest on the previous record and now an official part of the band is Lisa Cuthbert, who provides vocals and lyrics.  I’m happy that ISON has found a new permanent vocalist, and Lisa is a great choice.  There are guests, too, however, including Mikael Stanne, Dimming, and Circle&Wind.

The sound has changed somewhat; not drastically, but enough for me to notice.  I think Stars & Embers leans more into the warm electronic side of the band, and less into the gritty metallic sound.  The album is graceful, cautious, and gentle with us, and I think that is the point.  Now, it is still dark, downtempo, and doomy, but there is more of a hovering sense of awe, wonder, and majesty than on previous ISON outings.  It flows and flourishes in the magical musical space that Daniel provides for it, and he brings the riffs only when the time is ripe.

The vocals on this album are wonderful.  I love the combination of all the voices, but I must say that Lisa and Daniel together particularly sound fantastic.  Some of Lisa’s vocals sound so deeply human and painful, as if the scars of many years are brewing to the surface and at last being set free, healed forever.  She is incredibly expressive. 

The lyrics here are immeasurably healing and positively charged in their approach.  I have found Lisa’s writing to be moving, enlightening, peaceful, and hopeful, and those traits are then bestowed upon my mind as a result.  They flawlessly join past ISON albums in their subject matter of quantum and cosmic significance, and my primary response to them is one of thankfulness.

Stars & Embers is a lengthy experience with eight tracks and over 71 minutes of music.  This album really takes its time as it develops, evolves, and grows.  Unlike many albums this year, I don’t have a favorite half.  I think both sets of 4 tracks are equally as good as each other.

The first half includes the stunning “Luminescent Reverie” with its voiceover full of wonder and its climactic and doomy ending.  It includes the single “Horizons”, a slow-burning piece that I could live within forever.  It includes “Peregrination” with Mikael of Dark Tranquility; this song is one of my favorites with its duetting vocals, gravy synth tones, and emotional lyrics.  It also includes “Radiant Void”, the second single and another favorite.  This track adds Circle&Wind to the mix, and her harmonies bring such life to the music, not to mention Daniel’s perfect choice of synth and electronic elements to add.

The second half is so good.  “Astr” has such a beautiful rhythm that gets stronger and stronger, and the song lifts my feet off the ground.  “Formations” is a slow-burning beauty, as well, and the sheer might of the last few minutes is deeply satisfying.  “Beings of Light” is another favorite and includes Mikael again.  This song feels like it could have been on the previous record, Aurora, due to its guided meditation voiceover.  It also features some of the heaviest riffs and I think Lisa’s best and most emotional vocals on the record.  I love it.

The closer is a 16-minute monster called “Embers”.  This song is very cinematic and maybe even upbeat at points, and it also includes the most extensive vocals from Daniel on the album; he has such a good voice, so it always amazes me that he keeps it in reserve so often.  Anyways, the track features lots of hovering and spiraling electronic elements—the classic ISON sound that I love so much.  While it has some soaring moments, the song does not attempt to fall into the crescendo cliché here.  It lives and breathes and pulses for 16 minutes, and it burns intensely and soulfully. 

Stars & Embers is yet another wonder from ISON.  I love every album they’ve ever produced, and this one honestly exceeded my expectations.  It is an ethereal journey from beginning to end, not one that you will jam in your car, but one that you will ponder and contemplate carefully and purposefully.  It has that effect on the mind.


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