Swedish prog metallers Soen released their fifth album Imperial this month. Keeping up a stream of steady releases (Lotus in 2019 and Lykaia in 2017) must be exhausting. But Soen rise to the challenge, and Imperial doesn’t waste any time. The first moments of “Lumerian” feature a neck-snapping riff that is among the best Soen have ever written. A fitting start to the group's most powerful album to date. Soen are on a creative streak here. After a long time at the edges of the Scandinavian metal scene, this should be the album that will take them on to the bigger stages.
Soen themselves have called Imperial a “product of the COVID-19 pandemic.” With all touring canceled, the band was able to spend 12 hours a day bringing the album to life. It shows. They sound tighter, more focused, no meandering or unnecessary noodling. Every part of Imperial sounds vital. That’s just one of the signs that Soen have finally gained the confidence to step out of their heroes’ shadows and become their own band.
Make no mistake, fans of Tool and A Perfect Circle will get a major kick out of Imperial. Soen must be sick of being compared to the turn-of-the-century prog masters. But here, they don’t feel so totally indebted to them as they did on 2014's Tellurian. Soen's ability to mingle alternative metal with a Swedish sense of epic majesty is their greatest weapon. On “Dissident,” a jazzy solo breaks up a polyrhythmic Meshuggah-like section before dissolving into cascading keyboards and operatic vocals. It's here "Dissident" builds again, ending in a final pitch-perfect mix of the two. Soen still clearly love Maynard James Keenan. But there are shades of Dark Tranquility, Ihasan, newer Opeth, and Katatonia at work here too.
“Monarch” is Imperial’s must-hear track. The opening siren and drum fill will explode live venues and Joel Ekelöf’s vocals have never sounded better. He’s fronting a full-blown power ballad here, one with alternative-prog riffs. New(ish) Canadian guitarist Cody Ford was a great addition on 2019’s Lotus, and on Imperial, he’s even more impressive. His ability to morph from David Gilmour on “Illusion” into Daron Malakian on the very next song is what sets Soen above their former selves. Drummer Martin Lopez (ex-Opeth) is killing it behind the kit throughout. His skill allows songs like “Antagonist” to be bafflingly complex and insanely catchy at the same time.
Lyrics can lean on the schmaltzy side, but that’s to be expected in this brand of metal. Soen at least have the good sense to let their music do the talking for itself. Ekelöf’s vocals work best when he is commanding a crowd to sing along Blind Guardian-style. Even lines like “Follow me, follow us, because there’s no one coming to help us defeat this monster” are cool when backed by Lars Enok Åhlund’s keys. Even so, the final song “Fortune” overstays its welcome. Soen have always included softer tracks on each album, but it’s always the headbangers like “Deceiver” that (rightly) get the attention. Most bands can only improve with the addition of more alternative metal riffs.
Any criticism of Imperial is far outweighed by praise. “Monarch,” “Antagonist,” and “Lumerian" deserve to become mainstays of the band’s live set. The pandemic has been brutal on the global music scene. But Soen’s latest effort shows how times of great hardship can spark creativity. The pressure-cooker method has paid off. Imperial is a major achievement by the Swedish group and easily their best record yet.