A lot of my friends on Facebook find it frustrating when they receive friend requests from musicians seeking to promote their music. While I completely understand this, it is generally because those making the requests make no effort to even introduce themselves, or interact at all. Last year I received a request from Christian Ayala, from Puerto Rican band Avandra, and I’m glad he did introduce himself as Avandra’s Descender quickly became one of my favourite albums from last year, and mostly due to Christian – whose vocals are the absolute highlight of Avandra for me. So when Avandra’s new album appeared in the TPA review queue it was a no-brainer for me to put my hand up for it.
Avandra is ostensibly a progressive metal band, but I’m not really sure I agree with that. Sure, there are metal tropes, but Avandra create such melodic and atmospheric soundscapes that I can see why they also add the tag “post rock” on their Bandcamp page. They’re not, but the textures of their music do make them often sound closer to that than to prog metal. I find myself often reminded of Blindspott and Lucid Planet when listening to Avandra, which are two bands I suspect Avandra may never even have heard. This probably means one of two things: those bands have shared influences, or I am hearing things that are not there. It’s probably the latter, but I’m not bothered, because all three bands rate highly with me, and Avandra the highest of all three.
Although I’ve read reviews of Descender which compare Avandra to Dream Theater, I really don’t hear this, I can’t help but wonder if this is because Kevin Moore has a guest appearance on the album, but if comparisons must be made with his work, Chroma Key would be a far better marker. Or, if you must compare with a Dream Theater song, then Space Dye Vest (which is really quite atypical of the Dream Theater sound, of course). However, while Christian played keys on Descender (apart from that guest appearance from Kevin Moore) as well as guitars and vocals, for this year’s Skylighting that role is taken by the talented Vikram Shankar, who has his fingers in more pies than even a resident of Wigan could possibly eat.
There was definitely nothing wrong with Christian’s synth work, and I have to admit I was initially a little put out that he was stepping down from that role, as much as I like Vikram’s playing (and I do like that a lot). But I have to admit that Vikram really does add a lot to the sound, and he will surely be a drawcard for many new fans, too. The moment his synths chime in on opening track Celestial Wreaths, it’s evident that bringing Vikram onboard was a wise decision. ‘Celestial’ is possibly a great description for Avandra, too. Their brand of prog metal is lush and ethereal – the equivalent of dream pop in a metal world. Even at their most aggressive, the band still manages to sound delicate, and the heaviness seems sidereal.
This feeling is further enhanced by the soft tone of Christian’s vocals, which always seem to provoke a feeling of floating above the music, no matter how heavy it gets. The vocals simultaneously feel a part of and apart from the music, and I really can’t get enough of them. There are some bands that I wish were instrumental, but I couldn’t imagine Avandra without vocals. This brings me to the surprise of the album, and although I’ve not (yet) read any reviews for Skylighting (preferring to avoid doing so until I have completed and submitted my own), I am sure of a point that will be raised in many of them: the harsh vocals in the final moments of Afferent Realms. The more djenty sound of Afferent Realms caught me off-guard, on first listen anyway, but those harsh vocals blew me away. I don’t think I would ever have expected to hear harsh vocals on an Avandra album. To be honest, they do work really well, but I’m glad they are as short-lived as they are. They make a real impact, and I’d not change them – but I do hope this does not signal a greater use of them in the future.
My only complaint (if I can even call it that) about Descender, was that it was perhaps overly long. There’s not a song I don’t enjoy, so I don’t know what I would change, but it did feel as if it could have been better if it were shorter. Skylighting is a good twenty or so minutes shorter, and has what feels like a perfect length. Nothing ever feels like it outstays its welcome. The centrepiece, Eternal Return, is the lengthiest track at just under ten minutes. This impressive song definitely deserves its spot at the centre of the album, and I’m sure will be a firm favourite of many listeners. It’s extended passages definitely give a chance for the band to show their prowess and technical skills (without resorting to the wankery that so much prog metal does). Like the album as a whole, Eternal Return is rich, stirring and enveloping – wrapping the listener in a warm and fuzzy embrace. As accessible, engaging and immersive as Descender was, Skylighting is even more so. Overall, everything about this album is an improvement on the previous – and that’s saying an awful lot, as Descender is an incredibly good album.
One last thing I might say about the album, and again it is my inference more than anything else, so could well be completely off the mark, is how it appears to have a loose concept that vaguely addresses existence and mortality, that seems to mirror so many other albums I have reviewed this year. There is a sense of samsara, and of rebirth, that I can’t help but read into the lyrics; and more importantly in this year of crushing lows, a real sense of hopefulness, optimism, and positivity. Skylighting has been a go-to album for me this year, when feeling low. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to make my mind up about what my favourite albums of 2020 are, but I know that Skylighting will be one of them.
01. Celestial Wreaths (5:08)
02. Noetic Probes (5:12)
03. Life Is Not A Circle, But A Sphere (5:15)
04. Eternal Return (9:36)
05. ProcGen (5:44)
06. Afferent Realms (6:49)
07. New Origins (4:07)
Total Time – 41:51
Christian Ayala – Vocals, Guitars
Gabriel Alejandro Rodríguez – Bass
Adrián Arroyo – Drums
Luis Javier Rivera – Guitars
Vikram Shankar – Synths
Record Label: Layered Reality Productions
Country of Origin: Puerto Rico
Date of Release: 20th November 2020