Some albums that come to me provide incredibly pleasant surprises. I honestly was not expecting to like Janas, from Sardinian prog metal band Souls of Diotima. From what I knew about the band, they seemed to be make music which I know some friends of mine would love, but leaves me cold. But, although I knew of the band, I’d never actually listened to them, so it seemed right to take the album on for review, and I’m glad I did. What makes Souls of Diotima interesting is that the symphonic tendencies of their metal are notably resonant and redolent of the Mediterranean. You may wonder about my use of redolent there, but I don’t feel I’m misusing it. The music of Souls of Diotima so reminds me of my visits to the Mediterranean (to Cyprus and Corfu) that I can smell it as well as envision it.
The Black Mask is a pretty effective opening number, which I’ve grown to love, but although I’ve never disliked it, I didn’t have any great feelings for it, apart from recognising how well it opens the album. What I particularly like about the song, though, and have from the first time I heard it, was the way that what I assumed was traditional chanting augmented the music. Upon investigation this is a very clever and delightful reproduction of the legendary dance of the Mamuthones – a creature who wears the titular black mask with heavy cowbells on its back. The creature jumps and dances as it moves about, to sound its bells and warn of its presence. I’m not sure if finding this background is what made me enjoy this song more, or if it just coincided. Unfortunately, I’ve not grown to love the following track, Sleep Demon, at all.
However, third track The Princess of Navarra is where I knew I was truly onboard with Souls of Diotima. Until then, I was listening, but thinking that this is an album that I wasn’t sure I could find enough positives. There was nothing bad about it (although Sleep Demon is not my thing, and I find myself inclined to skip it) but this is the first song where the band get to show they are more than just power and bombast. I already very much liked the vocals of Claudia Barsi, but here they really shine, and I realised just how much I liked her tone, and the attractive inflection her subtle accent provides. What I find really interesting is that although I know it is (drummer) Giorgio Pinna who is the lyricist, Barsi is obviously completely invested in the story and the telling of it. When you listen to Barsi sing this song, it sounds like these are her feelings and her emotions. Even it if it’s not as heavy as the previous two songs, it’s palpably more powerful.
Another interesting moment is when the choral voices join in after around a minute and a half. I found these quite breathtaking the first time I heard them, but I still love them after many repeated listens. This sort of integration of traditional sound and metal can often come across as contrived, and even when it is not, can quickly become tiresome after hearing it too many times. But Souls of Diotima blend the two sounds perfectly. The true power of good music is when it compels you to do more than listen to it. Janas is an album that purports to tell the tales and legends of Sardinia, and I was intrigued enough by Princess of Navarra, that I looked up the legend. The music perfectly fits the romantic tale, right down to the storm. I’m not lying when I tell you that I already assumed there was a storm, before looking up the story. The band is incredibly adept at painting audible scenes, and I am quite sure anyone who listens to this will know (and feel) exactly when the storm hits.
I was so enamoured by Princess of Navarra on first listening, that when the band returned to its more normal sound on the title track and I thought it was so much better than the opening two, I wondered if it were residual pleasure affecting my judgement. But I’ve deliberately listened to the album many times, and in multiple orders, so that I can judge each track on its own merits, rather than by what comes before or after. Janas is absolutely a belter. And so it should be, given that it is the title track. So who is Janas? Actually Janas is not a who. I initially thought Janus referred to the Roman goddess, but apparently they are fairies who inhabit Sardinia (as featured, one assumes, on the cover art). And listening to this song, I want to fly with the fairies, too!
It’s hard not be be swept away with the driving rhythms of Janas, but what I like is that they are not quite so insistent as those of The Black Mask and Sleep Demon. There is a lightness of touch to the music that makes this a more enjoyable listen for me. It’s heavy, and yet at the same time almost ethereal. There is a real floating quality to it, that even at its heavier moments, it is still perfectly believable that it can fly. The guitar solo of Fabio Puddu soars accordingly, and the final moments are gloriously anthemic. The following two songs don’t quite reach the same heights, but they are very enjoyable, and there are several passages within Ichnos Superhero which are superb, and leave the feeling that the listener really is standing on the shoulders of giants (or, given this is Sardinia, perhaps that should be standing in the footprint of a giant).
My Roots, though, is a passionate romp that I find impossible not to react to physically, whether that is tapping my toe or (more likely) banging my head, but the following song is probably my favourite. Given I usually cringe away from ballads, I find it ironic that my two most favourite songs on Janas are the ballads, but damn, Maty is amazing! I love the beginning, but I was expecting the song to erupt into a cliché explosion of furious speed and power. That it didn’t impressed me greatly. Instead the song goes on in the same fashion, and later adds choral vocals that are great. Even when Puddu’s guitar solo hits, it’s restrained and beautiful, and somehow evokes the sense(s) of the Mediterranean perfectly. And as for Barsi’s vocals? Well if I were mightily impressed by them on Princess of Navarra, I’m blown away by them here.
You might expect things to bring me back to Earth after Maty, and Mediterranean Lane sounds as if it should do that. The title, though, is deceptive. While the use of the word ‘Lane’ suggests a pedestrian pace, this song is far more of a race – and that race seems between the symphonic elements and the guitar. Mediterranean Lane is definitely the most symphonic, and possibly the most musically descriptive song. It’s a blast, and what I like about this (and the album as a whole) is that even on a track like this where the orchestration plays a large part, it is never intrusive. Often symphonic metal bands allow the symphonic elements to overwhelm and drown the rest. And often those elements sound more like a gimmick than anything else. I love how well Souls of Diotima use orchestration in their music, and the fact that it often feels geographically appropriate as well as musically.
The album ends with Sherden, which is probably my third favourite song on the album. Again, it’s the way the band so seamlessly integrate their traditions into their music, without it feeling over-wrought or laboured. This is such a monster of a track, and could be nothing other than a closing track because what could possibly follow this? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. This should actually be my favourite track, given my normal aversion to ballads. I’m still trying to get over the shock of putting the two ballads on the album above Sherden in my affections. Ultimately, I’m left feeling completely guilty that I’ve overlooked Souls of Diotima before now, just because of my preconceptions about their sound. If nothing else, reviewing Janas is a lesson to never judge a book by its covers. There are absolute gems out there, even where you would least expect to find them. For me, Janas is one of those gems, and I’m glad I gave it a chance.
01. The Black Mask (4:48)
02. Sleep Demon (3:45)
03. The Princess of Navarra (4:42)
04. Janus (4:40)
05. The Dark Lady (4:07)
06. Ichnos Superhero (4:44)
07. My Roots (4:02)
08. Maty (4:36)
09. Mediterranean Lane (4:39)
10. Sherden (5:18)
Total Time – 45:21
Claudia Barsi – Lead Vocals
Giorgio Pinna – Drums
Antonio Doro – Bass, Harsh Vocals
Fabio Puddu – Guitars
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: Italy
Date of Release: 29th January 2021