Existentia is a new band from Russia who impress greatly with their debut album, The Planet in the Universe. It’s a particularly clever title, as it contains the layers of meaning that are explored within the album. The planet in the universe is, of course, ours. Also, as per the cover art, the Earth is often personified: Mother Earth, Gaia, Papatūānuku, call her what you will, but like any living entity, she is capable of dying. Finally, we (mankind) are the planet, and have made ourselves inseparable from it. The album, largely through metaphor, explores how mankind is capable of creation and destruction in equal measure – yet it is our destructive capabilities that are putting Earth, and our life on it, into new and dangerous territories. Even the band’s name, caught somewhere between existence and existentialism, fits the message. But Existentia do well to express their thoughts and concerns without resorting to preaching. And if you choose not to pay attention to the message (as so much of mankind seems to do when it comes to, for example, climate change), then A Planet in the Universe is simply a greatly listen that will provide much enjoyment.
The album begins with the prelude, Eve, which features guest musician Derek Sherinian (probably best known for his brief stint in Dream Theater). Now, no offence intended to Sherinian or Existentia, but I can’t help but feel his presence wasn’t needed. I do totally get why an unknown band will feature a guest musician such as this. Graham Keane did the same (with Sherinian, no less) on his debut album from The Vicious Head Society – and that likely did help him raise his profile and sell a few more records. But when Existentia has such a fabulous keyboard player as Mira Mirova, Sherinian doesn’t really add anything but his name. Nevertheless, it’s a nifty wee instrumental introduction to the album, with the name of Eve again having several connotations that fit with the creation and destruction narrative, as the Biblical Eve represents both creation (her name commonly understood to mean “source of life”), and destruction (“the fall of man”).
The album really starts to come into its own with Black Swan, and the first opportunity we have to hear the vocals of Maya Gitsina. When I first listened to this album, I liked Prelude – Eve, but it didn’t blow me away. Maya, though, takes the music of Existentia to a whole new level, and really drew my interest. I absolutely love her voice, which reminds me a lot of one of my favourite Kiwi vocalists, Renée Brennan, former singer of New Zealand band Tadpole. Now there is no way that Maya (or any of Existentia) will have heard Tadpole, nor probably anyone reading this, so that comparison is mine alone. But, trust me, there is a resemblance, not just in sound, but in tone, inflection and style. Renée and Maya both sing in heavy rock bands, but Renée is a jazz-trained singer, and I can’t help but wonder if Maya is, too. There is definitely a hint of jazz to her vocals, which adds a nice twist to the overall sound of the band.
It may have been Maya initially who made me take notice of this band and album, and ultimately write this review, but over several listens, more and more differences from the “usual” progressive metal sound make themselves known. The rhythm section of Anton Mityugin on bass and Igor Drozdov on drums have a fantastic groove that complements Maya’s vocals. They have that same sense of jazzy cool, without ever sounding outrightly jazz. By the time you add the melodies and accents of Aleksandr Sidelin on guitars and Mira on keys, there is a full sound that embraces dark and light (or black and white swans). What’s most amazing about this full sound is that it has come about so quickly. Existentia had barely finalised their line-up last year, when the world went into lockdown. While they were able to keep contact and exchange ideas by Zoom, there was no way to rehearse together or meet in a studio. The album came together very quickly once the months of isolation were over, but you’d never know this if you weren’t told.
Mother Earth has the most overt lyrical message, although the lyrics are still oblique. I love Mira’s bright and vibrant keys on this track, and Maya once more pulls out all the stops vocally. They are truly two very important members of the band, even if they were the last two to join. But they are also very much icing on the cake, as the trio of Anton, Igor, and Aleksandr pile on the grooves, riffs and hooks. The way Maya subtly harmonises with herself via layered vocals is entirely fitting for a song aiming for harmony with Mother Earth. Harmony may be a basic concept in music, but it has more universal applications. Not just the harmony between man and Earth, but the inner harmony of us as people. Life is important to protect and cherish, whether it is individual, or global – but ultimately without a healthy planet, our own health is immaterial. Heavy stuff, but Existentia make it not only easy listening, but incredibly catchy.
Mira forgoes the more pop and new wave keyboard sounds of Mother Earth for more traditional prog metal stylings on Ghost Valley, as it pounds into being. Mother Earth may have been one of the heaviest tracks on the album, in terms of lyrical content, but Ghost Valley is definitely the heaviest in terms of sheer sound and impact. Both this song and the following Cool Summer Rain seem to be somewhat inspired by the impact of covid on the world – one more warning from Mother Earth that we need to step back and reassess the way we use and abuse our planet. Outer change comes first from inner transformation, and this seems to be what Cool Summer Rain addresses. I also love the way Mother Earth and Cool Summer Rain bookend Ghost Valley, as if that track is where the needs of Earth (Mother Earth) and Man (Cool Summer Rain) meet. I have a feeling Ghost Valley will be the favourite track of many who listen to this album, but my two favourites are the songs either side.
After the triumphant march of Alexandria (The Winners Are Not Judged), another heavy and melodic delight which possibly rounds out my top three from the album, comes the final number. The title track is an instrumental to bring the album full circle and end it as it began. Ironically, the opening number, despite featuring Derek Sherinian, was guitar heavy, while The Planet in the Universe relies far more on the sounds of the keyboard. This is an epic and cinematic number that one could imagine accompanying the grandeur of nature as seen in (for example) those great panning shots of the wilderness and mountaintops of New Zealand, masquerading as Middle Earth. It’s a tremendous climax, and despite having no vocals, ends sounding like a plea from the planet. Overall this is a stunning debut, and I can’t wait to hear what’s next!
01. Prelude – Eve (3:27)
02. Black Swan (4:24)
03. Mother Earth (5:47)
04. Ghost Valley (6:58)
05. Cool Summer Rain (5:41)
06. Alexandria (The Winners Are Not Judged) (4:36)
07. The Planet in the Universe (3:16)
Total Time – 34:09
Aleksandr Sidelin – Guitars
Anton Mityugin – Bass
Maya Gitsina – Vocals
Mira Mirova – Keyboards
Igor Drozdov – Drums
Derek Sherinian – Keyboards (on Prelude – Eve)
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: Russia
Date of Release: 9th May 2021