“At the young age of 7 years old, Martin Utby and Simon Bergseth made a pact that they would form a band when they got older. Now, 22 years later they’ve done just that. An album is ready – 55 minutes of music inspired by everything they grew up listening to – everything from Mew, Anekdoten and Porcupine Tree to Opeth, Neal Morse, and King Crimson.”
I made similar promises with my old schoolmates and despite one of them now playing keyboards with Alexa De Strange, I never did manage to achieve any musical aspirations in adulthood! The time that Utby and Bergseth spent together has really paid dividends and then some.
When I first heard lead single The Pale Moon by AVKVRST, I was instantly smitten. I was excited to hear they had an LP coming out. I thought it would be right up my street. I just didn’t realise quite how much. The fact this is the band’s first record, rather than me stumbling upon them mid-career, made how good this album was even more shocking. And straight off the bat they’ve hit the ground running with a proper prog record in all its glory.
“The Approbation is a concept album about a bleak soul who is left solely with his thoughts, isolated in a cabin deep into the dark forests, far away from civilisation.” In a completely method approach to music, the album was recorded in a cabin deep in the dark forests of Norway too. Some of the sound design is actual recordings of rain hitting the cabin or train horns in the distance during the sessions. That’s a bold approach to your first record and the kind of concept I absolutely love.
AVKVRST have the real knack of being able to sound both uplifting and melancholy at the same time, in a similar way to artists like Porcupine Tree and Pineapple Thief. I personally love albums with heaps of light and shade, with sheer melody and pure angst sitting alongside one another. On that front this debut record delivers in spades, with the concept it’s built around making that approach even more powerful.
Vocally there’s a touch of fellow Norwegians Wobbler, and even shoegazer bands like Ride. Simon Bergseth’s voice is light and ethereal most of the time, which adds even greater contrast when he leans into full on growls, much like when Leprous, Haken and Novena do similar.
The Pale Moon is a sumptuous slice of modern prog, with yearning guitar and atmospheric keys over a cyclical rhythm underpinning the heartfelt vocals, until things take a heavier and darker turn that Opeth would be proud of. It’s reassuringly familiar, while also fresh and new at the same time. Lyrics like “All I know is that I’m down in the deep, cold sea that keeps pushing me around. All my faith has drowned and my life feels like it’s burned to the ground” are suitably evocative. When singers put it all out there like that, even if built around a character, it makes me feel less alone and isolated as a result. I love the juxtaposition between downbeat navel gazing lyrics and blissful melodies, like on The Great White River. “I know death comes near me”; it’s all a bit Steven Wilson, in the best possible way. The Wilsonisms continue and closing title track The Approbation, with its distorted almost spoken vocals veers a little too close to Porcupine Tree for comfort. I guess if you are going to be inspired by the work of others, then drawing from the absolute best makes sense. As the song continues it finds its own feet and as this is a concept album, despite The Pale Moon working well as a single, you really should listen to this as one piece.
Many of the songs have these blissful guitar moments that feel like closing your eyes and taking a breath on a brilliantly sunny day, letting the light of the sun wash over your eyelids. I love how the heaviness and texture isn’t always coming from the guitars though, and there are some excellent keyboard moments that drive the songs into quicker or darker territory too.
The sub-thirty second opening track leans into the cyclical nature of the album, so the record works amazingly well on a loop, which makes sense for a concept album. All in all, this is an emotionally charged, beautifully crafted modern prog record, closed out by two ten minute plus epics.
This was just the new band I needed right now, I just didn’t know it. I will be watching their future work with interest. Every second of this record worked for me and every listen has put a huge smile on my face in the way that only music can. Despite the despair-laden theme of the record, I found it to be a rather life affirming piece of work. The Approbation is the kind of album I’d have playing loud in the car on the long drive to somewhere like Fusion festival. Hopefully Fusion, Summer’s End or another UK festival will snap these guys up as I have a feeling they’d take the roof off the place and put more seasoned bands to shame in a live setting. Perhaps, though, they are already destined for much larger stages and accolades, it feels like it to me.
There are albums I’ve liked as much as The Approbation this year, but this is the best debut record I’ve heard in 2023 by some distance and the perfect Summer album for my tastes. Wobbler meets Porcupine Tree? You had me at ‘Hello’.
01. Østerdalen (0:26)
02. The Pale Moon (6:15)
03. Isolation (5:41)
04. The Great White River (6:30)
05. Arcane Clouds (6:05)
06. Anodyne (10:15)
07. The Approbation (13:37)
Total Time – 48:49
Simon Bergseth – Guitars, Bass, Vocals
Martin Utby – Drums, Synths
Øystein Aadland – Bass
Edvard Seim – Guitars
Auver Gaaren – Keys
Record Label: InsideOut Music
Country of Origin: Norway
Date of Release: 16th June 2023