Voyager - Fearless in Love

Voyager – Fearless in Love

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have no doubt heard about Voyager representing Australia at Eurovision this year, the very first prog metal band to do so, and arguably the first progressive band ever to grace the Eurovision stage. Winning the second Semi-Final with their delightfully anthemic pop/metal crossover Promise before finally placing in a respectable ninth at the Grand Final, Voyager rocked the Liverpudlian stage more defiantly than any other act and won the hearts of many new fans that night. To coincide with their sudden, newfound popularity comes the release of their eighth album, which could very well become their bestseller to date given the extraordinary timing.

I must admit, I had never heard of Voyager until a friend informed me that a prog metal act would be playing at Eurovision. At first, I didn’t believe him, so I played the track in question. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t sound very prog at all, or even very metal. Then the chorus came and I started to hear the chugging guitar and bombastic drums that would be expected of a metal act. But it was only in the breakdown that I heard growling, odd rhythms and the sort of sonic blasting that one would not normally expect at Eurovision. “Finally,” I thought, “some prog!” Laughably, this section only lasts fifteen seconds before dropping back into something much softer and more accessible. “I guess that’s about as much as they could get away with,” I thought, but I was happy that it was there, nonetheless.

Having since spoken to the band’s guitarists about this song and that moment in particular, I have a different understanding of how Promise was written and what it meant to the group to write that song. When I had initially heard that a progressive band would be taking the stage, I hoped to hear an unapologetically progressive song, but Simone Dow managed to convince me why it would have been rather daft for them to do that:

“You need it to be slightly accessible, that’s the whole point. The other thing is that we wanted to reach more people. We saw this as a unique opportunity for us to lift our platform as a band and make this more sustainable for us. We need to have some income so we can keep doing this, so that’s in your mind. It’s got to reach more people so it has to be more accessible but again, 100% important to us that it still sounded like a Voyager song.”

Voyager were doing what was best for them, and I honestly have to respect the hustle. It makes sense to write a song that you think more people will enjoy, and it might even be better for prog in general, if it acts as a gateway for new audiences to get into prog.

Nevertheless, there’s a part of me that’s pained and conflicted by the fact that Promise wasn’t full ‘prog’ but more of a teaser. Just once I’d like to hear an unreservedly complicated prog rock offering at Eurovision; admittedly it’s hard to write a great song that’s fully ‘prog’ given the three-minute time restriction, but Gentle Giant proved that it was possible with Cogs in Cogs. Eurovision is full of all sorts of daft songs, I reckon that Cogs in Cogs would fit in perfectly!

I have to be grateful, however, that we even had a progressive ambassador in the first place, and when the chance came to interview them, I frantically scoured the Voyager back catalogue so that I could understand the journey the band have been on since their first album two decades ago.

I was very surprised by what I found. Rarely staying in the same place for too long, Voyager’s sound has evolved drastically over the years but has always relied on a combination of tight, technical musicianship and a more economic pop mentality in terms of songwriting. You’ll regularly find the verse/chorus structure in their music, but the hooks and riffs they employ are firmly based in prog metal. Unusually for a progressive band with a two-decade history, they’ve never written a song longer than seven minutes and it doesn’t appear as if they’re about to any time soon.

The closest that the band came to my comfort zone was with their fifth and sixth albums, V (2014) and Ghost Mile (2017), which featured a harder sound more rooted in guitar work and made them sound more like Dream Theater. Their songs kicked ass too. But with 2019’s Colours in the Sun came a completely different element, a heavier reliance on the synths to create the atmospherics for the song. According to Scott Kay:

“It dawned on both of us that we love hearing Danny’s synths; we love the pads and the layering. There was a moment where we went ‘We should take a step back and let the synths do more of the talking’. I think that positively influenced the sound because we were able to take ourselves out of it a little more and let other things shine. From my point of view that’s really what dictated the difference between Colours in the Sun and those two albums.”

It’s funny that what I enjoyed more about V and Ghost Mile is what the two guitarists disliked about them.

Fearless in Love is the next step in that evolution, and now the synths practically dominate the atmosphere. Even as you skip through the opening seconds of all eleven songs, those synths will be the only thing you hear. This is a really unusual sound for a prog-metal band, but that’s probably a good thing since so many of them sound completely interchangeable; one needs to have a distinct identity in this thoroughly oversaturated market. All the same, it can be an off-putting timbre, in the way growling can, so bear that in mind.

Voyager put their best foot forward with the opener The Best Intentions. This is an utterly magnificent track that feels like the pinnacle of the kind of streamlined pop-prog-metal amalgamation that the band are striving for. A synth-led introductory verse gives way to crunchy bombastic metal which in turn leads to a contrasting verse with a slower pace. The whole song feels like a journey (albeit a brief one at under four minutes) and is undoubtedly the highlight of the album.

The only problem is that the rest of the album which never manages to reach those same impressive heights; this isn’t to say that it’s a terrible album by any means, just one that doesn’t live up to the ‘promise’ (pun certainly intended) of the first track. Every song on the album has really great moments, whether that be the catchy ’80s feel of Danny’s synths on the chorus of Daydream to the crushing heavy metal of Prince of Fire, which the band reckons might be one of their heaviest songs to date.

It’s worth mentioning that both Dreamer and Promise – the tracks that Voyager submitted for Eurovision in 2022 and 2023 respectively – are present, and it’s honestly fascinating to have two such different tracks that were written with the same goal in mind in the same forum. Dreamer is straightforward and feels more like a dance track, while Promise is its own happy little journey that has an incredible amount of dynamic range and bombast for such a short song. Both songs are easily the ‘catchiest’ of the record.

But while the musicianship is undoubtedly superb, there’s a disconnect between myself and most of the record. There are melodies or hooks that irritate me and timbres that aren’t to my taste, but I think what bothers me most of all is that I’m not fascinated by any of the song structures on this album, except for The Best Intentions. I wasn’t sure why this was the case until my interview, where Simone expounded on how the album had been written:

“The other thing that influenced our sound between Colours and this album was actually doing Eurovision. Australia Decides, in particular, really changed the way we framed our songwriting in a positive way. It made us really focus and go ‘What do we need?’

“You only have three minutes for your song, that’s the first rule. We need this to be Voyager, so what does it need and what doesn’t it need? Where can we trim things that don’t need to be there? It really forces you to hone in and pick your moments; where things should shine, where things should pop out, where things should pull back.

“I think after doing Australia Decides, we then came back and wrote the album and we really took those lessons that we learned from doing that – not to cut it to three minutes, obviously, but just to really look at our songs more closely and figure out how long does it need to be? What needs to go there? Do we actually need guitars here or could it just be bass and synths so that it’s nice and spacious?”

It seems as though, on their quest to become Eurovision stars, Voyager have become preoccupied with economy, shortening their songs and cutting out anything that seems extraneous in order to make a concise blend of pop, prog and metal. The problem is that economy and prog rarely go hand in hand. I really like when a band allows a moment to breathe, when they add something that probably didn’t need to go there but sounds cool anyway, or chucking everything but the kitchen sink at a particular moment in the song. Voyager’s concern with scaling back their songs to pack some sort of calculated wallop has backfired, at least for this humble reviewer, as they’ve chosen to move further from the ‘prog’ aspects of their music.

If Promise and The Best Intentions are a seamless blend of pop, prog and metal, then many of the album’s other tracks come across more as Frankenstein’s monsters, with so much contrast between different sections of the same song that it’s rather unsightly. As I said, there are bits of brilliance in every track, such as Submarine’s guitar solo finale, but these tend to come with weaker moments such as the chorus, which feels a bit stilted. To use another example, Ultraviolet begins with a soft pop atmosphere but will quite frequently jerk into hard metal, complete with a growl section. There’s no subtlety about this transformation, and nothing clever about the way these wildly different facets are smooshed together within the same track. Even on Promise – the band’s ambassador track – the same issue occurs, with the hard metal ‘breakdown’ coming out of nowhere to dominate the soundscape and remind listeners that you’re listening to a metal band. Without linking to any other part of the song, it just feels a bit random and forced.

The album ends on a suitably epic note with Gren (Fearless in Love), a song that Scott wrote about an anime character from Cowboy Bebop. Once again, there are great moments, but I can’t help thinking the whole thing is over too quickly, and the grandiosity and lustre of the final minute could have gone on a bit longer. I’m left feeling unsatisfied.

Something missing from this album is Danny singing in his native German; on previous albums there was usually at least one track where he sang in German, which made those songs feel more personal to him, and further distinguished the identity of the group. I was crestfallen that no such track appears this time around, and I hope that the group revive that tradition for the next album.

Promise is undoubtedly a triumph, the little song that could. In writing it, Voyager managed to extend themselves beyond their previous attempt at Eurovision with Dreamer and compose an epic banger that presents many facets of Voyager’s music in a single three-minute offering, and it was undoubtedly popular with audiences, even if it did only receive 21 points from the public vote.

I fear, however, that the journey to get to Promise has taken the band further away from ‘prog’ than they ever have been, and there’s a chance they don’t even care for it at all. Speaking to Prog Magazine in 2017, vocalist Danny Estrin said “I don’t mind the progressive label,” which suggests that he isn’t particularly proud of it either.

At the end of the day, Voyager don’t have to make music for me or for anyone else in particular, but there’s a theme here of a band who have changed their sound to be more accessible and are potentially alienating core fans in the process. Even though I’ve had only a short amount of time to get acquainted with the band, I really enjoyed V and Ghost Mile thoroughly and have been dismayed by the evolution their sound has undergone on these last two albums; I’m reminded of how I thoroughly enjoyed Haken up until The Mountain but everything from Affinity onwards has been a path that I cannot follow since the band’s sound has changed so drastically.

While I can completely understand the motivation to be on Eurovision and be successful, I wonder if this fixation will have a permanent effect on the group’s music or if they might one day remember what makes progressive rock so great in the first place. 2023 will be a year they will never forget, but I’m left questioning whether their glory days are behind them or ahead.

[You can read Basil’s interview with Voyager guitarists Simone Dow and Scott Kay HERE.]

01. The Best Intentions (3:48)
02. Prince of Fire (4:45)
03. Ultraviolet (4:15)
04. Dreamer (3:00)
05. The Lamenting (4:10)
06. Submarine (4:46)
07. Promise (3:04)
08. Twisted (3:54)
09. Daydream (3:08)
10. Listen (4:13)
11. Gren (Fearless in Love) (5:23)

Total Time – 44:26

Danny Estrin – Vocals, Keytar
Simone Dow – Guitars
Alex Canion – Bass, Vocals
Scott Kay – Guitars
Ashley Doodkorte – Drums, Artwork

Record Label: Season of Mist
Country of Origin: Australia
Date of Release: 14th July 2023

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