Amarok - Hope

Amarok – Hope

Hope is the remarkable new melodic progressive rock album from the Polish band Amarok (not to be confused with a Spanish band of the same name… or the Mike Oldfield album title). Hope shows a considerable progression from their notable 2021 album Hero. Under the auspices of multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Michał Wojtas Amarok have been going since 1999, initially releasing 3 albums between 2001 and 2004, including significant contributions from Mariusz Duda in his very early days of Riverside. After a considerable break Amarok re-emerged in 2017 with Hunt, with contributions from Colin Bass of Camel and Mariusz Duda once again on board. Any band that Mariusz Duda repeatedly collaborates with must be of some interest! It is perhaps a sign of their growing maturity and confidence that the latest album, their fourth since their emerging from hibernation in 2017, is not supported by any guest star appearances – there really does not seem to be any need for any additional input with an album of such quality.

One of the main highlights of this album is the opening track Hope Is. This arresting song begins rather aptly and very powerfully with the strident guitar riff and driving bass and drums, rising to a serpentine synth run. Marta Wojtas vocalises her words with a sombre spoken word style which draws you into the poetry of lines about the nature of Hope:

“Hope cuts through the Air, Like a Knife Blade
Akin to Wings, Lifts you up…
…If in the Darkest Hour
I can still Believe there’s a Light
I will Re-charge with its Power”

There is a curious contrast between the depth and seemingly dark feel of the music and the intoned words, with the positivity of the lyrics. After about 3 minutes there is a break and what can only be described as a rippling Gilmour-esque electric guitar solo soaring above the desolation, possibly signifying hope rising above the darkness? Hope Is certainly sets the agenda and the bar very high for this album.

Anyone expecting this to be yet another exercise in Floyd-isms will be relieved to hear that the (admittedly very impressive) Gilmour influenced guitars on the first track are only used sparingly elsewhere on this imaginative and assured album. Stay Human definitely moves a long way from such templates with it’s opening restrained chiming guitars and fragile vocals, before giving way to an electronic rhythm that thrusts this positive and optimistic song along. Once again Amarok play with opposites, framing a song about the value of maintaining one’s humanity in a song dominated by pulsing electronic instrumentation. Nevertheless, some impressive drumming from Konrad Zieliński certainly connects this song with humanity.

Insomnia takes Amarok in a decidedly darker direction. A brief Floydian guitar intro gives way to cello and violin from multi-instrumentalist Kornel Popławski. This more restrained piece is a showcase for the excellent and impassioned vocals from Michał Wojtas, singing the emotional words of Marta Wojtas, who provides the lyrics for the whole album (except the final song Dolina sung in Polish, written by Michał Wojtas.)

The song which most engaged this reviewer was the rhythmic Trail, commencing with airy echoing synths and subtle tom toms, as if the song was coming to us over the horizon. A Jean Michel Jarre style electronic beat lopes along fluidly, suggesting someone taking their own route on the trail of life:

Now you Understand, Value the Way
Enjoy the Trail, It lets you Evolve

A lovely slide guitar line ascends and gyrates above the throbbing rhythm of drums and keyboards, before eventually subsiding in an echoing spiral. However, that is just a brief calm before the storm as a much more muscular whole band attack explodes with Zieliński’s drums particularly prominent. This is such a stirring and exciting track, with some echoes of the fusion of power and melody so redolent of Riverside, (although to be fair Amarok are no pale copy of that band). This is an interesting diversion for Amarok who are not known for their excursions into a heavier sound, but they really kick the butt of this song with great aplomb.

Zieliński takes up the lead vocals for Welcome, which is a rather brooding, moody piece, but it does not really engage or match the excellence of most of the rest of the album. In contrast the following bizarre piece Queen really stands out like no other song on the album. This features the frankly weird, cracked and eerie voice of Kornel Popławski, speculating about the dangers of ‘AI’. A deranged and ascendant violin with thudding drums casts a suitably dark and slightly bonkers veil over the song before it rather weirdly fades away. The use of different vocalists by this band is an interesting and brave approach, giving a distinctive identity to some songs, quite apart from others on the album. The rollercoaster synth driven instrumental Perfect Run brings us all back down to Earth in a rather thrilling ride.

After ‘AI’ nightmares and musical rollercoasters Amarok return us to more human realms with Don’t Surrender. A piano / synth drone opening and simple, yearning vocals of Michał Wojtas opens this hopeful contemplation on water, albeit tempered with some consideration of the double-edged sword nature of water – life giving but also potentially life taking. Wotjas speak sings one passage mid-song which adds gravitas to his vocalisation, and the song rolls along rather slowly (but possibly a little somnolently?) until a fluid piano interlude precedes the rise to a final crescendo.

Pastoral scenes are suggested by a horse neighing, welcoming in the gorgeously diaphanous Simple Pleasures with a softly undulating synth and piano chords under Michał Wojtas warm soft voice. This is a truly atmospheric song full of restraint and delicacy. The simple words echo this gorgeous setting:

The break of dawn, Another day
But still, hold on to the bliss
It’s in the simple pleasures, In the missing time together
And I know it is now or never

Some lithe, languorous guitar lines float across the sparkling soundscape, but these are like brush strokes adding subtle accents to the musical picture rather than indulgent splashes. Wisely, Amarok avoid the temptation to break out into a sort of clichéd over wrought climax. They maintain the enchantment and do not break the spell, and like all beautiful days it just fades away beautifully into the memory. This feels like a perfect way to finish the album, but there is an engaging coda in the Polish language song Dolina. An internet search reveals that the title probably means ‘Valley’ and the lyrics may be about an encounter with a deer in a wooded valley… although I could be wrong! It is refreshing to see a European band having the guts to sing at least one song in their native language, and it adds an air of authenticity and spirit to the whole album. To be honest, not knowing the meaning of the words does not impede enjoyment of this lovely coda, with Michał Wojtas’ resonant voice, accompanying himself on harmonium along with Popławski on violin. Indeed, the mystery of the words (to non-Polish speakers) adds to the sense of magic and ‘other worldliness’ of this bewitching conclusion.

In all honesty, prior to this album I was not very knowledgeable about Amarok. I had only heard their previous album which I liked, but in all honesty had rarely played since shortly after getting it. As I am attending the final Loreley Festival where Amarok are playing, I decided to review Hope, mostly out of curiosity (rather than Hope?!). I can safely say that curiosity has been richly rewarded as this album’s engaging content and high quality really took me genuinely by surprise.

Amarok have stepped up very significantly with their new release, creating a fine album filled with shining, positive lyrics and beautiful sounds. Hope could well turn out to be one of the best melodic progressive rock albums of 2024… well, I certainly Hope so!

01. Hope Is (4:44)
02. Stay Human (5:52)
03. Insomnia (6:06)
04. Trail (7:07)
05. Welcome (5:16)
06. Queen (5:15)
07. Perfect Run (5:50)
08. Don’t Surrender (6:59)
09. Simple Pleasures (7:34)
10. Dolina (3:09)

Total Time – 57:56

Michał Wojtas – Vocals, Electric, Acoustic & Lap Steel Guitars, Keyboards, Percussion, E-drums, Theremin, Frame Drums, Upright Piano, Bass, Harmonium, Programming
Kornel Popławski – Bass, Vocals, Keyboards, Violin & Cello
Marta Wojtas – Voice, Percussion, Djembe, Gong, Bass & Backing Vocals
Konrad Zieliński – Drums, Vocals

Record Label: Oskar Records
Country of Origin: Poland
Date of Release: 5th April 2024

– Amarok (2001)
– Neo Way (2002)
– Metanoia (2004)
– Hunt (2017)
– The Storm (2019)
– Hero (2021)
– Hope (2024)

Amarok – Website | Facebook | Bandcamp | YouTube | X