Aghora - Aghora
Dobles Productions
Progressive Metal
9 songs (55:40)
Release year: 2021
Reviewed by Goat

Set up by former members of Cynic shortly after the Floridians' first break-up, Aghora are notable for taking that Focus onward in a more traditional way than subsequent Cynic albums, which are far closer to prog rock than technical death or thrash. Debut and best album Aghora was originally released in 2000 but suffered from a muddy production, remedied here on a remastered version handled by guitarist Santiago Dobles. And it is a huge improvement! Although the original was hardly unlistenable it is of its time, and the 2021 versions of the songs are far better and clearer. Aghora itself was quite unique for the time of its original release in 2000, mixing together a very technical jazzy rhythm section courtesy of Seans Malone and Reinert with aggressive rhythm riffing from Charlie Ekendahl, beautiful guitar leads from Santiago Dobles alongside Eastern instruments and melodies... and lilting female vocals from Danishta Rivero.

This is usually where issues arise for those who like the metal elements of Aghora but find her performance a step too far. And it's understandable, because this is something of a flawed masterpiece. Danishta has a perfectly lovely voice, something like a less passionate Anneke van Giersbergen, but it simply doesn't fit the music and often jarringly flows around and on top of it instead of connecting. In many songs she is simply there, feeling almost as if her vocals were digitally cut-and-pasted in from another band entirely, and it can be frustrating to be digging the excellent musicianship on the likes of Satya only to be distracted by the vocals. They aren't constant, either, but come and go, having an almost avant-garde feel to how off-kilter and unfitting they are atop Sean Malone's fretless bass wizardry. They do fit better in the thrashier sections, perhaps due to the propulsive aggression driving things along a little better, but the song is far better in the instrumental moments.

Which should be no surprise for anyone in the know, because few bands have musicians of this calibre any more. Having either Sean Malone or Sean Reinert in your group was a blessing; to have both, remarkable. And the sad loss of both last year means it's something that will never happen again. Sean Malone was a bass god and that's easily audible here, where the bass is given prominence alongside the guitars for much of each track, additions such as electric sitar enhancing the melodic profile and meaning that the metal riffs hit all the harder when they arrive. Few bassists have so much musical personality and are such a joy to listen to as this, especially in metal where the instrument is often barely an afterthought; you could listen to the whole of Aghora focused on the bass and enjoy each moment. And Sean Reinert is just as good a drummer, as fans of his from his classic performance on Death's Human album will know, always listenable but never making a nuisance of himself, always playing technically and beautifully but never so intrusively that he overwhelms the music, as some technically proficient drummers can sometimes do. And they form a partnership with the guitarists here that creates some undeniably beautiful moments, such as Frames' complex ambience that is made up of many little pieces all coming together smoothly and naturally.

So good is this album instrumentally that it's hard to let the vocals ruin it - aside from the jarringly odd opening to the aforementioned Frames, where Danishta duets with echoes of herself, generally it's easy to accept them. As the album continues and with the benefit of multiple listens, the likes of Mind's Reality are all the better for them, sounding like an alt-universe The Gathering influenced by tech-death, with plenty of instrumental melodic Cynic-isms that act as catchy hooks. The overall vibe is close to blissful, particularly if you like the idea of metal versions of new-age music and the lyrical focus on Hinduism fits this. And the band continue to experiment as the tracklisting gets deeper, rewarding you with songs like Kali Yuga that delve deeper into the Eastern sounds and incorporate them into the metallic framework very well indeed. This reaches its peak on the 15 minute Jivatma, mostly psychedelic guitar noodling alongside didgeridoo and guest guitar from original Cynic guitarist Jason Gobel, oddly relaxing compared to other, more metallic tracks and very sensibly limited in its use of samples. After that the closing one-two of Existence and instrumental Anugraha are a solid comedown, turning the vocals towards wordless ambience and increasing both metallic content and the sitar experimentation to great results. As a whole this is a tremendous album, exploring Eastern elements far before most peers and doing so without making them feel like shoehorned-in experiments but a vital part of the band's sound. And even as a twenty-year old album given new life thanks to a remaster, it does make you miss two very talented musicians taken from us far too soon, and reflect on what could have been if they'd have had more time. RIP Sean Malone and Sean Reinert, and kudos to Aghora for trying something new; an impressive if not quite perfect album that deserves more ears.

Killing Songs :
Immortal Bliss, Mind's Reality, Kali Yuga, Existence, Anugraha
Goat quoted 85 / 100
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