The promising British up-and-coming quintet Valis Ablaze burst onto the scene early last year, partly thanks to the metal scene’s acute onset of core-based, djent-inspired material. Absconding from a mire of derivative and generic approaches, this outfit was able to make their mark with a genuinely inspiring debut attempt, namely six-song EP titled Insularity. Having made a strong impression on the scene, and with just a full-length attempt yet to come, Valis Ablaze are ready to go again just a little over a year since their previous release. The highly anticipated debut album, Boundless, is set for an April 6th release via Long Branch Records, and it’s safe to say we’re ready to sink our teeth into it.
Regardless of the overall impression, one thing must first be acknowledged about this record: it strikes as a proper, debut full-length attempt. With just a short EP in the back-catalogue, these guys had to make an impression with the successor, and right off the bat, the format and approach of Boundless indicates no less than a great sense of confidence and good intent. With a total span of just under an hour, fans of the band will certainly not feel bereft of new material. Furthermore, it feels as though this more drawn-out approach has really allowed Valis Ablaze to explore their progressive roots on a far greater scale. This reflects in opening track, “Afterlight”. Temporarily abandoning the heavier aspects of the band’s sound, this track opens in thoroughly reserved, atmospheric fashion, immediately establishing a basis of slow grooves and a consummately vocal-centric soundscape. Again, the available time-frame allows this to be tastefully executed rather than rushing into the record head-on, and it certainly has a positive effect on the ambience.
This impression bleeds seamlessly into second track, “The Crossing”, with the familiar, trademark Valis grooves again taking centre stage, and the soft, bardic trill of Phil Owen’s vocals soaring gracefully atop the mix. Whilst intermittently teasing some heavier and more technical sections, what these opening two tracks achieve, in a broader sense, is setting the tone for a thoroughly epic, groove-laden journey that proves to dominate the album’s entirety. Following Insularity, we know to expect this from Valis Ablaze, and once again it has been pronounced with full force. Where this album makes notable improvements however, lies more in the individual musicianship. What previously presented itself as fairly redundant guitar work now seems to emerge as far more defined. Both the leads and the rhythms repeatedly achieve a series of memorable grooves and hooks that certainly don’t fail to heighten the overall impact. The addition of solos and glimpses of more technical riffing is also a warmly welcomed aspect; tracks such as “Lumen”, “Reflections”, and “Faster Than Light” (incidentally the standout track) all demonstrate this aptly.
To touch on the subject once more, the vocal content on Boundless is without doubt the key element that sets it apart from its contemporaries. In a scene dominated by the all-too-familiar screamed vocals, it’s always refreshing to hear a vocalist that possesses the ability and confidence to present clean singing as the principal method. Once again, front-man Phil Owen pulls this off with grace and ease, often acting as the central catalyst for an epic, grandiose atmosphere, echoing the prowess of modern masters such as Dan Tompkins and Spencer Sotelo. Aside from a phenomenal acumen in clean singing, the addition of sporadic harsh vocals is another thing that establishes a contrast with the band’s debut. This proves to be effective not only in adding to the balance in sound, but also in further showcasing the extent of Owen’s range. Furthermore, throughout Boundless, it often seems to be the case that the instrumentation is allowed to take somewhat of a backseat in order for the vocals to take centre-stage, and whilst this can be seen as a creative inhibitor for the rest of the band, what this represents for me is Valis Ablaze‘s ability to exploit what is clearly their main talisman, and they do so to great effect.
However, every record must be left with room for improvement, and a debut attempt simply cannot be exempt from this. In a nutshell, what is conceivably the biggest downside of Boundless is its length. For a band to make the transition from a short debut EP to an hour-long, full-length record is certainly no small feat, and whilst Valis Ablaze have certainly succeeded in certain areas, some sections of the album have undoubtedly fallen victim to becoming filler. Songs such as “Hex and “The Static Between Us” feel somewhat benign despite both clocking in at over five minutes, and are unfortunately less than memorable. While a lot of the material is undoubtedly strong, it simply doesn’t feel like there was enough of it to supplement a full hour, nor is there enough deviation from the trope of djenty metalcore. This is the record’s biggest letdown. One could not be criticised for suggesting that Insularity had more overall impact due to its punchy, more concise nature.
Overall, this is still a solid release from a promising outfit. Boundless undoubtedly establishes a great deal of atmosphere and impact, and this can be attributed to powerful songwriting and a clean, expressive mix. Highlights are certainly not few and far between, the opening and closing tracks are incisive, and the extended format establishes a certain level of audacity and confidence. Unfortunately, it felt as if there wasn’t quite enough quality material to support a sixty-minute journey. Thankfully, this is nothing that can’t be improved on and refined in the years to come. In addition, the epic, atmospheric, and aggressive djent approach is starting to feel like a trademark, Valis Ablaze staple, and an identity such as this can often prove to be pivotal in establishing a band image in the wider market. What can be said for certain is that this band are beginning to feel like a thoroughly well-grounded force within the scene, and one can only foresee a positive future for them.
Notable tracks: “Lumen”, “Faster Than Light”, “Reflections”
FFO: Tesseract, Exist Immortal, Monuments