Prog rock / Metal is generally allowed – and to some extent even expected – to be cheesy and conceptual (and kinda weird). From the genre’s inception with bands like King Crimson and Genesis to modern giants like Dream Theater and Steven Wilson, it’s basically just a time-honoured tradition for Progressive rock to have high art aspirations. For Bengaluru’s Rainburn, that manifests here on their debut album in a loosely conceptual release that explores themes of existentialism and the search for meaning – an attempt to “signify insignificance,” if you will. Not exactly new or uncharted territory – but, I mean, if the music’s great I could buy into it.
And I should mention that at first, I didn’t. The album does a lot wrong right from the start – the spoken word intro is probably one of the most off-putting album openers I’ve heard all year – “I can feel the weight. Of expectations. Relentless. Crushing…” ugh. Intensely delivered i nan Americanised accent, it just comes across as somewhat pompous and insincere, like the band is trying a little too hard to imitate their Prog heroes to the point of changing something fundamentally theirs. Lyrically, it does get better as the album goes, but if first impressions are truly hard to look past, this was one that left a bad taste in my mouth for the next few listens.
To an extent, I felt the same way about the vocals, although that was something that grew on me the more I listened to the album. Vats Iyengar’s singing is kind of… an acquired taste, let’s say. The first real bout of singing on Merchant of Dreams was like a slap to the face on the first listen; high-pitched, nasal, cutting, belted out and much too high in the mix. Although he’s not an untalented singer, he often sounds like he’s just trying very hard to emote in that theatrical, Bruce Dickinson, James LaBrie style but is falling just short of that in his attempt to maintain the note and nail the vibrato. It ends up often being just serviceable, if not somewhat unappealing – but it did get more tolerable as the album went on.
Less than perfect vocals can be a real turn-off for me – which is a real shame, because everything else Rainburn presents here I find incredibly charming. The production is absolutely beautiful, and reminds me a lot of ‘Image and Words’-era Dream Theater. Although the compressed drum sound leaves something to be desired, it works well with the poppy, always audible bass guitars and provides effective rhythm sections for the guitars to work over. The glassy guitar tones – both clean and distorted – give something of a general 80s Prog vibe, although the band incorporate genres like funk and blues riffage into the overall Prog Metal package. The songwriting overall has a very see-what-sticks vibe to it, and normally that would be a problem except that Rainburn is a very inspired band musically. In a similar manner to Between the Buried and Me (although notably more structure-oriented in this case), Rainburn excels at coming up with beautiful musical sections, solos and melodies – and just sticking them together into a pastiche of Progressive glory. This is immediately apparent in the opening jam of Merchant of Dreams, which starts of with a groovy bass melody, followed by twin guitar leads playing along to it. A lot of time is given to soloing, and the solos are often some of the most inspired parts of the album. Other highlights include the outro of Mirrors, and pretty much every track after Purpose. The album improves a lot towards its end, especially after the vocal-oriented, semi-experimental (in my opinion, a failed one) Purpose. Closer School of Atlantis is easily the best track on the album, boasting a flute solo that is a personal highlight of the album.
To be completely honest, I still don’t know what to make of this album. I initially wasn’t going to review it positively, although over subsequent listens it grew on me immensely. The lyrics, although cheesy, are charming in their own way, and the music itself is gorgeous, in some places brilliant. The more I listen, the more I come around on the singing too – although I’d welcome an instrumental version of this album for sure. Whatever it is, it’s certainly not a bad album, so let’s just say that I’d recommend this to the most ardent Prog fan and leave it at that.
I also look forward to what Rainburn come up with next. They’re an intriguing band, at the very least.
Get your hands on Rainburn’s ‘Insignify’ HERE!