I had one major expectation judging by the two singles: that the album would sound similar to the first album, but that it would have a generally different direction. That expectation was proven true. This album has taken what was already amazing (the self-titled album) and expanded on it so much that it feels impossible. What we have on this album is a true journey, both musically and conceptually. From front to back, I felt like the album took me on a journey, not from earth into space. Instead, I felt like it took me from space, from other dimensions, back to earth.
The album starts on a somber note with "Your World Will Fail", a song that feels almost like a warning to those who remain at home while others travel to nicer dimensions (see their story summary for more info), and it builds up the start of the conflict of the entire album. The album continues to flow through softer, more ambient moments that build into epic, intense orchestral bits that give this adrenaline to the music that no other artist has ever captured before. They bring back the essence of traditional prog rock and fuse it with these intense moments that I wish more groups were able to pull off properly. A prime example of this progression would be "Love Comes Home", which gradually builds from a softer, piano-driven sound into this passionate, soundtrack-like orchestral moment near the end that could be one of the most beautifully epic moments these guys have ever done. While the self-titled debut had a few more memorable epic moments throughout (specifically in songs like "Louder Than Words", "Torture", "World On Fire", "Sunday", "Come Back To Me"), this album dialed them back in favor of building tension and emotion, using the intense moments sparingly so that they hit harder when they're present. I find that I like that approach much better, especially as a fan of ambient music/soundscapes that build up over time to release emotion near the end.
As far as musicianship goes, this album is an improvement in every single way. As with the self-titled album, all of E.S. Posthumus' work, and Helmut's solo work as VonLichten, the orchestration is 100% real and 100% amazing. The composition is absolutely wonderful, as I talked a little about in the previous paragraph. And Paint... man, that guy can sing. I knew he was good on the self-titled but he has added so much texture, power, emotion, range, and all-around expertise to his vocal work on this album. He sings higher than ever before in intense moments, more powerfully than ever before in the hard-hitting parts, and he communicates emotion exceptionally well. There are only a few vocalists that can properly communicate emotion in their voices these days, such as Roy Khan (ex-Conception, ex-Kamelot), Shane Ochsner (Hands, Everything In Slow Motion), Sean McCulloch (Phinehas) or Andy Kuntz (Vanden Plas, Abydos). Paint has proven himself and thus put himself among that few. On the intense songs, he communicates power and determination. On the softer, slower songs, his smooth vocal work translates into a more delicate emotional impact. While this is something simple in thought, it is actually quite difficult to pull off but Paint does an excellent job with it.
I also have to make note of the inclusion of two guest vocalists on this album: Emily Valentine (featured on "I Remember" as well as "Come Back to Me" on the self-titled) and Lara Fabian (featured on "You Always Knew"). While Paint is fully capable of painting (pun intended) a mental picture in your mind and while his voice is more than sufficient for conveying emotion and story elements, the two guest vocalists really helped add a new layer of dynamics to the already-dynamic music. I'm not typically a huge fan of female vocals aside from choir vocals, but those two did an excellent job on this album. Most notable is Emily Valentine's performance in "I Remember" where she continues to sing higher with more emotion as the song goes on. That performance had my jaw on the floor at how much she built up over the course of the song.
As far as the concept and story behind the album goes, things were executed much, much better this time around. On the first album, the concept almost felt like something tacked on as an afterthought to give the album more re-listenability and depth as the music often felt disconnected from the story (though, in hindsight, this album really helps make that story make more sense). In the story, as humans' consciousnesses have gone to alternate, "better" dimensions, society at home is in a complete state of anarchy, and that's not even the biggest threat to existence: dark matter is slowly engulfing the universe. The story on this album follows two brothers and a girl, chosen for having extraordinary genes, as they go on a mission to try to save the whole of existence from this infestation of dark matter. The album is beautiful on a personal scale and epic on a grand scale, the story feeling both like a personal adventure and an epic sci-fi film, all in one. I don't want to spoil the story (or at least, my interpretation of it) so I won't go into detail, but I get the idea that the dark matter engulfing the universe was caused by this interdimensional travel somehow, which we never learned whether such travel is possible by natural or supernatural means. I like to take the more supernatural route and imagine that the dark matter's growth is meant to be the reflection of the degradation of humanity in our selfish search for more, and that the dark matter's growth is a response to our unnatural manipulation of natural forces. Basically, I interpret it as a punishment for humanity playing God and manipulating the very fabric of existence itself by only looking at things scientifically, forgetting morality.
No album is without its flaws despite the fact that this one has very few of them. If you're a fan of the countless epic releases present in Helmut's other work under E.S. Posthumus and VonLichten, you might be a little disappointed with this album. Where the self-titled album had intense releases in pretty much every song (e.g. "World on Fire" or "Louder Than Words"), this album uses the epic releases much more sparingly, thus -- in my own opinion -- creating a more tense, movie-like atmosphere. While that is a great approach, I know that there will be some that will prefer the original album's approach on that matter.
To summarize, this album can be described in one way: phenomenal. It plays out like a movie, feels as epic as a movie's soundtrack, tells a story both lyrically and musically, and it serves to accomplish the band's goal of creating a cinematic concept orchestral prog rock opera. The self-titled was amazing, Dark Matter is next level. Pretty much everything was improved in all aspects: the musicianship, the composition, the production, everything; it was all incredible. This is an album of massive proportions that feels as though it grows more and more every listen. I find myself listening to it back-to-back which not even the first Les Friction album was able to do (despite how amazing it was). I'd go as far as to say that this could be one of the best works Helmut Vonlichten has been involved in, which is saying a lot. You'd be doing yourself an immense disservice if you don't pick up this album. It might be my release of the year so far, it did not disappoint in any way, shape or form.
- "Who Will Save You Now"
- "I Remember"
- "Love Comes Home" *
- "This Is A Call"
- "Your Voice"
* - "Love Comes Home" stands out for me as the absolute best song on the album, feeling almost like a sequel to "World on Fire" in theme and sound. Also, Paint's vocal work on that song is intensely beautiful.