09.11.2021 VOLA: Live From the Pool

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If there was only one thing worth rushing back to, considering all this fuss about returning back to normal, my stance on the matter is that it would be live music – no questions about it. My view was solidified even further while watching the outstanding live performance by the Danish monolith of modern prog-metal, VOLA, which premiered online on September 11th, 2021. In support of the band’s latest studio album, “Witness,” released earlier this year via Mascot Records, the performance was recorded at the swimming pool of the abandoned Auderød military camp in North Zealand, near Copenhagen, Denmark. I would be hardpressed to think of a better location for these Danes to play a haunting live set spanning across their discography. The defunct military building occupied by nature, with grass sprouting forth from the cracks in the floor and the stage lights zigzagging through the air, creates a very special atmosphere – yes, even via the computer screen. The visual cues conveyed by the setting feel almost as though the band was playing amidst the props of the post-apocalyptic 2020 video game, Last of Us pt 2. The game developer, Naughty Dog, is particularly renowned for their spectacular storytelling – a trait it certainly has in common with VOLA. The fact that the live stream was premiered on the 20th anniversary of the World Trade Center attack may also have contributed to the strange feeling of witnessing (sic!) the band playing beautiful sonnets to a dying world. With the themes of the songs ranging from our inner turmoils to the way we struggle with our relationship with the world, VOLA would be the perfect house-band of choice for providing the most evocative soundtrack for the end of the world. Playing in an abandoned pool full of vegetation, VOLA proves that they are one of those bands that possess the skills to go above and beyond the ordinary.

The stream begins with short footage of an old-fashioned, grainy movie countdown film reel. It is quite the cliched attempt to evoke a vintage feel but, in this context, it plays quite nicely on the kind of otherworldly, almost post-apocalyptic feel of the setting. The live set itself kicks off with the somewhat PORCUPINE-TREE-tinged single cut, “24 Light-Years,” off the latest VOLA album and the execution is nothing short of sublime. The pop harmonies resonate with the pristine aura of THE BEACH BOYS and the guitar-induced wall of sound creates a distinct beauty of contrast – which is exactly what this band is all about.

The first half of the set leans heavily on the band’s last two albums with the songs “Alien Shivers” and “Ruby Pool” lifted from the 2018 album, “Applause Of A Distant Crowd.” The abrasive and angular djent-riffs are nicely balanced with the bittersweet pop melodies and bursts of darkly shaded electronica and the live renditions of the songs sound just as amazing as the studio recordings. While the categorical imperative to mix different flavors into a kaleidoscopic but coherent whole has always been one of the fundamental tenets of progressive rock and metal, in the prog community there are none quite like VOLA. They make the transition from crushing MESHUGGAH-styled polyrhythms to soothing synth-pop moments á la DURAN DURAN sound like the most natural thing in the world. Then again, those of us who have been following the “VOLA listens to” playlist in Spotify for some time are probably accustomed to the band’s “anything goes” mentality by now.

Halfway through the set, VOLA visits the heavier sound of their 2015 debut ”Inmazes.” The song “Owls” beautifully blends fractal metal riffing with vintage PINK FLOYD vibes – especially on those vocal oohs and aahs. So, in effect, VOLA‘s eclectic musical outlook was almost fully formed already on their debut and on the following two outings, the band honed this unique style to perfection, slanting new and exciting facets to their music. One of the novel elements is the rap section on the track “These Black Claws” on the latest album, for example. The live version of the song features the rap part as playback. Usually, the use of playback in a live performance is a feature that is generally dismissed as anything but cool, but a spoken-word part is that one exception that usually works as playback too. Here, the rapped lyrics provided by the electronic/hip-hop duo, SHAHMEN, add that same, distinctly evil vibe to the song even from tape, just like on the album.

As a rule of thumb, the live versions pretty much conform to the album arrangements – except for the live rendition of the song, “Gutter Moon.” On the “Inmazes” album, it sounds like the typical full-on maelstrom of stop-and-go riffing in odd time signatures, whereas the live reading here is stripped down to the vocalist, Asper Mygind, and his guitar. It serves as a nice breather after a fair deal of head-banging madness (I’m not really sure how you could mosh to VOLA‘s polyrhythms without getting severe neck pain but I’m quite convinced that not even the craziest breakneck riff-fractals would keep the most reckless of metalheads from trying).

After the brief moment of smooth sailing in quiet waters, VOLA throws in a curveball of three consecutive songs from the “Applause Of A Distant Crowd” album. First in line is the haunting powerhouse of pop, “Ghosts.” It is an excellent demonstration of the band’s eloquent pop sensibility – and proof that VOLA could easily have made a killing in the indie-rock scene just as well. Lucky for us, they chose the path less traveled and opted for something more eclectic instead. The following song, “Smartfriend,” gears up on the crushing riffs while maintaining a fair amount of pop in the choruses. “Whaler,” in turn, is a monumental riff-origami that subtly echoes the sonic aesthetics of Devin Townsend‘s proggy endeavors. The song’s innate sense of a massive moment of inertia is nicely conveyed live as well.

Before the off-kilter riff-assault, “Stray the Skies,” from the band’s debut brings things to a close, VOLA plunges into melancholy pop with the 2021 song, “Inside Your Fur.” I could not have thought of a better way to end the show than the transition from haunting pop to the offbeat punch-up of metal riffs. It has been a while since I last had 70 minutes flying past with me barely noticing.

It would be a harsh understatement to say that this live stream got me all hyped up. VOLA has a tour scheduled for early 2022 – with two dates set in Finland too! Let’s just cross our fingers and hope the world that seems to have gone bat-shit crazy will not postpone the tour any further. After watching this Live From the Pool performance, I can hardly wait to see these champions in flesh and blood. The stream will be available until September 25th, 2021. Do yourself a favor and check this band out now. It will blow you away!

Written by Jani Lehtinen

Setlist:

  1. 24 Light-Years
  2. Alien Shivers
  3. Head Mounted Sideways
  4. Straight Lines
  5. Ruby Pool
  6. Owls
  7. These Black Claws
  8. Gutter Moon
  9. Ghosts
  10. Smartfriend
  11. Whaler
  12. Insider Your Fur
  13. Stray the Skies