It is not every day that one finds themselves this impressed by a debut album, but here I am, gushing all over “imago,” the first studio effort by Slovenian post-progressive metal band HEI’AN, which is set to be released on November 25th, 2022, via SAOL. The 4-piece unit juggles with different genres and subgenres on this record, bringing everything from progressive rhythms and black metal blast-beats to metalcore-infused riffs and post-metal ambient parts. Did I make you curious? Keep reading, then.
Despite such an eclectic mix of styles, the album’s soundscape is not convoluted at all, beautifully transitioning from darkness to light. Coincidentally, this is also the theme of this concept record – a journey through someone’s inner emotions as they battle toxic relationships, depression, loss, and other such torments, only to come out the other side stronger. Equal parts dark and gloomy but also huge-sounding and melancholic, heavy yet atmospheric, distorted yet melodic, with a strong cinematic backbone to it, the album’s soundscape is as engrossing as it is expansive. For a debut album to have these attributes and this balance in how all the emotions and moods come across is not an easy feat to achieve, yet somehow the collective around mastermind Matic Blagonič have managed it with flying colors. The backing orchestrations, courtesy of Randy Slaugh (ARCHITECTS, SLEEPING WITH SIRENS, PERIPHERY, TESSERACT), play a big part in how all these seemingly disparate elements come together in one cohesive and fluid offering.
The album opens with “semita tenebrarum,” a hazy intro whose guitar strums, atmospheric noises, spoken word part, and intense build-up set the mood and the stage for desperate “inferno” to unleash its dual nature swinging back and forth between soft ambient parts and heavy sections that hint at what the album has in store as it unfolds. Guest vocalist Aljaž Novak (aka Oəlka) from Slovenian black metal band MALORSHIGA adds layers of nuances and textures to the song with his deep growls, making it feel heavier and darker. Up next, moody “embers” starts on bass lines that soon give way to a maelstrom of guitars, growls, and intense backing orchestrations, thus rivaling “inferno” in terms of darkness and heaviness. Cinematic “can’t get out of my skin” lifts the darkness and lets some light get through by making ample use of cleans vocals, synths, and lush orchestrations, though the metalcore breakdowns, big chorus sections, and screams make it the heaviest track on the album. Functioning like the ballad of the album, “escape” impresses the listener with beautiful, swelling backing arrangements, ethereal synth-work, soothing cleans, sweeping strings, and harsh vocals in the chorus. The top-notch sound design is the album’s strongest point, with the fluidity of the music a close second, as far as I’m concerned.
The second part of the album is a distorted mirror image of the first part, continuing the descent into personal hell until finally finding a way out, thus going from heavy and dark to atmospheric and melodic. In this respect, progressive “dreamer” brings back the heaviness and despair of “inferno” as Joe Buras (BORN OF OSIRIS) delivers some powerful growls that complement and contrast with Matic Blagonič‘s cleans, while the lyrics deal with toxic relationships/friendships. The guitar weaves in and out of the soundscape, offering heavy-as-hell riffs with every reprise, climaxing in a metalcore-like breakdown. Darkly atmospheric “in the cold” sways between mellow ambient passages, complete with melodic vocals and hefty instrumental sections, whose intense build-ups pay off superbly every time. As an album, “imago” is quite restless and meandering, always morphing, always changing, and a track like “time to go” captures its winding nature perfecting, growing from soft vocals and faint percussions to harsh vocals, blast-beats, and ominous underlying keys from Slovenian pianist Matic Štemberger. The track is capped off by a keyboard solo that feels out of the place in the overall soundscape of the album.
Eerie whispers, melancholic guitar chords, and tribal-like percussions give way to harsh vocals and piano lines on “shut my eyes,” making it the oddest piece of music on “imago” (and yes, that is a compliment). The weirdness continues with “at the break of dawn,” as spoken word lyrics are overlaid on a droning sound that pans left-right (especially hearable on headphones), thus creating an uneasy sensation, which then makes way for an interesting post-metal instrumental section. A more straightforward track is “noises,” which offers clean vocals, fast-paced drumming, and hazy guitar sounds, beautifully enhanced by the backing orchestrations. Honestly, Randy Slaugh did such a wonderful job on this album, elevating the music to the stratosphere with his arrangements. With closing title track “imago,” we have finally found the proverbial light at the end of this long and dark tunnel with sweeping strings, melodic cleans, flowing electronic sounds, and emotional lyrics. This is a wonderful note not only to end on, but also hit that play button again. The tracklist features three more titles – “ko te ni,” “preteklost,” and “ne iščem več besed,” which are actually Slovenian versions of the album tracks, “in the cold,” “dreamer,” and “noises.”
This is an album that needs some repeated listens to fully grasp what it has to offer in terms of song structures, sound design, lyrical themes, and the incredible genre-bending that makes “imago” such an intriguing yet magnetic listening experience. But the more you listen to the music, the more you uncover its richness of sound, depth and wealth of expression, and the wonderful attention to detail with which it was crafted. This is one of the year’s hidden gems, and I can’t recommend it (and the band) enough. Fans of such bands as ALCEST, TESSERACT, and ARCHITECTS will especially love this album.
Written by Andrea Crow
inferno [feat. Oəlka (Malorshiga)]
can’t get out of my skin
dreamer [feat. Joe Buras (Born of Osiris)]
in the cold
time to go (feat. Matic Štemberger)
shut my eyes
at the break of dawn
ko te ni
preteklost [feat. Gregor Strasbergar – Štras (Mrfy)]
ne iščem več besed
- Matic Blagonič – vocals, guitar,
- Matevž Počič – guitar
- Peter Smrdel – bass, synth
- Gaj Bostič – drums