A couple of years ago, Oklahoma prog metal band Vangough released their debut ‘Manikin Parade’, an album that I perceived to be shamelessly doused in the influence of Swedish act Pain Of Salvation, but one that I found both inspired and enjoyable to listen to. Since then, they also released a fun tribute to the soundtracks of video games, playing original rock/metal renditions of classic game scores from the 8-bit era and beyond. Over the year or so that I have known about this band and listened to them, I have found them impressive and found myself in anticipation of the new outing from Vangough. ‘Kingdom Of Ruin’ may not have the instant appeal that ‘Manikin Parade’ had for me, but it is a step towards maturity for the band that I think will lend to even greater things in the future.
Most notably, frontman Clay Withrow and company have tuned down the superfluous Pain Of Salvation influence in their sound. This is a band that is still notably inspired and driven by the style of progressive art metal that Daniel Gildenlow can be said to have innovated, but I feel like this band is taking steps to making their own identity. Ironically, this is brought forth by lowering the dramatic flair and proggy sensibilities that I heard on the debut. Instead, there is a more homogeneous melodic metal sound. In hindsight, ‘Manikin Parade’ was a little scattered and over-the-top, and at least for its first half, ‘Kingdom Of Ruin’ ramifies this issue. The songwriting is a little more concise and focused this time around, without as many ‘wow’ moments to dive into, but each song delivers a somewhat greater sense of satisfaction by the end. ‘Abandon Me’ is a perfect example of what this album is all about; rhythmic guitar work, plenty of ambient keyboard work in the background, and- certainly not least- Withrow’s voice itself.
As was the case with ‘Manikin Parade’, Clay Withrow’s vocal abilities remain the absolute pinnacle of Vangough’s strength. In lieu with much of the band’s presentation, he does take a leaf from Daniel Gildenlow and the Pain of Salvation school, but the range and strength of his voice is gorgeous. Sadly, there are only a few moments on the album where his voice is given a chance to really prove itself, and this subdued nature is something that lies throughout ‘Kingdom Of Ruin’. Each of these four musicians is an impressive figure in the prog metal catalogue, but I feel that the songwriting’s often straightforward nature generally leads to the voice and writing being emphasized largely over anything else. There are still moments and solos where Vangough get to prove their instrumental capabilities, and these sparse sections are brilliant. There are some wonderful riffs on my favourite track ‘Rabbit Kingdom’, with twin lead guitars soaring. The latter half of the album does start getting a little more adventurous, with the twelve-odd minute ‘The Garden Time Forgot’ ending things. At fifteen tracks though, I begin to think that ‘Kingdom Of Ruin’ gets a little long for its own good.
There are plenty of memorable, moving songs here, and many moments where I was really impressed by Vangough. The more suppressed style on ‘Kingdom Of Ruin’ does indicate to me that they are consolidating their talents and sharpening up their essence, but it comes out just a bit dryer in general than I may have wanted. As well, this issue could have been softened by shortening up the album’s length; with fifteen tracks here, it’s difficult to argue that every one of them are winners, and the moments here that pass me as cheesy or tired- as few and far between as they may be- seek to take away from what is otherwise a really great album from this band. With the maturation they have demonstrated here, it will be exciting to see what Vangough offer on their third full-length.