Canvas Solaris Revisited

‘Penumbra Diffuse’ comes hot on the heels of one of my favourite tech metal albums ever; ‘Sublimation’. Throughout their career, Canvas Solaris have been incredibly consistent since their debut, each time pursuing a very cerebral brand of instrumental music, complex and rife with atmosphere. When compared to the album that came before it, ‘Penumbra Diffuse’ is a marked step towards favouring the atmospheric side of their work. Although not quite reaching the mind-boggling intensity of ‘Sublimation’, the greater variety of styles and dynamic is an effective development.

Having become quite familiar with the Canvas Solaris records ‘Cortical Tectonics’ and ‘Sublimation’, the technical prowess of the band is virtually taken for granted this time around. Of course, and as their labelled style might imply, the complexity of the music is its greatest selling point. Not only is the trio of Sapp, Simpkins and Ginn performing at the level of masters, but the compositions themselves enjoy a thick sense of composition and arrangement. Nathan Sapp’s multi-disciplinary style of guitarwork is quick to alternate between rhythm and lead playing, and though the music feels chaotic at times, there is never a moment when the band is not performing in a meticulously pre-calculated unison. Although ‘Penumbra Diffuse’ will still come as a system shock to the uninitiated listener, the complexity itself has been toned down from ‘Sublimation’. Instead of the endlessly perplexing mathematical sequences they went through there, Canvas Solaris have taken a more moderated approach with the use of ‘atmosphere’. A fairly broad term yes, but one that seeks to encompass most of the fresh things the band are doing here. From acoustic guitar sections to harmonic explorations and keyboard textures, this exchange has brought them a more balanced sound, although I think I prefer the return to madness that the next album ‘Cortical Tectonics” sought to achieve.

It would be unfair to rate anything by Canvas Solaris less than an impressive score. Although the intensity of their compositions may vary slightly depending on the album, there’s no denial that each musician is at the top of their class with their respective instruments. The only weakness- if you can call it one- that Canvas Solaris’ music suffers from is its pure attention to the complex and mechanical, often coming off as cold on the emotional spectrum. As such, the awe and admiration I have for their music is tempered when part of me feels less than it should. Of course, taking into consideration the ‘mission’ of the band to create inhumanly complex music, it is clear that Canvas Solaris have chosen to take a path that most musicians would buckle and cower underneath. In the case of ‘Penumbra Diffuse’, the emphasis on atmosphere may not be quite as effective as the unrelenting metal attack of the album prior, but it does give a greater feeling that may have been missing from the band’s earlier work.

Canvas Solaris are widely acknowledged as being the darlings of modern technical prog metal. They are a band that has been able to capture my attention without the use of those pesky vocals, instead letting their instruments do the talking. It goes without saying that this band is at the top of their game from a technical angle, and on ‘Cortical Tectonics’, they take their auditory calculus to its arguable peak, creating the most coherent and effective album of their careers.

Canva Solaris have been constantly changing as a group, now- if my memory serves- a five piece act with full-time keyboardist to boot. With ‘Cortical Tectonics’, Canvas Solaris are actually only a three piece, which is made quite surprising due to the unrelenting complexity and busy performance. The many guitars of Nathan Sapp are the feature on all of these tracks, and they tend to vary quite a bit. Canvas Solaris is most definitely a progressive metal band first and foremost. Frantic and tightly composed tech riffs are sometimes even being played two or three at a time, thanks to the dense overdubbing of guitars. Thanks to clever musicianship and arrangement however, it refrains from sounding like a noisy blur, although it is a lot to take in all at once. Ultimately, Canvas Solaris really amazes on all fronts, performance-wise. There is a distinct sci-fi sound to much of the music; spacey effects are occasionally thrown in to provide a new dimension to the music.

‘Cortical Tectonics’ is arguably the heaviest album that Canvas Solaris have done. Especially compared to its predecessor ‘Prenumbra Diffuse’, there is a lesser focus on the lighter aspects of the band’s music; this can be taken as a good or bad thing, depending on where you are coming from as a listener. I personally find the more unrelenting nature of ‘Cortical Tectonics’ to really work for the band, because they never lower their integrity for powerful compositions. There is less variety and mellowness to digest on this album, and it does lead to an overall more cohesive effort; instead of wandering through a multitude of different jazzy, eastern, or psychedelic sounds, Canvas Solaris sticks to intense prog metal, and manages to keep just enough mellower moments to keep the sound fresh. On the lighter side, Canvas Solaris draws mainly from jazz, although they never truly wander out of prog canon. If you like technical metal, ‘Cortical Tectonics’ may possibly become one of your new favourite albums. It’s very cerebral without being self-indulgent, and while it lacks the vocals that some listeners may sorely miss, each song the band delivers here is memorable and powerful.

Canvas Solaris have long been at the forefront of the technical metal scene. A band as consistent in any in their mission to deliver cerebral and sometimes puzzling music, this collective of skilled musicians has always had my respect. On their fourth album, ‘The Atomized Dream’ is a natural continuation of their trademark style of mathematically-driven progressive metal. Contrary to what this band is normally about however, there is an added slight emphasis on atmosphere and texture that slightly distinguishes this album apart from the rest, at least on a stylistic note.

‘The Binaural Beat’ immediately demonstrates that ‘The Atomized Dream’ is Canvas Solaris’ attempt at broadening their sound a bit. Instead of the intensely technical observations I’m used to hearing on a record like their third, ‘Cortical Tectonics’, Canvas Solaris opens up this album on a much lighter note, even at times focusing on melody, something that- I can decidedly mention- hasn’t been a brighter point of this band’s music. In fact, even as the album’s title and surreal artwork may suggest, the music here starts off in a fairly spacey direction, with plenty of atmosphere and ambient layering highly reminiscent of Ozric Tentacles. However, there is still the tech metal outlet on this album; after an uncharacteristic opener, ‘Reflections Carried To Mirror’ brings the listener a slice of Canvas Solaris that is much more familiar, perhaps too familiar. The fact that many of these guitar tones and general artistic approach the band takes with their more technical material here is almost a rehash of what they have already been doing for a few albums.

Now, a band like Canvas Solaris cannot ever be judged as weak musicians; after all, their very essence as a band is that of sheer technicality and logical precision. Still, the music on ‘The Atomized Dream’ comes off as a little dry, despite the atmospheric additions the guys have installed on their music. Instrumental music can have plenty of emotion in it, and there are moments here (such as a very melodic passage in ‘The Binaural Beat’) that make me feel something beautiful. All the same, the majority of this music shakes my head around without necessarily plucking the heart strings. There are plenty of erratic time signature changes and dense orchestrations as usual, and Canvas Solaris achieves a challenging record with ‘The Atomized Dream’ that requires several listens to really ‘get’, regardless of how familiar the sound may be to existing listeners of the group. While it may be a little cold, Canvas Solaris are sure to give your brain something to think about.

If anything can be said about progressive metal, it is that it attracts some incredibly talented and skilled musicians. Suffice to say, Canvas Solaris knocks my socks off on quite a few fronts. A band whose mission seems to be as virtuosic as their instruments allow, all the while drawing the listener in with some more melodic sections. This certainly isn’t a new approach for metal bands to take, but I will say that Canvas Solaris has their own defined niche that separates them from other bands of this style. ‘Irradiance’ is the band’s fifth album, and therefore at this late stage, we see Canvas Solaris already as a very matured band. It is not the best thing that this trio has done to date, but its a strong slice of progressive metal that shows that this band is worth more than just playing fast.

As I stated, ‘Irradiance’ is a more mature outing for Canvas Solaris, and as a result, the music is less about flaunting their skills, and more about the actual songwriting. Naturally, this is a bit of a double edged sword for a band like this. We don’t get to hear the same number of freaky tech metal explosions as there were on earlier albums, but there are more melodies, stronger song structures, and other things that are considered more conventionally ‘enjoyable’. In this sense, it does feel that Canvas Solaris has jumped on the same wagon as Scale The Summit, although Canvas’ style is still substantially more futuristic and technical.

The extremity of Canvas Solaris has been toned down, but I still feel that they maintain the progressive touch to them. There are jazz breaks and Latin rhythms to throw a listener off the course, and as is especially evident on the last track ‘Null Proximity’, the band still has some of their old tricks to play with. These songs all sound like apples of the same tree, although each has at least one hook, lead, or strange section that will make it memorable. I was admittedly not expecting to find the music so interesting, but one thing that Canvas Solaris manages to do very well is keep their compositions eventful. Hearing such a technically accomplished band writing actual songs is pretty refreshing, and while this is a slightly more subdued incarnation of the band, there are still jaw-dropping moments for the listener to lose their mind to. Canvas Solaris are one of the most stunning instrumental metal bands ever, to be quite sure.

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