Released: 2007, Lion Music
It's been nearly four years since the last release from Sun Caged, the Dutch prog-metal band formed in the aftermath of the breakup of Lemur Voice back in 2000. Their 2003 eponymous debut album was an instant cult-classic in the progressive metal genre, incorporating elements of jazz, fusion, and ambient music into their metallic technical wizardry. Over the course of the following years, musical and personal differences resulted in a series of departures from the group, leaving only guitarist Marcel Coenen in place with the other members going on to form various other projects. Coenen, a legend in the Dutch guitarist community, soldiered on, spending what must have seemed to some an inordinately long time recruiting new members for the group. The results of his efforts to find the right people for the right parts, however, are nothing short of stellar.
ARTEMISIA not only picks up the styles of the first album but adds still more influences to the mix, resulting in a complex yet somehow accessible amalgam of sonic tapestries. Production is excellent - clear and crisp with all instruments and voices receiving equal attention in the overall sound. New vocalist Paul Adrian Villarreal is a melodic singer with an excellent sense of choral harmony, employing a somewhat less aggressive style than his predecessor in the group. In fact, his vocal style reminds me a bit of Fates Warning's Ray Alder in his quieter moments as well as the singers from the greats of progressive rock from the 1970's like Yes and ELP. ELP also comes to my mind when listening to some of the vintage-prog keyboard lines from Rene Kroon on tracks like "Blood Lines" and the nearly-instrumental "Engelbert The Inchworm." Other influences are equally obvious in the Dream Theater-esque polyrhythmic drumming of Roel Van Helden, the Cynic-like bass work of Roel Vink, and the Meshuggah-heavy start-stop 7-string riffage and Vai-meets-Malmsteen shredding of Marcel Coenen. In less capable hands, such a mix of variegated sounds might wind up as nothing but a muddled mess, but Sun Caged pull it all off with style.
Perhaps most appealing is the fact the focus is on the songs rather than on histrionics. All of the band members are highly skillful at their chosen instruments and do show plenty of flash 'n' dash during the solo sections of the various tracks, but those sections do not dominate any of the songs, nor do they seem to be excessive noodling for the sake of showing off. While no one will accuse Sun Caged of being a Top 40 radio-hit act that anybody can get into on the first listen, there are some decidedly catchy moments in the midst of the progressive flow, particularly the instantly-singable chorus of "A Fair Trade." On the other end of the spectrum, there are also some amazingly heavy portions, most notably on the monstrous "Unborn," where rapid-fire time signature changes and crushing riffs are the rule of the day. If I had a complaint about the songs, it would have to be one I'd apply to nearly every prog-metal band at one point or another, namely the stressing of syllables that aren't normally stressed in singing...accenting words like "the" and "an" in the middle of a sung sentence seems more jarring to me than the most drastic time-shift in the music. Fortunately, those moments are relatively limited on this album, mostly in the otherwise-beautiful melodic pieces like "Afraid To Fly."
Sun Caged are not for everyone, obviously, as the fact they change direction so frequently...even though they do so near-flawlessly...will not appeal to every set of ears, but if you're a fan of well-written, well-played, and broad-minded prog metal, you can't go wrong with this album.