Althea – The Art of Trees Review
On 8 January 2019, Althea released their hour-long new album “The Art of Trees.” The ten songs included in it tell the journey of life, from death to birth, in a Benjamin Button kind of arrangement. It is impossible not to see how much they matured as a band since their first EP, “Eleven” released 5 years earlier. The newest album is much more sophisticated musically, and they seem to have spent more time developing the progressive metal side of their sound. This metal sound is combined with atmospheric sounds, which is heavily influenced either intentionally or unintentionally by post-rock. The sound design is done completely by the band; the effects are all recorded live by the band, and not made using samples. It’s a fun exercise to try to imagine what they did to record the sounds as you hear them because the album includes a surprisingly huge variety of them. Needless to say, Althea’s newest album “The Art of Trees” exceeds what you would expect from an emerging band, and is an important point in the band’s career. If you like the minimal combination of modern progressive sound with the avant-garde atmospheric music of 70-80’s electro-prog music with good storytelling, you should definitely check this album out. One of the gifts of 2019’s prog scene.
Alessio Accardo – vocals, composer and arranger
Dario Bortot – guitars, keyboards, soundscapes, composer & arranger
Andrea Trapani – bass
Sergio Sampietro – drums
Michele Guaitoli – vocals on “Away from Me”
Tommy Nemesio – guitar solo on “Away From Me”
Paolo Campitelli – synth on “Away From Me”
Dario Toscano – saxophone on “Away From Me”
1- For Now (4:05)
Being the opening song of the album, the track “For Now” starts with the voices of chanting birds – creating a direct connection between the music and the cover art of the album. Then the synth overtones kick in, creating a peaceful soundscape combined with the dimmed piano voice. As the piano melody continues, the bird voices transform into rain sounds – which, all in all, indicates where the main inspirations came from while making this album (obviously nature). At this very moment, where we started to relax and enjoy the ambiance, the heavy guitar riffs of Dario Bolton kick in, calling as to wake up with the drums. The song features the beautiful combination of avant-garde influences of the band with their version of metal, especially the simplicity of the different parts (guitar, background sounds, piano, etc) that forms the flow of the track.
When the lyrics kick in, it is hard to not shed your tears due to the intensity that comes with the harmonic vocals and distorted guitars. In terms of creating an atmosphere, the band Althea certainly did understand that the emphasis should be on the ambiance and melody-rather than complicating things too much. In the end, the song fades-out, repeating the same melody over and over – “Welcome”ing us to the album.
The song is written from the perspective of a person who has awakened over time, and now, he is unable to see the lies happening around him. Linking this idea with music, the part that the heavy guitar riff comes in can be the part of the awakening period of the person. Then, for a while, until the lyrics start, the person avoids these lies (calm ambient music part). However, with the final part of the song, the person does see the lies that were once told to him and fight for them to the death (the song fades out):
For now we could cling to… It’s only a lieBreak down in tears and quietly we lie And retreat from the time
It seems like the band is going to tell us their story of facing the lies in our lives throughout the album, with high musicality and enjoyment.
2- Deformed To Frame (4:59)
The second track of the album, “Deformed to Frame” welcomes the listener with an energetic riff in an odd time signature. This incredible riff determines the tempo and the mood of the song. When it repeats itself, drums slowly start to create complex rhythms. Sergio Sampietro does it in the sense that the rhythm doesn’t interfere with the riff nor create a cacophony. While he is giving complex rhythms to the listener, he does it in a way that perfectly fits the rest of the instruments. This normally is a hard job for most songwriters; however, Althea totally nailed it. While repeating the riff, with the help of the drums, the band creates tension and then resolves it into a verse.
In the verse, the riff still continues; however, drums go back to its calmer rhythm and this gives a relaxation to the listener. Alessio Accardo starts to sing in a very calm and kind of creepy and depressing tone. It can be clearly seen that the narrator is suffering from depression. He says that drugs are the only thing that keeps him alive. He wants to hide inside and suffer. He wants to live his life as a dream, not a reality. While the listener understands and feels sorry for him, the complex drumming fades in to symbolize the inner feelings of the narrator. Then he continues to talk about his emotions. However, this time his thoughts start to change. He used to say “let me fade inside” but now he is saying “don’t let me fade inside (you)”. Now it can be understood that his suffering comes from a person and love he felt for her.
From now on, the song has a dramatic change. Instead of this harsh cold and energetic riff, a warm chord progression enters which shows that there is still love in the narrator’s heart. In this part, the listener sees what is inside of him. He is decaying, slowly dying and thus the title, “Deformed to Frame”. His depression overtakes his body and his suffering becomes intolerable. By the way, the vocal line in this part is just amazing; hats off to Accardo. With the back vocals, this part becomes incredibly enjoyable musically. However, his scream for help gets harshly cut by the verse. After a little, his cold part leaves his place for the chorus again. He is now brave enough to talk about his feelings. He screams, cries, and begs for help while he is slowly decaying. Like his cry for help, the song ends with a fade-out.
3- One More Time (5:20)
The third track of the album opens with calming synth sounds that don’t last long. These sounds get interrupted with distorted guitar and become the opposite of calm. While the distorted guitar is helping the rhythm melody and harmony is created by the synth. Synth plays a simple but catchy line that repeats itself for a while. This repetition could have been boring, however, they add the right amounts of decoration in there to entertain the listener and grasp their attention. This continues for about 1.20 minutes. Then, out of nowhere, the song changes everything and the listener finds itself in a different spot. While this change will make the listener surprised, long repetition will help them to embrace the intro’s melody and make them ready to move on.
Then a breakdown that can only be described as proggy comes and makes a great transition to the verse. With the more striking drums, the listener is introduced to the story. It is “One More Time” in life. This song is about a second chance in life. After “curtain has all fallen”, the narrator finds a second chance to make things better. First, he is skeptical, he asks himself “Why should I live those moments again?”. After a phase of suspicion, he decides that he wants to take this chance and come back to life.
Northerly wind in golden hair Blowing away my leaves of time Once in while…my eyes are agleam Surrendering to the unknown …I lived!
After that, the chorus comes which is very relaxed and calming. It helps the listener to breathe for a second. Letting the listener breathe is a very important element in prog rock and Althea shows that they know this in their record. In this part, the narrator comes back and look at the things, he is going through the same things one more time. However, this time, he “will go and live another destiny and time”. And the song ends with the same synth sounds from the beginning which creates a circle of second chances.
4- Today (5:10)
The track opens with electronic drums which later combine with the arpeggio by Bortot’s synth and creates a catchy and unique sound. This part repeating itself creates an immersive atmosphere for the sound. While this motif repeats itself, the singer comes in. Alessio Accardo starts to sing calmly and relaxing while talking about his love life. Then acoustic guitar starts to play an arpeggio. With the addition of the back vocals, this song stands out from other songs in the terms of its mood. While depressing lyrics are common in the album, this time, the music really gets you. This emotional part continues for about one and a half minutes. The synth does a final blow and electro guitar and drums enter to speed up the song. The song starts to become more confident of itself somehow. Guitar and drums start to be on fire. It is slowly building up, the listener can feel the tension. While instruments are ready to rock, the vocalist is keeping the melancholic mood consistent with his lyrics. There is a common theme of suffering from love. The depressiveness of the narrator can be understood by these lines of the chorus:
Today, I’ll try to live From the rage of storm inside me I will learn to shy away Today I’m losing my fate now Will you still be there tomorrow? When the rain will go away?
After these lines, all the instruments start to speed up. Guitar and drums excite the listener for the more to come. Then a breakdown with a complex riff kicks in to create a transition. Now bass, drums, and other instruments combine their powers for this effective part. After it, the song confidently increases its intensity. Every second, another little thing gets added to the song and when you reach the end, you are practically blown away.
5- Evelyn (8:58)
A distant rhythm, almost tribal sounding, fills our ears. A simple clean guitar part with synth additions covers up the rhythm as if they are fighting over who gets to be heard. Yet, the rhythm sends a melodic counterpart to the battlefield: the acoustic guitar. The theme of distance is very strong in “Evelyn.” The conversation between the instruments, their cries, their fights; with those elements, the song doesn’t even need lyrics. Well, maybe it wouldn’t need lyrics if prog artists were satisfied with “I did this. I did that. I felt sad.” type of lyrics, but Althea’s abstract lyrics play around the idea just as the instruments do. Words are to a lyricist what notes are to a musician, and Althea seems to have got that down. You can’t understand what “Evelyn, don’t complicate your smile,” means without digging down into it, and yet, it still makes sense. Just as you can’t understand why certain notes work together without analyzing it first. In this case, the song is about the reminiscence of a distant lover.
On that note, there are other little quirks about the song that makes it special. While the song is (mostly) on the lighter side of Althea’s sounds, the drummer uses a double-kick groove throughout. Your mind doesn’t want to accept this, it shouts “this shouldn’t work”; yet your ears turn away and ignore it, act as if nothing really happened.
Another quirk is the 30-second break starting at 4:30. It’s incomparable to anything, which is probably the biggest advantage of the band producing their own sounds themselves. This part of the song includes a heavy metal riff with a synth sound that I can not describe with words. And this is placed in the middle of a light-hearted 9-minute song. And this does not break the flow of anything at all. All we could do is to clap.
6- Not Me (5:26)
Using eery soundscapes to start off the song is a go-to technique when it comes to the progressive metal genre, but knowing the fact that Althea created their own sound effects instead of samples really adds to the specialty of their experimentalism. And with the addition of what sounds like a reverse piano note (another technique, used effectively by Yes), the crawly guitar work of Dario Bortot doesn’t sound out-of-place for the listener. Of course, it would still feel uncomfortable, in a good, proggy way; however, if the song did not have that short intro to prepare the listener for the prog metal delirium that’s about to surface, the guitars just would not sound as absorbing as it is now.
There seem to be multiple guitars at work here to create the syncopated feel that epitomizes this section, so to speak. Especially if you take the short but fast tom fill by Sergio Sampietro into consideration as well, it is safe to assume the reminiscence of TOOL in this song. This syncopated feel also tricks the listener into thinking that the main melody is in an odd time signature; but if you go ahead and count it, despite all its complexity, it is in common time. This is not Althea trying to be pretentious by using odd time signatures; quite the opposite, by making this section in 4/4, the band shows that not every song is “progressive” because they use odd time signatures, which is what modern prog musicians sometimes tend to think. Some of the most enduring prog classics are in 4/4. So in the end, progressive music is not defined by odd times, but by their use of new sounds and techniques which in return, can broaden the horizon of the listener by experiencing them.
After a satisfactory end to the progressive metal opening, a Pink Floyd-ish acoustic section (even the strumming of the guitar reminds Floyd) warmly welcomes us with emotional chord progressions and psychedelic synths. This sudden change of tone helps elevate the song from the rest of the album, and when both of those tones are handled with great care, like in the case of Althea, the result is a unique song with bold choices that define the signature sound of the band. Talking about Pink Floyd, the guitar solo which heavily incorporates the melody of the vocal lines is another example of how Althea can learn from their influences and adopt it in such a unique way. You might have missed Dario Bortot’s organ (he is normally the guitarist!) during this section, but I can assure you, it would have made Richard Wright proud.
Near the end of the song, the prog metal section that we’ve talked about earlier comes back, as if to remind the listener that these two parts were from the same song. Overall, this song won my mind with its syncopated guitars and Sampietro’s use of toms, and it won my heart with the sheer sentimentalism of its acoustic middle section.
7- The Shade (4:41)
Seventh track of the album, “The Shade” starts directly with the vocals after a warm ballad intro by the piano, synth, and acoustic guitar. The chord progression, in the beginning, makes you realize that this band is one of those few bands that give great emphasis to details. As the vocal inters, the music turns to this romantic flow throughout the end of the song. We are able to hear the distinctive melodies of different instruments pour into each other and become a whole and create this signature atmosphere, perhaps the most special thing that makes the band ALTHEA special.
As Dario Toscano’s saxophone gets involved in the song, we get to hear an incredible duet going on between the guitar and sax. They sometimes have their own way, sometimes complement each other, and sometimes just one of them takes over the stage. The harmony between the guitar and the sax carries you to the edge of your emotional border, and the rest are those tears coming out of your eyes.
Corresponding with the general concept of the album, the song “The Shade” is telling the story about a stage of life that everyone one day goes through Love. Lyrics explains this romantic atmosphere of the song and also shows how the band is able to compose the right music complying to certain feelings. The lyrics are written from a perspective where one suffers from failing to reaching his lover, and therefore wants to ease the pain inside. However, one is also aware that the love inside(“the wave”) can’t be “dared to calm”. So, one tries to escape this dilemma, but can’t help himself to fall in love again:
Then fall has come as a guess When it started to rain, I fell in love Another time, every other day But the days have turned to one
The song performs the same duty as “The Spirit Carries On” from “Metropolis Pt.2” by Dream Theater. With is a warm atmosphere, it is certainly a safe space for the listeners to relax for a song between the prog madness. However, even though, it is considered the “softest” song on the album, it doesn’t prevent it from being one of the pearls of the album.
8- The Art Of Trees (9:20)
The title track of Althea’s second studio album is not a song that is to be taken lightly. Being the longest song in the album, it mashes different sections together with a seamless transition and takes the listener on a complete emotional voyage with a sound so full that it almost seems hard to imagine it coming from a four-piece band. The song offers a fresh take on the genre and focuses more on the personality of the song rather than its technicality.
From the first few seconds, you understand that this song was made to be memorable, it was meant to stand out musically. The energetic drumming technique of Sergio Sampietro really gives the song a tight feeling as a whole, but the outburst of the snare can be heard the best in the opening of the song.
With the short yet effective drum fill at the beginning and the vigorous chord progression that follows, the listener is encapsulated by the effect they create. The resulting sound is rough and punchy which gets you to nod your head to the rhythm from the start, which is what every “smaller” band should aim for. Because if you can get your listeners to be a part of the song, then the connection they form with your band can be more firm and permanent.
I want to mention Dario Bortot at this point. Though I’m going to mention him a lot more later on in the review with his phenomenal guitar sound; for now, I want to say a few words about his work with the synthesizers. Since their old keyboardist, Marco Zambardi had left the group by this point, Bortot had to take the role of a keyboard player, for which he does a good job at, to be honest.
The guitar solo that comes after the opening is comparatively short but still adds to the uniqueness of the song by altering the usual song structure. The backing track, with its dramatic string staccatos, really helps Bortot’s fierce and daring solo shine. But what really affected me was the small acoustic transition that Althea used to get to the next riff. For a second there, I thought the song was going to turn acoustic and I was fine with that. But when Althea picked up the heavy rock feel once again, as if nothing happened, and made it even more complex (with the fast ascending piano line); my appreciation for the band and their musicality grew even more.
After a very melodic interlude, the vocals of Alessio Accardo enters. The vocal melodies are similar to those in the alternative rock genre which makes them sound very familiar to the listener. Especially the chorus has a catchy melody that over time, has the potential of getting stuck in your head:
Bending with the wind, but now it’s tearing me apart Crawling on my knee, now you can fill me with your art Bending with the wind, close the eyes of my heart
And the much-awaited solo from Dario Bortot comes near the end, this time a little longer and more satisfactory. After another chorus, the song ends the same way it started, which makes it stand as a singular piece on its own.
The song consists of a certain number of motifs and can easily interchange the order and move from one to another which gives the song the feeling of those progressive rock suites from the ’70s. It has a good balance between prog metal riffs and melodic, slower passages. Overall, though the lyrics sometimes lack the emotional complexity that the music requires, Althea proved that they deserve a definite notability in the modern prog-rock scene with songs like “The Art of Trees”.
9- Away From Me (6:53)
One of the relatively long songs, “Away From Me” starts off with some distorted background guitar voices. Then we are faced with a guitar riff that slams the modulation in your face, making this effect of “epicness” for the music. Then, we hear the beautiful string composition, which creates a space for the drums to create a tom groove. After the long intro of the song, the heavy influences of the band starts to show up again. As the Maynard-style whispery voices come together with the drop-tuned rhythmic distortion guitar, it is impossible not to hear the TOOL influence on the band. Also, generally in the album, the band starts the verses with a Dream Theater-ish slow and intense vocal, a clean guitar lick in the background with the heavy bass sound that makes a brick effect in your head.
The bridge has the classic mellow ALTHEA sound with a high emphasis on the atmosphere and the melodies., Then from that point, distortion slowly kicks in and the emotional tempo accelerates to a power-metal inclined style-with the same disturbing chord progression that we heard at the beginning of the song. Till the end, the song repeats the same structure, but there is one difference between the 2 repeats. We are finally able to hear a shreddy-keyboard solo-which personally may be the best moment of the album. The solo fits in very well with the whole atmosphere and chord progression and like all the other solos in the album, ALTHEA is able to give you goosebumps with its solos.
The song is not about a certain event that one has faced, rather it is about certain emotions that we are facing in our lives: The feeling of disappointment that we all eventually face towards the people that we once loved, that we once trusted; then trying to calm yourself, ease the pain(but fail in despair, waiting for “the end”):
Waiting for the time I’ll face the door I feel it in my ocean I feel it in my heart Waiting for the tide to get back low
One of the significant features of this band is the way they use back-vocals in their songs. In most of their songs in the album, they used the technique of different vocals singing different lines, creating this dreamy sound effect (which Radiohead is a master of). Song indicates a variety of different ways that the band is able to compose a song, and reveals major progressive influences of the band, such as the vocalist James Labrie’s effect on the vocalist.
10- Burnout (5:46)
Again, we arrive at the end of the journey. Through this journey, the first minute is accompanied by the cries of a baby. Though we are in the end, Althea’s non-linear album structure carried us back to where it all began: birth. “I used to live inside my world, and now you’re calling me” is the line most explanatory of this concept. It is written through the perspective of a baby in their mother’s womb. The child is “full of your hopes and dreams,” yet, the lyricist is aware of the pain in the world. The following line, “dust is just a simple floating lie,” shows the child’s pointless optimism ironically. The song is a definitive closer, it’s consistent rhythm soothes the listener as if it is the fade-out section of a single song. When we were little, the times were simpler, and “Burnout” conveys this idea through its instrumentation. It begins with a synth and grand piano chord progression, almost like an electronic alt-rock composition. Though we can not forget the 1-minute “sound theatre” intro in the beginning. You can imagine what kind of scene it is, what the character does, and why, just from a simple complex of sounds. A clean/acoustic guitar joins, adding to the chords surrounding us, while a beautiful bass part runs through in the background, supporting the ending harmony. This is why you need to listen to this album with headphones; Althea filled every space with a unique sound, leaving you nowhere to go but the music. Around the 4th minute, there is a bridge part, transitioning to a louder and more ardent chorus while still retaining the theme it kept through the first 3 minutes. Just like that, everything fades out, and the album is over.