Album Review: Ison – Stars & Embers

Album Review: Ison - Stars & Embers
Reviewed by Dan Barnes

Originally formed as a duo back in 2015, Gothenburg’s ISON released two EPs and two full-length albums before the departure of Draconian’s Heike Langhans in the latter part of 2020, leaving only Daniel Änghede to carry the torch forward.

In interviews, Änghede states he was in no doubt that ISON would continue, but admits he had no idea in what form it would be. Reports also suggest the one-time Crippled Black Phoenix guitarist experienced many dark nights of the soul in the two-year gestation of Stars & Embers and, in some respects, that troubled birth is laid bare in the melancholic beauty of the seventy-two-minute running time.

Constructed in eight movements rather than eight songs, the album is a sumptuous banquet of ideas communicated through the medium of sound. Beginning with the snippet of a radio communication, Luminescent Reverie is the start of this voyage through space and time. Cosmic ambience gives way to a gathering intensity as a lone voice calls from the void. Gently plucked strings foreshadow the eventual arrival of overdriven guitars and astral synths, marking the commencement of the odyssey.

Horizons is the musical equivalent of a Cosmology text book; its ten minute run-time, while not excessive, is filled with the exploratory use of sustained chords and ethereal vocals from Irish singer-songwriter, Lisa Cuthbert, who makes a return appearance here after featuring on ISON’s 2020 album, Aurora. The contribution of Ms Cuthbert lending a Celtic feel to the music, combined with the distinctly Vangelis, c. Blade Runner, vastness.

Album Review: Ison - Stars & Embers

The first time Stars & Embers features more familiar sounding vocals is on Peregrination, which sees a melancholic duet between Ms Cuthbert and Dark Tranquillity’s Mikael Stanne. Here is also only one of a small number of places where traditional song structures are evident, through fat crashing chords.

Radiant Void takes us back to a more soundscape, almost soundtrack, arrangement; more Vangelis feel and a chord sustain the rival of Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond. Here you’ll find a heavier reliance on electronic music as a basis to allow the guitars to twist and weave sonic tapestries. German singer-songwriter, Circle&Wind adds a guest vocal after having written the lyrics and the vocal melodies for the song.

As the second half of the album arrives it does so with mournfully gothic picked strings and the ethereally entrancing nature of Astr, which sees the kind of otherworldly electronica of Portishead folded into the many garments Star & Embers wears. Following on from that is the juxtaposition of melancholic, almost transcendental, emotion and heavy, crushing riffs, offering a light and shade nature to Formations.

Beings of Light is a continuation of juxtaposing styles, with the astral, cosmological sensibilities locking horns with dirty guitar lines and seismic drum-beats. The final movement of Stars & Embers is Embers, a sixteen minute summation of all that has transpired to that point. Slow and steady in its build, Embers resists the urge to pick up its tempo and, instead, reflects back the ageless nature of the eternal void. Listen closely enough and you can hear the universe singing to you.

To get the maximum out of Stars & Embers it must be listened to in a single sitting – a mammoth undertaking, granted, but each of its eight parts fit together to form a cohesive whole, the effect of which is blunted by cherry-picking individual segments. Consider this to be an epic poem or a completed symphony where each word or each note fits precisely where it has been placed. It is a work of Art and you’ll find yourself changed by expose to it.

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