Dwellers Of The Deep


Karisma, 2020


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Progressive rock’s heyday is now half a century in the past. Across that span of time, hundreds if not thousands of acts have attempted to follow in the footsteps of genre standard-bearers like Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, and Emerson Lake & Palmer, with wildly varying results. Beyond the complexity and virtuosity, classic progressive rock has a certain ethos, an earnestness and playfulness and fascination with fantasy themes born of that unique late ’60s/early ’70s era. It’s an ethos that, when everything is in its proper balance, helpfully undercuts the music’s natural tendency toward pomposity.

The genre’s serial comebacks in the ’80s, ’90s and beyond have produced a plethora of bands playing busy, highly ornamented music that lacks heart, humor, and/or self-awareness. The ones that have risen above those hurdles and captured the spirit as well as the sound of those early days have been few and far between, though the ones that have managed to do so have on occasion delivered fairly spectacular results (looking at you, Big Big Train).

Wobbler is a modern progressive rock band from Norway, and Dwellers Of The Deep is their fifth studio album. Their 2017 release From Silence To Somewhere is the highest-rated album of the 21st century on the prog fan site Prog Archives, and samples I came across on the Big Big Train Facebook group led me here, to their newest. Wobbler formed in 1999 and like so many bands in the genre, has seen some significant turnover during its lifespan. Founding bassist Kristian Karl Hultgren, drummer Martin Nordrum Kneppen and keyboardist Lars Fredrik Frøislie have more recently been joined by lead vocalist Andreas Wettergreen Strømman Prestmo (in 2009) and guitarist Marius Halleland (in 2011).

The group made a choice from the start to both evolve and inhabit classic progressive rock by employing only authentic, vintage sounds; all keyboard sounds were created using pre-1975 instruments such as mellotron, Hammond organ, minimoog, rhodes, clavinet, ARP, piano and harpsichord. Those choices and the band’s decision to produce their own sessions has allowed them to recreate the sonic environment of early-’70s prog as accurately as any group I’ve ever heard, dreamy vocals over shimmering keys, counterpointed by sharp, dynamic guitars, complex drums and thunderous Rickenbacker bass.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Dwellers Of The Deep spreads 46 minutes of music across just four tracks, with two shorter cuts bookended by a pair of expansive epics. Nearly 14-minute kickoff cut “By The Banks” opens in third gear, with rippling Hammond organ, complex guitar and bass figures, and restless drums, eventually adding airy choral vocalizations. The track’s vibe in the early going is very “Close To The Edge,” albeit with a Keith Emerson ferocity to some of Frøislie’s Hammond work. As the initial verses unfold, Prestmo’s airy tenor carries echoes at times of both Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues and Jon Anderson of Yes. Around 7:00, Hultgren on bass and Frøislie on keys lead a dynamic jam. The powerful initial theme returns at 12:05 to anchor a suitably intense climax, with Prestmo declaring “I am the snake, the beast of old” as they wrap up. The lyric is a word salad of vague, at times evocative New Age atmospherics and Renaissance Faire cosplay.

“Five Rooms” opens with a contemplative Hammond organ-and-vocals fugue before exploding into another frantic, intricate guitar-bass jam with Hultgren doing his best Chris Squire (and a very respectable one at that). From there it’s see-sawing dynamics, soft then hard, liquid keys and airy vocals counterpointed by heavy, wonky bass and guitar. The lyric feels something like Jon Anderson dreaming the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, spacy as anything but undeniably evocative. In the sixth minute and beyond, Frøislie’s keys take on a bit of a Ray Manzarek tone, punchy yet eerie. Its closing minutes slow the math rock perambulations down to a more stately pace as Prestmo intones “If you ever wonder why it turns, the wheel that burns, the stone that querns / Our movement is the key to change, and the change of the movement is the key to the strange…” Yeah, okay…

Third up, “Naiad Dreams” is more or less a Prestmo solo track, a relatively brief 4:26 pastoral fairy tale featuring very pretty acoustic guitar, rather Renaissance in flavor (the band, but also the era). Closer “Merry Macabre” is a great illustration of the potential pitfalls of attempting a prog epic, a 19-minute piece that takes its sweet time getting to the good parts. Starting out slow and atmospheric with dense keyboards and vocals crafting an appropriately spooky vibe, it doesn’t sustain any real momentum until the 7th minute, and even then the ensuing jam segment feels rather off-kilter, other than more strong bass work from Hultgren. Things improve again in the 14th minute with an athletic jam that pulls back barely a minute later, stripping down to just piano and voice again. In the final moments they rebuild to a closing segment that’s more energetic and exciting than most of the previous 17 minutes. I’d love to hear an edit that cuts this one’s run time by a third.

Produced and mixed by Frøislie and the band (other than the Prestmo-produced “Naiad Dreams”), Dwellers Of The Deep delivers an authentically vintage-sounding take on classic prog, a head trip back to 1971, with all the pros and cons that might imply. Fans of that era’s big guns—Yes, ELP, Crimson—will find themselves on familiar ground, in the hands of a group that’s brimming with talent and chops. A few quibbles aside, for devotees of the genre, this album is well worth checking out.

Rating: B

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