Expression: It is the soul’s way to confirm its existence. Music is one of the fine arts, perhaps the most important, leading to expression. The artist, musician, is transmitting a message and the listener – receiver is getting that message or creates a new one. At the end transmitter and receiver are becoming one, both following the same path: the path to expression. That was exactly my own experience after countless listens to HORIZON’S END comeback album.
HORIZON’S END was one of the most promising acts in the thriving Progressive Metal scene of the mid nineties, with one of the most acclaimed demos on the Greek metal underground -“An Ecstasy Unreal” (1994)- and a strong debut entitled “Sculpture on Ice” which was released back in 1998. Their second “Concrete Surreal” album which was released back in 2001 is marked as one of the most important albums of the European Prog Metal scene of the 00s.
During the mid 00s another album was actually recorded but it was never released. Only a video for the song “Cover my Eyes” was made public. The album was shelved and the band was put on ice.
The year is 2019 (really?) and Sakis Bandis, HORIZON’S END keyboard player, decided to reactivate the band bringing back the classic 00s line up of Stergios Kourou (drums), Kostas Vretos (guitar) and Kostas Scandalis (bass) -all of them now in WARDRUM as well- plus HORIZON’S END vocalist Vasilis Topalides (also in CROSSWIND). Vocalist Yannis Papadopoulos (now in BEAST IN BLACK) also contributed. “Skeleton Keys” is the title of this comeback album.
I could easily finish the review here simply pointing that “Skeleton Keys” is the Progressive Metal album of the year and as long as bands like HORIZON’S END are still active there is still a strong hope for the Prog scene. But I think I should write a little bit more.
Instrumental opener “Alpha” could be easily be part of a film soundtrack. There is some Symphonic Prog excellence spread in here. Deep and epic melodies and an electrified atmosphere. The vibes of bands like ECHOLYN and THE ENID are combined under a very special classical approaching. During its crescendo parts the song will even bring into the foreground this very special SHADOW GALLERY touch. Amazing. And you know what? This one was originally composed back in 1997. I can hardly imagine a similar composition in the Greek -or even European- Prog scene back then, but OK it was stored away. Until now…
“Forming Fantasies” was actually composed back in the “Concrete Surreal” days -2001- but it did not reach its final form -:)- back then, so it remained stored as well. This is the fastest HORIZON’S END tune that one can hear thus far. Its magnificent Symphonic chorus is one of composition’s strongest parts. In absolute comfort, Horizon’s are even approaching the European Power Metal (!) shores in some of the songs parts, adding again some early SHADOW GALLERY magic. Papadopoulos’ vocals fit very well into this one. I love the scream in the end.
“Land Of Decay” is one of the darkest and most esoteric compositions on the record. Topalide’s melancholic vocal melodies are combined with Bandi’s classically oriented and nostalgic keyboard themes. The overall orchestration and arrangement of this one brought into my mind some newer Prog Metal bands of our times like HAKEN -however the song was composed back on 2005-2006-. I loved the song’s middle bridge and the amazing guitar solo by Vretos. Horizon’s magic under a futuristic prism? Yes. Before it was discovered by the rest of the 00s Prog universe? Yes.
“Dreamer’s Hands” is the album’s open gate to the 90s. It perfectly reflects this very special vibe of the “Sculpture On Ice” debut. From the very first seconds of the song someone would think “oh this is good old Horizon’s stuff”. In here, even Topalides is approaching the overall vocal arrangement and vibe of George Strapatsas who was singing on the debut. Is it some kind of a tribute? Well, yes… and no. You see this particular song is actually from the 90s Horizon’s era, composed back in 1997. So to me it was a good idea for Topalides to follow Strapatsa’s vocal paths. Listening to this amazing tune again and again I am becoming seriously nostalgic, sadly pointing that “they do not make them like this anymore”. The song is filled with this very special warmth of the 90s Greek Prog compositions that someone would listen from bands like FATAL MORGANA, GUARDIAN ANGEL, SORROWFUL WINDS etc. Those deep, mystic and melancholic melodies, those amazing vocal arrangements, those magnificent leads laid around on songs that would make your soul shiver. Yes, this warmth, able to be discovered only on the Greek Prog bands of the era -and probably has to do with the ways they were all composing their music back then-. If you were diving into the Greek Prog stuff back then, you are absolutely getting my point in here… So I am listening this little masterpiece again. And I am asking. Where is this warmth now? Anyway… Listening closely to the song there are more elements to be discovered. I am deeply thrilled to notice that influences by the music of MANOS HADJIDAKIS have been attached so smoothly into this composition. The “Reflections” album that MANOS HADJIDAKIS released back in 1970 with the band NEW YORK ROCK & ROLL ENSEMBLE, provides some serious inspiration for many parts of this particular song -and on the overall “Skeleton Keys” album-. Pure magic. And yes I also enjoyed those Jazz bridges as well… Well actually “Dreamer’s Hand” quickly became on of my favorites on the record.
“Ocean’s Grey” is another fine composition, so dark and esoteric while remaining sharp and powerful. Amazing melodic parts on keyboards, some great guitar themes and magnificent singing. Topalides puts some real soul into his singing on this tune. Amazing performance. The lyrics are one of the strongest features on this one and here I got to point how great the lyrics are on each and every song of the album. Bandis has done an excellent job on the lyrical front as well. He turns emotions and pictures into words.
Some more HORIZON’S END excellence can be noticed on the next track “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf”. I do not know how many times I have listened to the big keyboard lead part in this one. A mix of dark surrealism and Symphonic Prog beauty. Well that was actually the vibe on the band’s material around 2005-2006 -just after the recording of their unreleased album- and this song comes from this particular era –along with the “Land Of Decay” and “Ocean’s Grey” songs-. Well I will repeat myself once again: excellent. It is the only suitable word I can find for this song.
I know that you would not believe the fact that the album’s 23 minutes long magnum opus, entitled “Be” was an actual leftover (!!!) from the “Concrete Surreal” album. Well yes, there was simply not enough space on the single CD, so the song was simply not included although it was completed as a composition. 18 years later we are able to enjoy it in its final version and not through instrumental pre production CD-Rs :). In my opinion “Be” is one of the most inspired, complete and amazing compositions that the band has brought to daylight. A piece of fine European Prog Metal art. Lyrical, romantic, adventurous, surrealistic, colorful but at the same time attractively dark and mysterious. It deeply reflects the “Concrete Surreal” excellence. It simply amazes me how Yannis Papadopoulos who sings into this one has managed to get the song’s vibe so deeply. This is the most esoteric and deep vocal approach I have heard by him, period. The guitar work in here is excellent. There are guitar themes that simply electrify the specific parts they have been used on. The twists around the song parts are actually becoming the most important feature in here. Yes, twists, from calm into storm, from storm into calm and back again. A song that manages to win time itself, cause while listening to it, you simply won’t realize how fast those 23 minutes are passing.
I should make a special mention to the musicians involved in this record. I have already made some references but they are not enough. Sakis Bandis is the spiritual father of HORIZON’S END, he composes and arranges all the music, he writes all the lyrics. He carries the initial vision sharing it with the others… From that point each musician puts his creative piece to the HORIZON’S END puzzle. So, apart from Bandis we’ve got Kostas Vretos on guitars, Stergios Kourou on drums and Kostas Scandalis on bass. Yes this is the 2003 Horizon’s line up that stands strong till today. Well I will put it simply: No one else could play on those particular songs the way that those people have played. No it is not about skills. It is about SOUL. The HORIZON’S END spirit is simply floating in the veins of these people, on their minds, their hearts and their souls. So they have put all their inspiration and skill on this record. Yes it is soul, skill and inspiration COMBINED. Kourou’s drums patterns simply give life to each and every song part. His solid, emphatic and to-the-point drumming is EXACTLY what was needed for this album. I caught myself listening to specific song parts again and again simply to re-listen -for example- to a specific drum break. This man does not JUST play drums. He delivers real and complete music with nothing but his drumkit. Of course the magical bass playing of Kostas Scandalis is the perfect company to such amazing drumming: Expressive, to the point, melodic and powerful. As far as the guitars are concerned, I believe that the overall guitar work on this album can be mentioned as one of the top moments of Vreto’s career so far. Everything, and I mean everything -riffs, solos, smaller guitar parts, completed guitar themes and leads- is simply excellent. An out of this planet combination of skill, performance and inspiration. Real music.
There are two more guitar guests on the record: Manolis Pilidis (guitarist on the “Concrete Surreal” album) who played an anazing solo on “Be” and Sotiris Gogos (a well known guitar player in Thessaloniki’s Metal scene, he also played in the band Star.Gate together with Bandis) who also played a great solo on “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf.
Both contributing singers, Vasilis Topalides and Yannis Papadopoulous have put their ultimate vocal trademark on this album. Both have blessed the songs they sang on with their own magical approach, perfectly balanced with the overall Horizon’s vibe.
Yes the creators – musicians have all played their important role on this album… And the listener should be prepared for a wonderful musical expierence. For the Horizon die hards I have to point this: Get ready for a real shock. No matter if you love the first 90s lyrical Prog era or the second romantic “Concrete Surreal” period or even the third post-mid 00s dark, sympho-fututuristic Prog wave -that you will mainly discover through specific tunes on this album-, you will once again simply worship the HORIZON’S END majesty.
So to sum things up: Here we got a magnificent release. An excellent, inspired and extremely well performed album, marking the return of a really important band. It is an album created with heart, soul, inspiration and passion. It includes real music that will guide the listener to an amazing, non stop journey. It is not only the Prog Metal album of the year but it will also be mentioned for the years to come as a masterpiece.
This is real music. Music for the soul.