Hällas – Conundrum

[Napalm Records, 2020]

Intro: Thomas Sarakintsis
Translation: Lefteris Statharas

It’s some years now that Sweden doesn’t turn out the same wondrous bloom of rock groups similar to the first decade of the 00’s. But exceptions always exist and sometimes do surprise us. Five years ago, the then newfound band from southern Sweden appeared with a memorable four-track EP. In essence, this movement served as a compass for what Hällas actually stood for musically. 1970’s casing, epic proto-metal atmosphere in a vintage rock veil, double guitar harmonies, keys that indicated a space background, a hidden but visibly -in places- projected attraction to progressive rock, but, most importantly, they did not seem like yet another tasteless, typical and uninspired revival / retro group rock. In October 2017, they filed an insurmountable lyrical epic lasting about 45 minutes, Excerts From a Future Past. Their relationship with discography came to fruition again, since a few weeks ago they returned with their new complete creation entitled Conundrum.


 

How far is recognition really?

The artistic aesthetics of both the first and the new album reveal a common denominator: the close relationship between the two albums is demonstrated through the cover artworks. The resemblance is also evident through the theme, as Conundrum is the final part of a trilogy which began on the 2015 EP. Besides, there is a very interesting element, certainly not innovative and radical, not for the genre or even for the band, but certainly augmented.

The music socialite of Hällas knows that the foundation stone of their sound is the resonance of the musical melodies between Marcus Petterson and Kasper Eriksson. They have certainly not been eliminated, but they have allowed extra space to keyboardist Nicklas Malmqvist, who comes into his own indeed. His presence was distinct in previous releases, however his role in the new album is more continuous and never falters. There are now compositions that are structured on the keys. This clearly brings about a differentiated sound direction.

If until now bands such as Wishbone Ash, Thin Lizzy, Høst and part of NWOBHM (mainly bands that had obvious prog rock influences) were catalytic in the sound and identity of Hällas, henceforth the Swedes indulge in a more pompous / symphonic British prog rock 70’s and 80’s version, with some imperceptible AOR dashes. In fact, the up-to-par ingredients are inextricably linked to moments that refer directly to symphonic prog, pomp rock art rock. Although there is no word on it, my guess is that Hällas love to listen thoroughly to Marillion and Genesis among the others, as well as the most synth-rock phases of Rush, especially Grace Under Pressure and Signals. It should be noted that guitar solos (except for one track) are completely absent. Therefore, sonically-wise, the scale tips towards the prog rock side, with the keys being the helpers.

A characteristic indication of this difference, but without bypassing their past, are tracks such as Beyond Night and Day and Carry On: here, while the keys prevail, the guitar interventions enchant the compositions. In Strider, the polyphonic refrain (one of their trademarks now) and Malmqvist’s brilliant keyboard symphonies steal the show. Tears of a Traitor was introduced to the general public by the well-known digital video retailer as early as November 2019: this is the closest thing to the style of Excerts From a Future Past, epic and imposing, but could not be considered as the same with the catchy Star Rider, – the signature track of their first album. It should be pointed out that Conundrum seeks the full loyalty of the listener, perhaps even more than the previous work.

The last three awe-inspiring and lengthier compositions involve rich guitar work and at this point the harmony leads nod to some glorious guitar twins of the 70’s and 80’s. As an epic, Labyrinth of Distant Echoes and Blinded by the Emerald Mist are almost dazzling and multi-layered epics, while the same goes for the brilliant song Fading Hero, the epilogue of a fairly diverse but excellent grower album.

The Swedes have chosen an artistic direction that suits them. The reception they achieved with Conundrum will surely be expanded, after all, there are not many bands that represent this style. But the challenge is to keep progressing and dressing their songs creatively, as they have done so far. May they continue on this path of constant evolution.

8 / 10

Thomas Sarakintsis

 

2nd opinion

 

The quintet from Jönköping has returned with a new musical adventure entitled Conundrum. If you were a fan of their debut, you’ll enjoy this album in its entirety beyond any doubt. The signature sound is there, as well as the twin guitar lines and warm folky atmosphere, but they expand on it wonderfully. The prog influences are way more prominent on this one, some parts really remind me of Rush around Hemispheres era. It must be said that the guys from Hällas have a lot of class and above all they have very good taste when choosing the mix of styles and influences. Another thing that draws attention to this album right from the beginning is the beautiful and intelligent use of keyboards and synthesizers that infuse in this work a clearly progressive and at the same time refreshing flavor. The songs Carry On and Fading Hero have a more commercial approach because they blend progressive rock with AOR and the truth is that the mixture works wonders. Overall, Conundrum is a very enjoyable, very creative and stellarly produced album, full of eclectic sounds and styles performed at a very high level of musicianship. To be perfectly honest, I could hardly hope for a better successor to Excerpts from the Future Past.

8.5 / 10

Goran Petrić

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