Genre: Progressive Metal
Album-Length: 46 minutes
Release Date: June 7, 2019
1. With Open Eyes 2. Rooted In Thin Air 3. Steel 4. Waveway 5. To The Wind 6. Take The Sky 7. The Locust Season 8. Nail 9. Burning In My Mind 10. Red Sky
Consider us a little late in really diving into this album - but, as the adage goes, better late than never. Kozen is an eclectic band from Toronto that bridges so many different sounds that classifying them is challenging. Rather than trying to create some new name for their sound, we'll let them explain it: "We're a Prog band with elements of Pop, R&B, Jazz, and Funk thrown in... half the band has a Metal and Rock background, the other half of the musicians are based in Gospel, Jazz, and R&B." Their goal is to blend these elements together in a way that is smooth and cohesive. So the question worth asking going into this is, "Did they accomplish that?" The answer? Resoundingly, yes! We're going to take this track by track, so prepare for a bit of a lengthy review.
"With Open Eyes" can only be described as unapologetically Jazz. The cadence and, for lack of better phrasing, joy in which the lyrics are delivered fits some traditional, what I consider, lounge-music delivery. It's incredibly fun and I can almost picture a dance floor filled with people enjoying themselves. And then, as you're getting into the groove, it shifts into a metal song, complete with a breakdown that felt like the most natural progression the song could have taken. The topic of this song delves into the struggle of mental health. "There's so much you won't let go... You won't show it, but I know, you've sunken into distress... Don't you want to feel a little more alive, and live with open eyes?" It's a challenge to work out our mental health most of the time, but the truth in this is that, far too often, it's the result of things we can't - or won't - let go of.
"Rooted in Thin Air" has a familiar, almost djenty opening riff, complete with some dissonant notes, but that all changes just a couple of measures in where the riff suddenly lightens, followed by a steep drop-off wherein acoustic guitar and piano take over the lead. It's a subtle and masterful shift that never feels disjointed. This track has some R&B elements within its verses, but the chorus is a pretty straight-forward affair. It's the lyrics that really stand out here. From the perspective of one who is questioning God's existence, the desperation is felt in the chorus: "Show me your reality - beyond the lies they share, they're rooted in thin air."
"Steel" is an interesting blend between metal, electronic, and a gospel organ. It honestly makes me think a bit of the band Firebrand. The basic theme of this song is: "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger! This one's an anthem for pushing through life's painful experiences." Pulling from the actual act of forging steel into weapons, the lyrics are spot on in describing the process of forging and weaving into the way life seems to put us in a forge. We can let it break us, like steel that is over-heated, or, we can allow the smith (in this case, God) to conform us into the image he has in mind for us. It's worth noting one particular lyric: "And all that burns away was never meant to stay." They put it perfectly in the middle of the song; "Oh, scorched and tortured into shape, with every strike the hammer makes. A living weapon, loathe to fate - so stick me back into the blaze." While not a pleasant process, the end result is always something strong and capable of enduring. I can get behind this, the heaviest song so far, all day long.
"Waveway" is a shift in tone, entirely. Coming fresh off the heels of "Steel", it stood out to me how calm this track was. Granted, there's still a bit of aggression in the pre-chorus, but it is still pretty mellow. The piano played throughout this track is fantastic and really adds a nice element of melody. Oddly enough, this is a love song in the sense of the poor handling of relationships in the form of one who lets their passions take control of their behavior. While not always a bad thing, when our passions, or perhaps better phrased, our lusts, take control of our behaviors, we make destructive, stupid decisions. The results of this are palpably felt in the ending of the song: "Your heart torn through your ribcage, and through skin. I never meant for you to truly let me in." Unimaginable damage can be caused by desires that are not put in their proper place.**"To The Wind"** is the first single from this album, and it is a thematically dense song. "It's a metaphorical story about someone who has been deceived into living in a sort of theological Tower of Babel - being trapped in the edifice of their own worldview." That is, unfortunately, a common thing. If we're unwilling to learn - even from those we disagree with - we may never discover where we're wrong or need some refining. Fortunately, in the narrative of the song, there is a desire to allow the Spirit (wind - see John 9) to carry them to firmer foundations for their faith. Once again, Kozen returns to a very Jazz infused structure. This may just be the most cohesive song on the entire album - the musicianship is so tightly written and there is such unity in all the members. Without a doubt, this track shows this band melding their differing backgrounds flawlessly. "To the Wind" is a superb track from start to finish.
"Take the Sky" once again sees Kozen slow things down and shift to reflective thought. R&B is a heavy influence here, and it fits wonderfully. The guitar through the first chorus is absolutely beautiful - the tone is heavenly. Where "Waveway" was calm, "Take the Sky" is almost somber, which makes sense given the frustration of the lyrics. There is dissatisfaction in the current condition of the narrator and a desire to ascend to new heights. Vocally, the falsetto delivery of the chorus about 4 minutes into the song is something that hasn't been predominantly featured yet, but it fits the atmosphere of the song well. The last two minutes of this track are as aggressive as it gets - and once again, Kozen shows their ability to write varied sounds into a single song - everything flows smoothly.
"The Locust Season" is, in their own words, "an apocalyptic ballad... heavily based on Joel chapter 2." Jazz and R&B feature heavily in this song - it almost sounds like there's some Spanish influence in the verses as well. As far as a musical interpretation of a chapter of the Bible is concerned, they do a really good job of presenting the way Joel 2 shifts. It starts out very bleak and dour, an army on its way to destroy Zion. The situation continues to devolve and get worse until, about halfway through the chapter, God shows his mercy: "I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten - the great locust and the young locust, the other locusts and the locust swarm - my great army that I sent among you. You will have plenty to eat until you are full, and you will praise the LORD your God, who has worked wonders for you; never again will my people be shamed." This is a good song but, from the perspective of the rest of the album, it almost feels out of place. I like what they did, but struggle to find it's fit in the rest of the themes presented.
"Nail" is an incredibly moving song. Based heavily on Psalm 139 (one of my absolute favorite chapters in all of Scripture), this song was written for a friend of the band who struggled with her self-worth. Lyrically, this may be the most encouraging song on the album - even considering "Steel". The instrumentation fits this, as well, as it is largely upbeat and, again, for lack of better phrasing, fun. The largest influence in this song, musically, is Rock and Metal - there is less Jazz, Gospel, and R&B elements throughout this track - which is okay, but it does feel like the song is missing something. It's not bad, but after listening to the rest of the album being such a genre-bender, it feels like there's a missing element to this song.
"Burning My Mind" is about as aggressive as Kozen has gotten on this record. This also happens to be the most desperate song on the album - from the realization that the mistakes we've made, our pride and arrogance, and just how imperfect we are, to the burning desire to be free from all of that - this song is pure chaos (in the best way). It finds its resolution in the final chorus: "Oh, I can't believe my eyes. But I've seen grace replace mistakes with perfect sacrifice." There's an almost overwhelming sense of guilt over our shortcomings that we often feel, and this song points it out and then directs it to the relief that can be found in Christ. As with "Nail", there's not a lot of other elements here beyond Metal and Rock, but this is so cohesively written, much like "To the Wind", that it feels complete and finished.
"Red Sky" is another song that focuses on the apocalypse. "This one is about someone who's perspective on the end of the world shifts from fear and dread to hope and expectation." The way this song winds itself through fear, dread, hope, and expectation reminds me of how Wolves at the Gate writes some of their music. There's a start that is broken, hurt, and hopeless and by the time the end of the song comes around, the lyrics are mirrored and reflected in a light that is put together, full of life, and hopeful. The mirrored lyric here is: "Scarlet lights - the end is nearing; see the signs that you've been fearing" which morphs into: "Scarlet lights - the end is nearing; open hearts no longer fearing." It's a subtle shift, but one that is done very well. Sonically, this song is another straight-forward release.
All in all, this is a very well written album that, unfortunately, flew below the radar of a lot of folks. Kozen is such an original band in their sound that comparing them is difficult. With their masterful melding of different influences, the only band I could think to compare them to is the secular band In Search of Sun, who write similarly styled music. This album takes you on a journey, musically, and is such a breath of fresh air in what can be a very stale industry. While there seems to be a new metalcore band every five minutes, discovering a band like Kozen is like finding a needle in a stack of safety pins. While they look and feel similar, the needle isn't "safe" - the lack of a cap makes it a bit of a risk in the stack. Kozen took some big risks making music that doesn't hold to the typical formulas of a metal band, and it pays off. More of this, please.
High Point: To the Wind
Low Point: The Locust Season
Favorite track: To the Wind