[24 July 2014]
Virtus in medio stat (“Virtue stands in the middle”) is a moral tenet of our times and, like most of the ethical dogmas, it loses most of its emphasis when it becomes a mere adage. Our society has the questionable ability of transforming “median” into “mediocrity”, therefore one would be inclined to think that an album like this 4.45 AM is a bluff. It is intricate but not complex, progressive but focused, old-fashioned and current, bold and yet catchy. Aisles is probably one of the best rock bands hailing from South America at the moment. I know nothing about music, but the idea that—for once—the fuss surrounding this Chilean combo manifested itself as soon as the title track kicked in. Yes, I hear you: there are more traces of Rush and Marillion on this album than hands on Lady Gaga’s mixing desk, but you may be wrong. Because there is some Gentle Giant, Pallas, Spock’s Beard and Yes as well. But they are so finely mixed that you don’t get to see them individually. Which is why this album deserves the attention it’s receiving.
The real variance between a band of sophisticated copycats and this bunch is indeed intelligence. Take a tune like “Back My Strength”, for instance. The guitar work is the backbone of the song’s changeable mood, but its presence is discrete, called in by the sense of necessity set off by the vocals and their melancholic pace. There is no friction in “Gallarda Yanura”. Good progressive music is that which manages to take you places without you realizing it. It is the sudden change of tempo that becomes an unavoidable development in the course of a song. “The Sacrifice”, “Intermission” or even the closing suite “Melancholia” manage to maintain a notably high level of attention, and one does not have the impression of witnessing nothing more than a bunch of nerds showcasing their talents.
The fact that all tracks (apart from the aforementioned “Melancholia” and the cleverly constructed “Hero”) clock well under the seven minute mark is itself a distinguishing sign of how Rodrigo Sepúlveda (Guitars), Sebastián Vergara (Vocals), Felipe Candia (Drums), Germán Vergara (Guitars), Alejandro Melendez (Keyboards) and Daniel Baird-Kerr (Bass) mould their inspiration, leaving aside the frills which have contributed to making most of progressive the laughing stock of the rock family. 4.45 AM is a concept album revolving around the dark energy that makes people leave the comfort of their sleep to go to work. And to work, for that matter. Once again, this is a game of precarious balances and mediations. It is darkness battling the rising gaze of daylight and the alarm that comes with it. It is the elegant path followed by the acoustic guitars in “Sorrow” and the obscure flow of consciousness that is “Hero”.
It is indeed an archetypical form of progressive rock, but one that doesn’t smack of vintage records and (by now) aged fairies. This is the epic facet of hyperrealism in music, in a post-industrial society in a big city in Chile, or Asia, or Europe. And the music follows suit. If there is a downside in all this, it is that Aisles make great music that re-elaborates the existing canons without trying to push their boundaries and challenge the listener in a vertical, rather than a horizontal way. It combines a variety of ingredients but it doesn’t attempt a rejection of the dynamics that keep them together. Despite all this, 4.45 AM remains a brilliant example of where contemporary progressive is going, regardless of the cyclical proclamations of its ultimate death. There are disasters and masterpieces in art, and 4.45 AM stands right there: one step away from excellence and genius, but at a safe distance from the depths of the mundane bureaucracy of prominent rock music. The future looks bright but, for now, virtus in medio stat. And beautifully so.