Competent musicianship is no substitute for innovation and uniqueness.
In today's music industry, it can be a challenge to rise above mere emulation, and it's very easy to prefer commercial appeal over artistic distinction. In other words, many artists choose to copy their inspirations and follow set paths for success instead of claiming a unique voice for themselves. Unfortunately, in the case of progressive metal quartet Cloudscape and their newest LP, New Era, this inference couldn't be more accurate. Like most of the group's contemporaries, their musicianship and compositional skills are impressive, but with timbres and techniques that genre fans have heard so many times before, their work isn't very original or warranted. In fact, they might as well call themselves Dream Maiden.
Formed a decade ago, the Swedish outfit has previously released three albums. They describe their sound as "…melodic metal with progressive touches [that] will appeal to fans of Evergrey, Symphony X, Dream Theater, Yngwie J. Malmsteen, [and] Pagan's Mind…" Indeed, Cloudscape does incorporate elements from all these acts into its sound, but, in reference to these genre forefathers, as they old saying goes, "they did it first and they did it better." This band is so content to copy others that they don't implement an ounce of uniqueness into New Era, which results in a technically proficient collection of tired tropes and offensively derivative constructions.
From the opening moments of "Silver Ending", New Era declares its generic quality. The standard crunchy guitar riffs, sharp solos, embellished keyboard ambiance, and frantic syncopation are here, and they all sound extremely familiar. In addition, vocalist Mike Andersson conveys both the raucous intimidation and falsetto vigor of Bruce Dickinson, which is both a gift and a curse to Cloudscape's sound. Dickinson is inarguably one of the most distinctive and powerful singers in metal, so anyone else who can match his abilities is clearly talented; however, such blatant similarities deprive singers like Andersson from claiming their own identity.
While this formulaic approach persists throughout New Era, there are still some noteworthy moments. "Share Your Energy" conveys an admirable level of symphonic aggression and multilayered vocals, and the guitar solo on "Kingdom of Sand" manages to move beyond being just another cookie-cutter display of virtuosity. "Seen It All Before" includes a rather tranquil and melodically pleasing middle section (wherein the band calms down to allow emotion to pervade), and "Simplicity…" opens with, and utilizes throughout, quirky keyboard patterns. The affective piano playing near the end of "Before Your Eyes" adds a sliver of classical influence, too. Sadly, only about 1% of the album is innovative, so take that for what it's worth.
New Era represents a common problem with present day progressive metal—it's wholly devoid of individuality. Like so many groups, Cloudscape would be a revelation if their sound was new, but it isn't, and thus the music is nothing more than a synthesis of carbon copied ideas and execution. Admittedly, it's difficult to be inspired without being plagiaristic, but the genre is still full of artists who bring something new to the table, such as Opeth, Pain of Salvation, Agalloch, Between the Buried and Me, and Devin Townsend. Cloudscape needs to work on doing the same if it ever hopes to be a worthwhile endeavor.