STARVOX
Review by Matthew Heilman

Book of Illusions: Chapter III

VLE (Virtual Listening Experience) is a solo home studio project that takes elements of Gothic Metal and experimentation to unique atmospheric heights. A nd especially for an unsigned DIY artist, to peak levels of quality seldom ever reached.  I reviewed a previous 'chapter' of VLE's Book Of Illusions a few years ago at StarVox, so the name might be familiar to some readers.  Whatever the case, it is a name that is deserving of much more recognition, and it is somewhat perplexing that this artist's primary vehicle for sharing his music is via MP3.com, when so many other mediocre artists are scoring record deals left and right.  This third release is without question his finest yet, and I am hoping it is only a matter of time before more dark music fans stumble upon his mature and visionary work.

VLE places a heavy emphasis on improvisation, which is by no means a new technique.  Especially when it comes to noise or ambient coldwave type music.  However, this kind of experimentation and improvisation is rarely employed with this particular style of dark metal based music.  The result is surprisingly impressive, and by removing the traditional pop music structures, the characteristic sounds, deeply emotional moods, and opaque atmospheres of the genre rightfully become the main focus.   Basically, all the clichéd trappings are removed, and the heartfelt intensity of this lone soul's vision is proudly laid bare for listeners to become wholly absorbed and pleasantly enthralled.  Truthfully, it is hard to really tell that the music is being improvised, because the songs are very strong, well executed, and do follow a recognizable pattern of accessibility and catchiness.  All ten of the songs on this release stand apart from one another, each possessing its own memorable characteristics.  As a whole they present an hours worth of sonic bliss, running an entire gamut of conflicted emotion, from pensive melancholia to frantic chaos; from somber romanticism to a tranquil sense of hope and possibility.

This gentlemen has a knack for melody, as both his guitar playing and vocal work seems to channel these unforgettable tear-drenched melodies that either soar majestically above the swirling mist of keyboards or ring out drearily above darker less comforting pastures.  Many of the sounds and arrangements on the disc recall some of the best Gothic and dark Metal bands of recent years.  I can imagine that fans of Saturnus, early Katatonia, Anathema, Bethlehem, Agalloch, and Opeth would genuinely appreciate the various ghostly vocal styles, the reverb drenched tone of the guitar riffs and the finesse of well-placed acoustic passages that appear throughout the album.

VLE includes several disclaimers regarding the loose and somewhat unorthodox arrangement of these songs, and for the supposed production shortcomings that he claims appear throughout.  However, barring a few instances, the production is surprisingly very clear and encompassing, yielding an unmistakably warm and inviting tone to the music on the disc.  The instruments are balanced well in the mix.  My only minute gripe is that the syncopation between the drums and guitars/synths on the first track is a bit loose and slightly off.  The first time I heard it, it was glaringly apparent to my musician's ear, but on repeated listens, it became less distracting.  What's ironic is that Kano is the only song on the whole CD with live drums.  The rest of the percussion VLE taps out with the drum pad of his keyboard - and they are tighter!  What more, is they sound surprisingly authentic.  Many bands could take lessons from this guy.  VLE sells himself far too short with his disclaimers.  As a very jaded critic and highly selective fan of atmospheric metal, I give this guy a proud thumbs up on all accounts.

While the melancholy and mature sense of sadness of this disc is utterly pervasive, there is still a remarkable amount of diversity. The Arrival is a lucid dream inducing song, propelled along with strong acoustic strums and seasoned with eerie modulated guitar feedback and pleading layers of soft vocal harmonies.  The nightmarish shift into the next track, Crimson is a veritable torrent of anguish and vehement chaotic noise, showcasing VLE's ability to let loose and tap into his more primal and raw black metal influences.  Though most of the disc is lulling and can be described as starkly beautiful, VLE keeps listeners on their toes with the occasional foray into more aggressive pastures as on this track and also on The Surest Path and the climactic chorus of songs like Now You Cry. Of Woods& Water is a gorgeous expression of crisp and passionate melodic Doom/Death styles.  The deeply affective guitar harmonies in this track recall the early years of Katatonia and Bethlehem.  The vocals volley between sweet layers of harmonization to gravel throated growls.

The hypnotic masterpiece Ancient Song Set Ablaze is where I drew my Saturnus comparisons, with the light acoustic strums, soft-spoken words, and deep cello-like synth passages underlying it all.  Some well-placed monstrous exclamations give the song an unexpected spice, while the phrase "It's a long way home" is repeated in a ghostly swirl of vocal layers and choir like harmonization.  Diana's Rebirth and Fornever both mark returns to darker and heavier pastures, the former a strong track with a galloping rhythmic drive, an echoing gloom to the guitars and wide array of vocal styles, while the latter utilizes a dynamic pairing of softer acoustic verses that crescendo into a sweeping riff heavy chorus.  The entire epic is brought to a close with I Will Return, a mesmerizing and poignant piano instrumental that hopefully is an assurance from the artist that he will indeed continue to work on music.

Though I have attempted to describe the music contained on this well-crafted release, it cannot at all compare to the experience of hearing the music unfold before you.  As VLE himself suggests, "Play it loud with headphones in the dark while candles burn…then close your eyes."   Indeed, a fine suggestion.  But you have to BUY the CD first, and in order to do that, you need to visit his site or contact him at the email address below. Strongly recommended.


Book of Illusions: Chapter I

"One cannot achieve greatness if not ruled by Illusion" - Such is the philosophy of VLE (Virtual Listening Experience), an extremely promising and eclectic project that has sprung from the mind of a lone musician from the Big Apple.  Even with the modest packaging that adorns this CD-R/Mp3.com release, it is apparent that this musician bears his heart on his sleeve, is very cautious about the music he performs and is committed to producing deeply moving and at times transcendental music.  This debut EP kicks off with the instrumental Kano, a nice intro that is very soothing and strikingly melancholic.  The music successfully conjures images to mind, very similar to the ethereal cover art depicting a clouded sky, pierced by the promise of a divine, heavenly light.  A path is paved for a very heartfelt listen, which kicks into gear with the track Freedom To Fly easily my favourite track on this release.  The overall sound and production has a raw and aching quality on its own, fuzzy guitars that are reminiscent of Katatonia's polychord harmonies atop a dense, Type O Negative-like rhythmic crunch.  Distant vocals mope along for a verse, ghostly and muffled but with a distinct melody that explodes into a fantastically moving, skin-rippling chorus.  Absolutely astounding, enjoyable, and undeniably effective. I adore this song. And dare I say that it has a positively energized and uplifting quality to it. This doesn't revel in gloom or glorify misery, but instead reflects a desperate want of beauty, a dim light in the darkness that I assume all of us are seeking. I lack the words, but this is without question a gorgeous song.

Behold The Night /// Beyond Sunsets follows, continuing along with a resplendent reverie of moody atmosphere, a tight arrangement of synths, sharp power chords, a hypnotic guitar lead and slightly more aggressive vocals.  The key to VLE is not so much complexity, but a remarkably smooth blending of layer, thus producing a veritable ocean of sound to drown in.  While the first half of the CD tastefully and refreshing blends elements of Gothic, Doom and atmospheric Black Metal sensibilities, emotion is what holds it all together and gives it a unique and genuine flavour.  The latter half of the disc is made up of some rather interesting experimental pieces.  3 in 5 utilizes what sounds like a backward guitar or piano track, with a flute playing an eerie melody above and the final track is a simple yet touching orchestral number that though countless bands have chose to close their albums in similar matters, there is indeed something fulfilling in this short finale.

There are some seriously promising and interesting ideas abrew within this project.  As the title would suggest, this is just the beginning and it is obvious that VLE is still in its formative stages.  But as this young musician continues to tap into his abilities, VLE has the potential to evolve into something very special.  This EP alone is full of charm, despite a somewhat amateur production (which actually accentuates the effectiveness of the music) and the overall brevity of the mere seven tracks.  I believe this musician is but a few steps shy of finding the right element.  The ideas are here, and I still cannot get over the power behind some of the melodies that crop up on this CD.  A slightly more refined production will capture the attention of more skeptical listeners, and succeed in winning over those who are not as well accustomed or partial to independently produced dark music.  As well, a more reserved and critical focus on the composition itself and a patient fleshing out of these developing ideas could possibly boost VLE into the forefront of the dark music scene.   The competition is more vast than fierce; it all boils down to whether or not this music will be heard.  Regardless, I simply cannot wait to get my hands on to Chapters II and III.

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