Album review: Artnat - The Mirror Effect (2021)
The story of ARTNAT begins with TANTRA, a highly regarded symphonic progressive rock band from Portugal who released two well-received albums in the 70s, Misterios & Maravilhas (1977) and Holocausto (1978). They disbanded in 1981 following the disappointing reception of that year’s release Humanoid Flesh, which leaned towards a new-wave sound and was sung in English, seemingly running counter to their original ethos which showed a rock group could be hugely successful singing in Portuguese.
TANTRA reformed in 1988, releasing the acclaimed Terra in 2002. The success of Terra allowed for Live Ritual to be released in 2003, comprised of music recorded on a 2-track tape machine from their first ever concert in 1977 at Lisbon’s Cine-Teatro da Encarnação, but the 2005 follow-up was the less successful Delirium, the last of the group’s albums.
ARTNAT is not only a mirror of the TANTRA name but it also reflects the continuity of TANTRA´s symphonic prog style of music, epitomised by founding member Manuel Cardoso’s fluid guitar lines and another former TANTRA member, keyboard player Gui da Luz from the Terra line-up. Another mark of continuity is the presence of the alien-like figure which first made an appearance on the cover of Humanoid Flesh and subsequently featured on the artwork for Terra. Taken together these vital features give us the new album’s title, The Mirror Effect.
Joining Cardoso and da Luz on what is really a version of TANTRA for the 21st century are vocalist Sara Freitas, bassist Paulo Bretão, drummer João Samora, and second keyboard player André Hencleeday. Cardoso quite rightly describes his fellow travellers as ‘top-level musicians’ and it’s soon quite evident why virtuoso players are required for this type of music, even though there’s no flaunting of technical skills. It’s probably right that he decided to apply a different moniker to the outfit as he was the only link to the original TANTRA, a name chosen by the guitarist relating to his experience of Raja Yoga meditation. Cardoso reports that ARTNAT ‘just felt right’ with its mirror connotations.
The music is complex, spiritual and uplifting. There’s certainly an acknowledgement of progressive music from the 70s and the song titles even channel YES and MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA, influences which also arise in the music itself. Cardoso hints that at least some of the material arose from jam sessions and experimentation. The physical release includes three recordings of jams as bonus tracks, sessions that provided finished songs From Chaos To Beauty, Cosmic Machinery and Celebration to emphasise the point, though the entire album retains a sense of adventurousness which could only come through close understanding between the musicians.
Opening track Riding the Edge of Darkness is a dense, high energy track. Cardoso’s angular guitar lines are reminiscent of Steve Howe on Tales from Topographic Oceans both in construction and tone. I have to admit I’m not a fan of his spoken vocal which detracts from my enjoyment of the piece. Cardoso produced the excellent An Invitation by AMBER FOIL in 2017, adding some guitar and a few lines of vocals in this style, and I was critical of the vocal in my review. Fortunately, they are used these sparingly. It’s noteworthy that the singing on the album is almost entirely in English but Freitas has a really good voice and tends not to follow a melody line but delivers distinctive, dramatic avant-prog style vocals.
Eternal Dance of Love is more sedate than the first track and features some stately guitar. Freitas’ singing reminds me of Gayle Moran on the 1974-75 version of MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA. Return to OM is excellent long-form music on the prog end of jazz rock where keyboards feature prominently. A sudden radical shift keeps the listener on their toes before we reach a resolution. There are Howe-like guitar runs and some melodic prog in the vein of Moonmadness-era CAMEL, and another left-field change at the end of a vocal section. From Chaos to Beauty is another dense and frantic tune, sounding like Drama-era YES. The mood calms down around three quarters of the way through.
A View from Above has excellent keyboard work including electric piano. The album’s scope is broadened with some SANTANA-influenced guitar before reverting to YES-like themes and Cosmic Machinery is an instrumental track with contrapuntal lead lines. Title track The Mirror Effect employs an eastern feel and the short, joyful Celebration uses African rhythms before the instrumental The Dramatic Beauty of Life takes us back to a lifestyle closer to nature with the sounds of birds chirping, a waterfall and a toddler chuckling, and the music is light, jazzy and swinging.
The Complex Art of Creation mixes staccato riffs with uplifting symphonic prog where the first verse is sung over dark, abstract instrumentation, possibly representing pre-creation chaos. Of all the tracks on the album, this one most reminds me of Cardoso’s work with AMBER FOIL. Finale is a very brief piece in symphonic cinematic style though it ends, in what could be a defining ARTNAT manner, abruptly.
I’m a fan of positive music, and The Mirror Effect oozes positivity. I’m also partial to complexity, because it demands something of you as a listener, and that’s what good music should do. I’d hesitate to suggest the song words use ‘green language’, something successfully employed on YES’ Close to the Edge and Tales from Topographic Oceans, but The Dramatic Beauty of Life reflects that way of thinking through the music. The lyrics and song titles are more spiritual or cosmic, and that’s the source of the positivity.
The production is immaculate, and though the layers of instrumentation tend towards dense, each voice is distinct, from the bass parts and inventive drumming to the synthesizer and guitar lines. I’m pleased that Manuel Cardoso decided to convene ARTNAT in the 21st century – there’s always a place for good symphonic prog.
CDs can be bought from https://artprogmusic4you.company.site/
Downloads can be bought from https://artnat.bandcamp.com/album/the-mirror-effect