Ars Nova - The Book Of The Dead

Year of Release: 1998
Label: Musea Records
Catalog Number: FGBG 4255
Format: CD
Total Time: 42:53:00


I hate to start a review off this way again, but darn it, a single word sums it up. Wow! Yowza! Pick an exclamation. I am blown away by this disk---flabbergasted at the sheer power of it, overwhelmed by its beauty. This is terrific stuff here folks!

Now, having heard their earlier release Transii on several occasions (though never with close attention), I knew I was going to like this. What I didn't expect was to love it by the second track! This is great stuff - powerful, intricate, melodic, symphonic rock. Yes, there is a strong ELP influence here, but I have to tell you that this has more energy and vitality than they seem to have had of late. Keyboards swirl, swoop, dive, tinkle, twinkle, sparkle, and cascade throughout this album's 11 tracks, all driven by the powerful and muscular drums.

For those who have not heard or heard of Ars Nova before this, they are a duo with Keiko Kumagai on keyboards and Akiko Takahashi on drums, with a guest bassist, Ken Ishita. Now, because it is often noted, I'll note it here - both Kumagai, who composed all of the music, and Takahashi are petite Asian women (well, they seem petite). The surprising thing about their sound, knowing this, is not that they're women or that they're Asian, but that they are petite. Behind the kit and keys these women sound as if they should be Amazons! Many a progressive metal band could learn a lot from Ars Nova, how speed doesn't matter if you haven't got the chops to go along with it. This isn't quite progressive metal...well, I suppose it is in a way. It sits on the edge between the hardest of progressive rock and the most melodic of progressive metal. Not having vocals helps in that there is more room for the keys to take up the space - similarly if this were a guitar based band.

Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that this has a great balance between melody and subtlety, and power. None of that repetitive and overused chug-chug-chug of some prog metal, and none of that lightweight pop styling here either.

The title The Book of the Dead refers to a both a tome of the same name first published in 1900 and written by E A Wallis Budge, "Late Keeper of the Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities in The British Museum" and the writings on which the Budge book is based. From the overleaf: "The Book of the Dead is a great collection of texts which the ancient Egyptian scribes composed for the benefit of the dead - spells and incantations, hymns and litanies, magical formulae and names, words of power and prayers...." (etc.). While don't have to have read this book to appreciate the music digging through it will prove to be quite rewarding. Knowing what the "Judgement of Osiris" is about will help illuminate how well the music fits the subject.

So what does that have to do with Ars Nova's The Book of the Dead? Well, with track titles such as "Re," "Ankh," "Anubis" "Ani's Heart and Maat's Feather" you can see the correlation.

The album opens with a high pitched keyboard passage, becoming a very full overture leading straight into the first track "Ankh." The keyboard style here is keeping very much in the heavy, almost percussive style of Keith Emerson. And yet, there are also smoother, no less powerful, passages - this is the general pattern for the whole album. Takahashi's percussion work is dynamic and varied, though the keys take the lead. As expected, the interludes contain a lighter touch than do the main tracks, further given the whole album the great dynamics that it has. It is during these moments that the music is closer to classical than to rock.

There are times, no more so than in "Ani's Heart...", that you almost imagine there must have been a movie to go along with this. There is such a cinematic feel to it, especially towards the end, with the smooth keyboard lines (as opposed to the more percussive elements of earlier tracks). But what does that mean? It means that the music is expansive, open, giving you the sense that the camera is pulling back as the cast is moving forward, riding off into the sunset, driving along a twisting road, whatever.

I have to tell you this is great stuff, classically influenced (or borrowed), great dynamics...if I had heard this closer to when it was released last year, it would have been a very strong contender for best of the year. During the playing of "Held of Iaru" the comment that came from over my shoulder was "sounds like Lizst"...refering of course to Kumagai deft playing.

The production on this album is great as well, which is fortunate, because playing of this level could be marred by bad production. This is sophisticated, intelligent, mature, heavy, rollicking, progressive, rock.

"The Judgement of Osiris" has a very harsh, driving feel to it...there's a sense that the gods are angry...okay, yes, my point is that the music fits the concept. Osiris isn't being judged, but doing the judging...

The Musea release of this album contains bonus tracks - short interludes between the main tracks, but all keeping with the theme and without out the sense of being stuck on or added in (as they have done on the sleeve, I'll note those with an *).

Of the new stuff I've been playing this week (by new I mean new to me), this is by far the best thing I've heard so far. I recommend highly, very, very highly, that you go out and get this and hear for yourself. If there are any drawbacks it is that its too short.

Prologue: Re (1:35) / Ankh (5:11) / Interlude 1: Nut* (1:11) / The 42 Gods (5:15) / Interlude 2: Anubis (0:40) / Held of Iaru (10:43) / Interlude 3: Sekhem* (1:03) / The Judgement of Osiris (7:41) / Interlude 4: Nephthys* (0:33) / Ani's Heart and Maat's Feather (9:20) / Epilogue: Hapi (1:01)

Keiko Kumagai - keyboards
Akiko Takahashi - drums
Ken Ishita - bass

Fear And Anxiety (1992)
Transi (1994)
Goddess Of Darkness (1996)
Reu Nu Pert Em Hru / The Book of The Dead (1998)
Android Domina (2001)
Lacrimaria (EP) (2001)
Biogenesis Project (2003)
Force For The Fourth - Chrysalis (2005)
Altavoz Masterpiece Series 2006 (6CD box) (2006)
Seventh Hell (2009)

Genre: Progressive-Power Metal

Origin JP

Added: September 7th 1999
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow
Artist website:
Hits: 1030
Language: english


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