"Sonas Umbras" means something like "Shadow Sounds" in Latin (Just for the record, I think it means "Julio Scissors" in Swahili as well), and I must say that I couldn't think of a more fitting name for this Latin-tinged neo-prog outfit. Why does the name match the band? Well, it's simple... I still can't figure out how I feel about their music - just like I still can't figure out what a band named "Shadow Sounds" is supposed to sound like. Confused? Me too - there are times when this albums offers up absolutely beautiful music that will soothe your soul, while other bits will want you to do an "El Kabong" on the head of Andres Aullet with his keyboard. Now before you folks start e-mailing me telling me that my Latin translation is wrong, or that that there is no place in a progressive music review for mention of El "I'll do the thinnin' around here, Babalooey" Kabong, please take into account that my brain is still tied up trying to decide whether I like this CD or not.
Overall, the music of Sonas Umbras is basically Marillion-inspired neo-prog. The similarities are enough that I can assume if you don't like Marillion, IQ, or Arena, then you most likely won't enjoy Sonas Umbras. That said, Sonas Umbras does place their own stamp on the music with the fantastic Latin-inspired acoustic guitar work of Ricardo Gomez; this is difference enough to categorize Sonas Umbras as something other than a simple rip-off band. They definitely have their own sound. And, they've got a song subtitled "Meat Sickness" - that's gotta be worth something.
First, I'll discuss the positives of Snapshots From Limbo. First and foremost there is the cover - a cover that would cause Vicent Price to shoot straight up out of his grave and yell "now, THAT'S SCARY!". The cover in question is a totally wild image of several gigantic eyeballs hovering quizzically over a rippling ocean on a beautiful day, as if they are asking, "Has anyone seen our contact lenses?" Seriously though, it's a very cool piece of art - good enough to merit mention in this review.
Musically, the main compositional force behind the band is bassist Luis Nasser, a songwriter capable of mixing and matching fantastic ballads, plodding metal, and time-shifting prog - he is really quite a nimble composer. On slower pieces such as the first portion of the three-part suite "Insects" and the delicate "Soul Dusk", Nasser gives guitarist Ricardo Gomez plenty of room with which to work his magic. As a matter of fact, it is Gomez himself that contributes to the CD's (warning music fans: Alliteration approaching) more memorable musical moments with his absolutely beautiful acoustic guitar playing. Gomez is also very capable of churning out a nice solo as well, but it is his delicate melodic approach to the six string that will resonate in my brain long after I've put this CD away.
Oddly enough, the other bright musical spot on the CD comes from a contributor that is not even a member of the band proper. I'm referring to backup singer Lisa Francis, a vocalist whose voice is so strong and unwavering that it cuts through the music and speaks directly to the "goose bump gland" in your body. On "Metamorphasis" (the 2nd movement of "Insects"), she does a great job with the solo time she's given, but most of the time she logs on the album is to add harmony to Andres Aullet's lead vocals. For the most part, Aullet's singing on the album is adequate at best, but when Ms. Francis chimes in the quality of BOTH their voices rises far above what Mr. Aullet is capable of by himself. Hopefully on Sonas Umbras' next release, Lisa will be given more space to use her substantial vocal talents.
After Gomez' guitar and Francis' vocals, we unfortunately hit a bit of a dip in the overall quality of the CD. The biggest culprit is the voice of lead singer Andres Aullet - at times he sounds like a mix between a slightly off-key Ozzy Osbourne (I know, Ozzy generally is off-key... but it's COOL when he does it), and a semi-inebriated Inspector Clouseau. Now, I'm sure the latter comparison is due to Andre's heavy accent, so I say that partly in jest. However, there are several times on the CD where his vocals were so off pitch-wise that I sort of winced. There are a few moments where his voice shines - specifically they are when backup singer Lisa Francis joins him in harmony. As if Lisa was some sort of vocal drill sergeant, Andre's voice seems to immediately "snap to" the moment her lovely voice kicks in. Their harmonies are truly wonderful. Also, there is something to the theory that Aullet's bizarre voice adds a certain "body" to the music that it otherwise wouldn't have with a more mundane singer such as Marillion's Steve Hogarth. Andres' voice may be an acquired taste that I simply didn't manage to acquire.
The other major problem with the CD is the keyboard work. It's not that the keys are ineptly played so much that they are extremely uninspired and clichéd. On the track "Seven Masks" they even approach the realm of annoying. I'm not sure whether Aullet or Nasser is the culprit (the liner notes were too vague to determine), but whoever is the keyboard player would be well-advised to try and "mix things up" a bit more on their next release rather than just pumping out uninteresting solos and riffs.
So which part of the recording wins out? Do the sub par vocals and keyboards ruin an otherwise decent album? Or does the brilliant guitar work of Ricardo Gomez and the stunning vocal work of Lisa Francis win the day? In the end, I'd have to say that overall the positives slightly outweigh the negatives, and that Snapshots From Limbo is ultimately a fine collection for any fan of neo-progressive music. The band also shows tremendous promise, and hopefully they will tweak their sound a bit for their next release.
Personnel: Andres Aullet: Vocals, Korg Trinity Ricardo Gomez: Electric and Acoustic Guitars Jeff Laramee: Drums, Percussion, Vocals Luis Nasser: Bass, Korg 01W, Acoustic Guitar, Vocals Lisa Francis: Vocals John Grant: Electric and 12-string Acoustic Guitars Tapabrata Pal: Tabla