Vocalist Jacob Wilkes singes “Bathe in the sun”, cutting through the silence, and Above, Below‘s The Lotus Chapters has officially begun. From first hearing Above, Below’s single “Beyond the Mosaic Garden” (my first experience of the band) and its inclusion of a Hindu mantra, the Sydney based band got my attention. I’d never heard a Hindu mantra in music anywhere aside from The Beatles (the unforgettable magic of the “Jai Guru Deva” line in “Across The Universe”), let alone expected to hear it in a heavy piece of music. To say that I was keen to dive into the band’s debut album, The Lotus Chapters, was an understatement.
I had the opportunity and helping hand of a conversation with Wilkes and guitarist/vocalist/lyricist Zac Adamson to answer some curiosities along the way, especially about the lotus concept and the intention of the songs. “Would you call The Lotus Chapters a journey?” I’d asked the two over the phone. Both responded empathically, saying “Bigtime!” in unison. Elaborating on the concept of the lotus (that’s beautifully expressed not just in the album title, but in lyrics, in the artwork, and also integrated in the band’s promotional/teaser images), Adamson stated “The lotus is a metaphor for what it’s like to exist.”
With this, The Lotus Chapters journey of existence begins fittingly as a seed. Safe and secure, the seed is blissfully unaware of the treacherous adventure ahead, but simply has an innate desire to grow. The album splits the journey of life into three chronological chapters: Seed, Flourish, and Bloom. The choice of three wasn’t specifically symbolic, but seemed to be a neat way to express the journey. The start of each chapter features a mostly-instrumental song as its “title track”, such as where my experience of the album began with the album’s opener, “Seed”.
“Seed” inspires goosebumps from its first seconds onward, where Wilkes easily proves his stuff, setting the scene (almost) on his own. It’s at this point the listener might think “What have I got myself in for here?!”. From nothing, Wilkes holds his own in the silence, echoing out and inspiring a returned call, which is harmonic and choral and would not be out of place in a church setting. For how little is going on, there’s an incredible atmosphere being created; a stunning soundscape created by all parts as they reveal themselves, including piano and incredibly OPEN vocals.
“Seed”‘s flow and beauty shifts as it comes to its end, like a curious twist into something more uncomfortable. Scraping metallic sounds and static soundbites blend, and whispers and child-like voices seem to loop. As functioning humans, we are but a ‘seed’ in our youth (with our lives ahead as our potential), so I appreciated this link in to childhood, which also is central in second track, “Eternal Sunshine”.
Complexity abounds from the start, with technical guitar alongside piano and vocals that both feel tense and frustrated. “Eternal Sunshine”‘s soaring chorus comes across as both admiration and concern about childhood innocence and comments on that blissful state of unknowing. It’s a pleasure to take the path of observation along with Above, Below as they zig and zag through growth and ageing with their tense instrumentation. Light piano works hard behind roaring vocals and heavy riffs, with it all coming across like a fight. A racing pace seems driven to escape, to keep the lightness of dreams alive through the heaviness of age and pressures of time. A breakdown section circles around the seed, as though it’s both threatening in its presence and also waiting for what’s to come.
Eerie tones take us into “Labyrinth”, which is decidedly flushed with innocence at its beginning at least, courtesy of acoustic guitar. But again we’re immersed in the experience of challenge, and learning how the maze of life can be overcome by rising higher. This is definitely a song to take time with while reading the lyrics (as is the entire album). It’s goosebump-inspiring in its inspiration to lean toward the unseen supports of nature in times of struggle. Adamson revealed that the majority of the songs were written while sitting outdoors and just BEING, and it makes sense that this state of presence would bleed into the songs. With a breathtaking pause and otherworldly-sounding vocals, the connection to surroundings is reaffirmed; gaining wisdom and encouragement from nature and within oneself also.
Learning, wisdom, and internal guidance flows into fourth track “Kenshō” also, where the literal meaning of the word ties into one’s nature and initial state of self-awareness. The song is shared in four parts: The First Thought, The Kenshō, The Attempted Understanding, and The Exodus. Though we didn’t talk about this song specifically, this line in “The Kenshō” section seems to confirm Above, Below’s intended meaning of kenshō:
“Water the seed, let the lotus breathe – It reveals the true nature of you and me”
Sonically speaking, “Kenshō” starts with tense rhythms, feeling like a preparation before leading into a freer state, courtesy of a gentle melody existing along with the previous instrumental tension. The lightness of the melody feels like fresh water droplets, suiting the idea of watering the seed. A shift midway through shares something that’s more sparse and the focus on percussion and vocals suits the experience of self connection.
“Kenshō” asks question after question and there’s shifts through fear and panic, and wondering what to do with the knowledge being gained. It’s almost time to leave the seed and begin to flourish (which Adamson implied as relating to the years of teenage and adulthood), and The Exodus seems like it occurs in a shivering and confronting rush. And though the potential lotus is free from the seed, the new phase of existence is a suffocating one in its new understandings, and this is expressed lyrically.
The era of “Flourish” begins with a jangling melody and a collective of voices that seem to be screaming but aren’t distinctly clear. Unnerving and uncomfortable, the vibe is “What’s coming?” and concern about that. So it’s beautifully satisfying that something dark and dissonant reveals itself and a warmer guitar and hooks into the now-familiar “Om Namah Shivaya” mantra. I adore how I can hear the guitar ‘sing’ the mantra, as well as the mystical/magical nature of this instrumental track. I found it fittingly shivery and transitory.
By way of the mantras used, Adamson shared that “Each mantra coincides with a different Hindu deity, which is sort of representative of either chapter.” So for the Seed chapter, “Om Kham Brahma” is a nod to Brahma, the God of protection “who was actually born from a lotus, so it’s sort of like the birthing God in a way, or the God of inner protection”, Adamson adds. “Om Namah Shivaya” is Shiva, the God of destruction, for the Flourish chapter which “has a lot of anger and angst”, and “Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya” is for Vishnu, the God of harmony, given that the Bloom chapter is reflective upon the previous experience and seeks balance.
In some of my early listens, I found myself impressed by how patiently and deliberately it seemed that Above, Below were exploring the states and concepts they were sharing, finding no sense of rush to speak of. This invites a slowing down for the listener if they allow it, and both band members agreed that experiencing the album from beginning to end and with the lyrics is how they’d recommend it be taken in.
After the surrender to the somewhat dark and contemplative atmosphere, “Flourish”‘s oomph kicks in courtesy of noisy/staticky drums joining in. This flows into “Mantra” then, which feels clean, brilliant, and otherworldly at first. Complexity is added with the arrival of vocals, and I had to get my head around something that came across as both flowing and erratic somehow. The track’s rhythms and its combination of tension and smoothness have “Mantra” shift from panic to reassurance, with a frantic call for help and a response to surrender to the darkness. “Mantra” vibes like the shove from the nest to learn how to fly on the fall down, and lyrically and musically explores the internal struggle. It marries a breakneck pace on drums with what sounds like strings – painting the fear and the possibility.
The ‘mantra’ is expanded upon with the line of “If I give in, to everything – will I be one with the mantra within?”. It has me think of the seed and our internal essence or vibration, and is more information as to what is meant by “we emancipate and then suffocate”. We agree to explore ourselves in life and that includes facing the darkness of ourselves. The song says it better than I, and it’s beautifully put in lyrics like: “To kiss the lips of melancholy / To hold hands with the mist of grief / The echoes of the ancient ones, bid me to dance with death.” The many layers that combine and crash into a tumultuous breakdown reiterates the fall into darkness.
Some of this would easily go over heads, so to thoroughly explore a concept undoubtedly comes with risk. Wilkes and Adamson were fully aware of that, but forged ahead nonetheless and courageously championed their creative ideas. The return of the literal mantra at the end of “Mantra” operates both as a reiteration of the message as well as an anchoring to the ongoing thread. There’s something really cool about this for me. I’m not sure I’ve spent time with an album that is so fiercely devoted to its story, in a chronological and connective way.
The following track “Blood Wine” comes in two parts, which I explored previously when the single released. The track continues the more aggressive emotion in this Flourish phase. The drenching in difficulty and darkness is expressed both visually and sonically, with weighted intensity and clear urgency and frustration. The only breather seems to be the possibility of learning from the dark times, which seems to be reinforced by the colour shifts from red to purple.
One of “Blood Wine”‘s standouts is the guitar effort, which (with all the intermixed layers and its flare outs) comes across like a satisfyingly scrappy fight with sharpened elbows as well as fists laying into someone. Admissions of being just as flawed as the object of their distaste feels like a learning point, learning through their experience.
Hearing “Beyond the Mosaic Garden” in the context of the album, and hearing the haunting mantra toward a God of destruction gives it a darker atmosphere than I remember it feeling initially. Tense and dense by way of rhythms and riffs, this is clearly a challenging landscape to move through.
In the aftermath of the previous songs, “Beyond the Mosaic Garden” feels like a summation of the experience so far; like a recognition of what experiences someone goes through in the process of existing. It’s encouraging toward another, versus the fear from the first person’s perspective. Technicality and complexity abound though, communicating the state of discomfort in going beyond what you know into something very different (“Peer into my eyes and see the colours breathe”). The track’s breakdown density and the more electric and frantic riffs at that point across like a confrontation or turning point.
Literally and lyrically thinking and understanding anew, the pace is slowed and bending riffs and crystalline chimes (and what sounds like a sitar) combine to create this state of finding grounding in a new view and to perhaps use the perspective for their benefit. It comes across as paradigm shattering with the slow motion tumble of shards happening all around the listener.
Third chapter Bloom begins then. It’s eerie and features those twinkling shards and light chiming melodies, along with that unreachable scream and what sounds like a cello. It’s layered and light and goosebumpingly lifting. “Stop evaporating” is sung, and this floods the track with an easy skipping kind of vibe I don’t think we’ve heard at any other point along this experience. It’s easy to get swept up on this and its sense of ‘arrival’ expressed instrumentally. Distant voices and layers at its end flow into “Equilibrium”.
“Equilibrium” is threatening in its heaviness, calling for “lotus born” to focus on their journey. And yet the entire time with substantial riffs, the tiny twinkling chimes are a present feature. Calls to “Mother Sun” and “Father Moon” at the chorus expand out into the abyss for something supportive in this blooming experience.
I love the line “reveal to me my true reflection” which comes across as practically a prayer to know yourself beyond limits, a kind of ascension. Above, Below take this moment of the song to seem to lift off into a lighter state of reality; gentle beats and relaxed rhythms and meandering vocals. Embodying the limitlessness with sound, Polaris’ Ryan Siew arrives with a flowing guitar solo that vines out at times and is more tightly intricate at others.
“I wish to be the love that moves the sun and stars”
Returning to the chorus, “Equilibrium” then offers a last effort of frustration as to why we don’t embrace what’s fully possible. This struck me as coming to terms with what was in Flourish, and in my chat with the guys, they reiterated that the Bloom is about finding balance and connecting with their previous selves and sharing their realisations.
Sonically, I wasn’t sure if this ending made congruent sense to me and I felt in two parts. I guess in becoming the balance (as is said lyrically), there’s an entwining of contrasts. There’s a lighter atmosphere in the background with heavy landings with guitar, and even a “bleugh”! I feel like an expression of balance is a tough thing to nail in a song and have the listener feel it along with them.
Introspective and lighter of sound, “The Gradient Lake” is a clear reflection upon the past. Almost defeated at its introduction, it brings urgency of voice along with a persistent chiming melody and thrashing heaviness. This came across as conflicting to me, like I wanted to hear one ‘side’ at a time and felt like my attention was again split.
I appreciated “The Gradient Lake”‘s inspiration to know yourself and bring dreams into reality. They seemed to express opportunities to be gained when you take in the world around you with presence and understand who you are, and keep an open mind to know more (“Perception is our greatest gift in life”).
I felt similarly with “The Gradient Lake” to the previous track. I couldn’t work out why something that was seemingly positive came with vocal oomph (that came across as frustrated – maybe frustrated with the actions of the past?), and I found the chiming melody annoying at some points. I assume that it signifies hope or lightness of possibility, but the constant nature of it throughout really heavy and demanding sections seemed to be too much.
I loved the album’s last song “Lotus” from its beginning, where tones shifted into a drum-pummelling, riff-climbing adventure. But when the vocals joined in, I was surprised that the high guitar melody persisted. Both the storytelling via vocals and ‘singing’ by guitar were trying to grab my attention, it seemed, and it felt like a competition instead of something I was open to taking in. It was a relief to me that the second verse didn’t feature this high melody.
Any annoyance is all but forgotten when around the midway mark, “Lotus” amps up into something of a synthy adventure that feels like maneuvering and overcoming. The stop-start of blast beats came across as growth, before a surprising drop into a mantra. The clarity of sound with light melodies, relaxed bass, and rising vocals came across as blissful and free. This is the peak of the album for me. An empassioned ending comes across as a last gasp of message, before the end of the cycle of life. The return to where we sonically began was the cherry on top of all of this.
“Bathe in the sun, bloom as one”
This is really ambitious! At the risk of sounding like a pretty dodgy reviewer, I was left wondering how on earth one might stick a definitive number on this album! Even when I spoke with the guys, I vaguely shared that I felt I still needed more time with The Lotus Chapters (because I did). I’m still not sure I’m fully familiar with this enigma of an album. My initial reaction was an impressed one, which was basically: “This is something else!”. It was when I tried to understand what each song was saying that I felt like I wasn’t fully getting it.
There are some stunning moments here that have The Lotus Chapters ascend a pedestal of something untouchable. For one example, as much as instrumental tracks can get judged as filler, I felt like Above, Below did brilliantly with using these to signify the change of phase and as part of their story. But at other times it felt overwhelming or jarring in how much is going on, especially when it wasn’t obviously thematically clear that it was intended. There’s times where sentiment, voice, and instrumentation are clearly expressing the same thing, and other times where meaning is buried under layers, with the scent thrown off by conflicting sounds.
Above all, this is a mammoth effort, and clearly a labour of love. The self-professed 'music nerds' have incorporated everything they know and love, and most impressively, tied it into a chronological concept. They didn't verbalise it, but I get a vibe of intending to innovate, and I fully respect that intention, especially when it comes from an appreciative place of those before them. Some of the lyrics won't make sense without explanation, and the songs will require the same patience and presence that was put into making them. But musically, Above, Below have put together a full-bodied journey that showcases everything from blast beats through to hymnal harmonies. Will the songs stick in the minds of progressive metalcore enthusiasts and have Above, Below blossom in popularity? Time will tell.
Innovative and interesting by way of ideas and their musical execution.
The album asks for attentive and curious listeners to take time with these songs, which may mean they're lost on some.