Review & Full Album Stream: Vokonis, Grasping Time

vokonis grasping time

[Click play above to stream Vokonis’ Grasping Time in full. Album is out Sept. 6 on The Sign Records.]

Swedish trio Vokonis continue to show the kind of band they’ll become even as they become it. Grasping Time is their third long-player in the last four years, following 2017’s The Sunken Djinn (review here) and 2016’s Olde One Ascending (review here), and serves as their first offering through The Sign Records after releasing through Ripple and Ozium Records, respectively — even the 2015 demo tape Temple (review here) that they released under their old moniker had label backing, from BTNKcllctv in Malaysia. Recorded in 2018, the eight-track/44-minute Grasping Time also marks the final release to feature drummer Emil Larsson, who has since been replaced by Peter Ottoson in the Borås-based lineup with guitarist/vocalist Simon Ohlsson and bassist/vocalist Jonte Johansson. That change feels significant, but as Larsson still features in these songs, it’s hard to know how it will ultimately affect the band’s dynamic.

It is that dynamic, incidentally, that is the story of Grasping Time. Not literally, of course, as the lyrics tell their own tale, but in terms of the sound of the record — captured like its predecessor at Studio Underjord in Norrköping by Joona Hassinen — from the head-down drive that launches opener “Antler Queen” through the post-Elder sway and chug in the finale of the capper “Fading Lights” and the brief guitar contemplation thereafter, the three-piece demonstrate their evolving approach in its latest incarnation as a more progressive and continually growing outfit. Ohlsson and Johansson share vocals effectively throughout the tracks, patient in the melodic delivery in the verses at the outset of “Sunless Hymnal” and gruff as that build kicks into its payoff shortly before the halfway point of the 9:57 longest track. I won’t take away from the breadth Vokonis bring to Grasping Time in “Embers” or even the shorter title-track, which serves as the penultimate inclusion ahead of “Fading Lights,” but “Sunless Hymnal” is an effective summary unto itself of who Vokonis are at this stage in their growth, and reveals the conscious execution with which they’re working.

If Olde One Ascending was where the direction was charted and The Sunken Djinn brought new levels of intensity to the proceedings, then Grasping Time is where Vokonis unveil a new level of ambition. It’s not that they didn’t have progressive aspects to their sound all along, and certainly putting “Antler Queen” first emphasizes the fact that they’re still plenty aggressive when they want to be. What’s shifted is the balance of elements. A greater interplay between Johansson and Ohlsson on vocals brings fresh persona to Vokonis‘ delivery, as even “Antler Queen” demonstrates, moving from its extended quiet break into a low-end-heavy doom roll topped with screams and, yes, a finish of post-rock-style airy guitar. In addition, the songs themselves mirror the duality of their sonic take, complementing each other as the brashness of “Antler Queen” leads into the sweeter beginning of “Sunless Hymnal” and the High on Fire bruiser riffing of the open and close of “I Hear the Siren” bookends a melodic dreamscape all the more resonant with the percussive force and solo shred of the two-minute instrumental “Exiled,” which follows to close out side A.

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And in case you’re not of the camp who believes format matters, the midsection of Grasping Time provides a suitable counterargument. Taken in halves, “Exiled” finishes side A as noted, and the also-just-about-two-minute, also-instrumental “Ashes” launches side B, dropping a few choice basslines beneath some proggy guitar noodling as it does. Fair enough. But in a linear format like CD/DL, the difference is striking. Essentially what happens is Vokonis shift into an instrumental hypnosis mode, with the charged end of “I Hear the Siren” — that last minute or so — gives way to the solo-topped shove of “Exiled,” which culminates with a crash but picks up fluidly in “Ashes” with a brief quiet intro before the full brunt kicks in, and then leads directly into the beginning of “Embers,” the two songs obviously meant to be taken as a pair given their respective titles. Varied and engaging as it is, the intro for “Embers” is another two minutes without vocals, so essentially what happens is Grasping Time has a stretch of about seven of its total 44 minutes, across four different tracks, without a word either from Johansson or Ohlsson.

What that shows is not only their ability to entrance the listener — which that stretch does — but their willingness to follow whatever impulse is going to lead to the best flow for the album as a whole. And the payoff for that is the smack in the face when Ohlsson and Johansson return on “Embers” for the most direct duet-ing they’ve yet done. “Embers” patiently drifts into a lumbering finish and feels something like an apex for Grasping Time, but the title-track continues to broaden the reach of the LP overall, and, again, manifest the progression of Vokonis even as it hints toward future direction for their meld between bruising and soothing impulses, not so much creating a conflict between them, banging them together and seeing what happens, but utilizing both to a singular expressive purpose.

Further proving the whole-album case for Grasping Time is the mirror that “Fading Lights” gives to “Antler Queen” with the return of the harsher screaming later in the track as it finishes its careening run. It underscores the consciousness and intent in the band’s craft, in terms of songwriting as well as structuring the LP, and across the album’s not insignificant span, the control behind Vokonis execution only makes it more impressive how far their reach has expanded in what’s still a relatively short amount of time. Their work has hit the point where one might not feel comfortable predicting where a fourth album might go in terms of sound, other perhaps than to say Vokonis continue to come across with more of an individualized take, whatever influences they may be taking from the modern sphere of heavy around them. With the lineup change bringing in Ottoson, there’s bound to be some shift in approach as a result, intentional or not, but as they prove with Grasping Time, there’s an entire stylistic spectrum they’re able to take and use as a frame for their songwriting. I’d only hope to see that frame’s borders continue to expand as they have thus far.

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