Label: Diotima Records/Rockshots Records
Author: Kira L. Schlechter
It’s always fun when bands send you down the internet rabbit hole in a quest to find out more, even if you’re left with just as many questions as answers in the process. Just as with the origin of their name, the Italian band SOULS OF DIOTIMA does that aplenty on their fourth album ‘Janas’, if you choose to start digging.
Singer Claudia Barsi, guitarist Fabio Puddu, bassist/singer Antonio Doro and drummer Giorgio Pinna released their debut ‘Maitri‘ in 2011. ‘What Remains Of The Day‘ followed in 2012 and ‘The Sorceress Reveals – Atlantis‘ in 2016.
The DIOTIMA in their name, by the way, most likely refers to the ancient Greek prophet and philosopher Diotima of Mantinea, whose ideas made up the beginnings of the idea of Platonic love (love that is not sexual, named after the Greek philosopher Plato). While the matters they explore might not be exactly spiritual, they certainly inspire thought.
‘The Black Mask’ kicks things off with an assertive bassy riff. The guitar part over top has a distinctly Eastern feel and the barely audible masculine chanting underneath builds on that bottom end. They play with the groove throughout, keeping it terse and tight, then stretching it out for emphasis at just the right spots. Claudia’s voice is a resonantly rich mezzo/alto, her accent giving a lovely lilt to the words, her lower end especially notable.
There’s a “Monster whom you don’t have to fear” mentioned in the first verse. The line “We are twelve / Here to help / To scare the evil away from this land” is a tantalizing hint as well, as is “Under my skin / It may not seem / But a human heart beats inside of me” (so is this “monster” at least partly human, partly supernatural?) The second verse moves the story along a bit, referencing the mask of the title and also perhaps identifying the “twelve” with “We are demigods / Here because / This divine rain purifies lost souls”. The outstanding chorus — soaring and dramatic and chill-inducing (the progression of the internal melody is just wonderful) — is the biggest hint of all, referencing “The keeper of a mystery / Is the hero of this history” (who is this “keeper”?) and the “Old and scary black mask / Is in the dim light of the dusk” (perhaps this mask bestows power on its wearer?). You’d like it to go on because it’s spectacular, but they don’t indulge and that’s wise. Even the solo is just enough, Fabio and Giorgio giving each other room and intertwining simultaneously.
Is this an introduction to the album’s plot? Maybe…
‘Sleep Demon’ has Claudia foreshadowing a bit of the chorus, then we go straight into a razor-sharp, crisp groove. This describes kind of an out-of-body experience where the character encounters presumably the monster, the “sleep demon” of the title (“Then he entered into my mind … do not try to move, do not try to fight” and “Jumps into my dreams, killing my freedom” and “While the silence is deafening / He then unleashes my agony”). In the bridge, Antonio adds a harsh vocal as perhaps the voice of the monster, bellowing, “I am your nightmare / I am your fear”. The chorus has an irresistible, almost funky punch (the orchestration plays a big part in that), and Claudia helps that vibe with her enunciation and innate percussive sensibility.
Then there’s a break in what’s so far been “the story.”
‘The Princess Of Navarra’ is a sweeping, dipping ballad, Claudia’s voice soulful and hopeful in the verses, where she’s accompanied by Antonio’s throaty bass. While the choir vocals in Italian are unusual, they do make sense somehow leading into the second chorus, which makes use of Claudia’s higher range to positive effect. The tension builds as she sings “I will be your saviour / In the ocean I will cry / I will love”, growing to a huge crescendo that leads effortlessly into the solo. I wasn’t sure how this track, good as it is musically, ties in with the previous two thematically, if it’s even supposed to — the princess of the title is being kept in a tower by her father and longs to escape by means of an unknown savior (“We’ll run away together”). The last chorus hints that salvation has happened (”We are safe now”) and ends on a cliffhanger musically and lyrically (“I won’t leave it behind / I will carry you inside”).
Things seem back on the thematic path in the title track ‘Janas’. The inherent threat in Claudia’s vocal, mixed intimately in your ear, sets it apart, as does that chugging rhythm in each verse. I love the rundown of the narrator’s characteristics — “I’m a little fairy / White as the moon / One long story / Narrated in tune / I’m a kind of riddle / A sort of light / Sometimes in the middle / Of the dark night” — and it gets better in the second verse — “I’m a little woman / I’m a butterfly / The soul of a human” (and a harsh vocal “Who will never die”) and “I’m kind and tender / When needed I’m evil / I become a defender” (and a harsh vocal again “Fast and lethal”). The musically delicious chorus serves as a warning not to cross her (“If you want to lie to me / You will lose the kind side of me / If you give me your honesty / You will not see my authority”). It’s not clear how the “I wanna fly” part ties in thematically, but it carries into the bridge and expands on it (“When I get to fly / Never will you try / To look into my mind”). Whether the lyric makes sense or not, you have to love how Claudia lets it rip vocally. You also have to appreciate the conciseness of the tracks — power/progressive metal can get self-indulgent (and we love it for that if it’s done well), but when it’s to the point and the songs are so well constructed, as here, it makes a huge impact.
So is Janas the monster mentioned in the previous tracks?
The ringing guitar melody of ‘The Dark Lady’ sets things up for the orchestration to expand upon and musical treats abound, from the thick, rich, wah-laden solo before the bridge to the seamless transition from the bridge into the final chorus, to the last chorus, which stops on a dime on the same crunch with which it started. However, Claudia could be much louder in the mix on the first verse since there’s so much going on lyrically; she is more audible by the end of the second one, though. The character here seems to be an observer of someone on the verge of death (“He wants to leave behind / This like of dark dismay / Filled with a pain / That steals his time away” and “His final dignity /Held in his hands to keep /Onto a cloth /The red of blood will seep”). The lady offers him release — “Into the room she entered / Her every step sure and steady / Looked him in the eye / And asked him “‘Are you ready?’” and “She took his head and bent it / Over her staff and then / With a firm hand said / ’Breathe for as long as you can’”. The chorus, then, is that freedom, that release (“I wanna feel you in my eyes … in my soul … in my heart”) as is the aching bridge (“Don’t you cry / The end of this agony / Will save you”).
But who is this “dark lady”? Janas? The monster? Or someone else entirely?
It’s here where perhaps another story begins…
The cinematic start of ‘Ichnos Superhero’ has Claudia serving as perhaps Ichnos, the observer, who might also be a god. The chorus has this lovely subtle lead-in (“When you feel the danger is near / And your breath is cut by fear”) and goes into the body of it invoking the god’s presence. You have to appreciate how they just end songs, like this one — it’s big and expansive as it should be (and as all the songs are), it even modulates on the last chorus, but then it ends. You get a brisk, airy solo, that chorus twice and that’s it — there’s no reprising or some great long instrumental part — it’s simply done.
We’re starting to lean a bit more at this point in the album toward Greek mythology/ancient history, it seems, with this track and the following ones. Is Ichnos a play on Icarus, the son of Daedalus who flew too close to the sun on his father’s wings and perished (and Antonio’s chanted portion hints at this)? Or is it just a coincidental name? If you take the next few songs into account, it seems like this song is an invocation of some sort as a confrontation is brewing in the first verse (“Welcome to you all / In this land of war / Make yourself safe / And never look back”) and the second (“There’s no way to forget / Our ancient land / There’s only one way not to forget who we are”). There seems to be a wish to change things, too, to end the constant conflict (“This symphony / It’s the reality / Of our society” and “But if you want / You can change it / Our history /We write together”).
“My Roots” is chunky and potent, with lots of wah guitar. Claudia handles the pace of the verses with aplomb, firing out the words clearly and assertively. Here was where (based on looking ahead at the last two songs and doing some more digging) the album from this point on seemed to be relating to the nomadic Sea Peoples, the so-called “seafaring confederation (hailing from Asia Minor, the Aegean and the Mediterranean) that attacked ancient Egypt” and other areas during the Bronze Age. The reference in the first verse to “An imprint of land / An Island stands / At the gates of the West / A place of mysteries /A magic history / Of Atlas was the nest” and the mention of “It was the cross / Of pirates lost / People without law” makes this fairly clear.
There’s an element of personal history in this, too, I think, with the band being descendants of these ancient peoples, and this is likely a tribute to that. The title can be from the character’s perspective and from their own, especially when Claudia says “So my roots are living inside of me, in my blood / No one believing I can live without roots”. The chorus, which goes from lush lilt to uptempo courtesy of Giorgio’s tempered drumming, notes that as well, that wanderlust (“It’s a dream, it’s a fire”) coupled with the need to settle, to find a permanent home (“I wanna feel land”).
‘Maty’ is another ballad, but again, it’s tempered, not melodramatic or overwrought, marked by loads of guitar harmony in the body and solo section and enough orchestration to flesh it out but not overwhelm it. Claudia lifts and sends the chorus, especially the final one where she takes the melody on lovely tangents but doesn’t oversing. The chorus is well-crafted lyrically: “You will dance alone / On the stage of your life” and “You’ll accept alone / The claps for your life”, a clever parallel metaphor. But the second verse “Dear Maty, life is a gift / It is like a guitar riff / If it’s written the right way / It’s a melody you can play” is, well, a simile that falls flat (the first verse was better with “Your time and your dreams / They will be your only queens”).
Is Maty a character? A characterization, like a representation of people in general? How does this song fit in with my previous theories?
‘Mediterranean Lane’ (“A place forgotten by our time”… “A place where nature’s still divine”) is more like a pure rock song — it’s as heavy as metal, but it has a decidedly rock feel to it, even with the orchestration. That title is a difficult phrase to wrap one’s tongue around, but Claudia skims it effortlessly; her voice is especially splendid on the last chorus, which modulates all over the place. But she doesn’t falter, confidently easing over all the changes. This is where the Sea Peoples idea seems to be solidified with lines like “The passage of an ancient route” and “A paradise for pirates / In search of their prey / Attracted by the mermaids / And a rich place to stay” and the second verse especially “Suppressed through the ages / By the Phonecian rule / Colonizers, heroes / Of new magical worlds / Closed to the queen lands / Africa, Europe and Asia / Narrated by the poets / With truth and fantasia” (and there’s a rhyme you don’t see every day). These were people who didn’t have the economic good fortune of those other established civilizations, so they resorted to raiding to get what they needed.
With its syncopated, heavy, suspenseful chug, ‘Sherden’ really conveys the visual image of the pirates sailing through the dead of night on their mission and trying to bolster their courage (“All the while I think / Of so much rage and poverty” and “I am the warrior no one will see / Send to conquer the true black lands”, that is, lands that are fruitful and rich). The Sherden, by the way, were among the Sea Peoples I mentioned. Their rootlessness is plain in the line “The blade of my sword / Feels no burden”, that is of loyalty or pity or even a sense of nation. The choir vocals in Italian throughout are stunning — it’s almost like the sailors chanting — especially the section after the bridge, where the music is glorious. And that bridge, where she sings “I’m revolution / Cold warrior’s heart / I’m revolution / War is my art” is twofold in impact, saying this is what you have made me (which is terrible and tragic), but the music accompanying it is like a release, a salvation, which is really nicely done. The section after that is very nearly rapped (and Claudia handles it well, with plenty of snarling), but it works well in conveying the tense mood of the impending raid (“I sharpen my weapons / Of pain and dread” and “With rage wanting to steal my sight”). And again, it just ends. God love them.
So there’s a lot of mystery in ‘Janas’, a lot of hints at themes, which I’ve tried to parse out here. Is there an overarching one? Am I trying to make this a concept album when it isn’t one? Or is it almost two concepts in one? Look for my upcoming interview with Claudia, which will hopefully provide more insight into this tantalizingly fascinating, meticulously edited effort.