ArkanI’ve been sucked into the aromas of this Paris-based band of North African origin since I heard their album Hilal (2008). Harsh death metal combines with Arabic rhythms and instruments. The process was fine-tuned on their follow-up album “Salam” (2011). Now with “Sofia”, the emphasis has shifted to a more ambient affair with less aggression and more personal sorrow and tragedy.

Haunting vocals, the rhythms of the oud and melodic metal are fused once more to create floaty atmospheres and the distinct sounds and exotic flavours of the band’s origins. The opening song “Hayati” is evocative, dreamy and delightful. Lead singer Sarah Layssac rises majestically above the expansive melodies, guiding us through the melancholic “March of Sorrow”. It is indeed melancholic but equally it is uplifting. The angry harshness which was a feature of “Hilal” appears only fleetingly, as Arkan take a new direction with their soul-searching style. The acoustic guitar and traditional instruments are perfect for defining the softness, as Sarah continues to haunt and entice us with her long and perfectly delivered notes on “Leaving Us”. This then leads naturally into “Soiled Dreams”. For an album which relies on the creation of a smoky atmosphere, it is important that there is continuity. Arkan achieve this. The metal rhythm provides a solid backdrop, and at one point Arabia meets chunky metal before the singer takes us back to higher places. The atmosphere becomes eerie as the music softens. The vocals become more expansive. I imagine Sarah’s arms expanding as she reaches out. It’s passionate and awe-inspiring but as a musical piece, for me “Sofia” stands still to much and lacks the variety that you might find, say, on a Tristania album where female vocals also serve strongly to define the atmosphere. Here the instrumentals are delicate, but understated, which is a pity. “Endless Way” finishes with traditional metal before giving way to the harsh tones of “Wingless Angels”. Growls alternate with Sarah’s dreamy vocals and an acoustic rhythm, rising to a crescendo.

“Asleep Beauty” is a stunning track. There is silence save a delicate piano rhythm, the luscious tone of the oud and the echoing, celestial sounds from Sarah. It’s as if she is floating in the wind. There is build-up as the metal section enters the scene, bringing with it dark clouds. What follows is calm and exotic, then death growls cut across the extended chant. The atmosphere is now tense. Growls and heaviness prevail as the music plods on doomily. “Cold Night’s Dream” is sultry, dark and Katatonian in its atmosphere. As it progresses to the “Dark Epilogue”, there’s even a post-metal feel. It’s like a bonus track which doesn’t fit into the rest of it. It’s a shame it could not have been blended in to the earlier part of the album, which lacked the drama of its predecessors.

Clearly Arkan were aiming at a different atmosphere from their previous works. Whilst it is imaginative, exotic and without doubt beautifully sung, “Sofia” is more downtrodden than its predecessors and lacks their strength and depth. It’s deliberately more personal and is dreamy rather than aggressive. For that reason I’d suggest this album might appeal to those of a more gothic orientation.

(7 /10 Andrew Doherty)