AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Änglagård’s Hybris 30 Years Later

The early 1990’s was a lull period in the storied history of progressive rock. The classic bands of the 1970s were largely gone, existed in a diluted form that recorded more for the purposes of nostalgia than novelty, or had evolved into pop-rock groups. A relatively small number of musicians and labels managed to keep the creative lights shining, though they were largely more avant-garde, jazz, or classically oriented. None achieved anything like mainstream popularity.

(Indeed my music collection, when ranked by year, has a mode around 1977 and another around 2007. 1992 was the last of a 7-year lull in content. FWIW.)

Replacing the OGs were so-called neo-prog outfits. This term started off as descriptive and rapidly became used in a derogatory manner. While some of these groups were musically astute, they tended toward more predictable, pop-oriented songwork (even when these songs reached 20 minutes in length). Others, frankly, just weren’t that good – some with off-key vocals, embarrassing lyrical content, and so on.

But in mid-1992 there came rumors of a new 6-piece band out of Sweden that would reinvigorate the genre. Hybris was released on September 14th of that year and rapidly spread through word of mouth. Keep in mind that the pace of this spread was glacial by today’s standards, driven by printed mail-order catalogs, phone calls, listening parties, and USENET. The first web browser was still months away, Google did not exist, and social media was just not a thing yet.

I ordered my copy of the CD and was duly impressed. So was my circle of music friends, their music friends, and so on. Änglagård, consisting just of college-aged musician / composers, had managed to single-handedly revive a flagging style. From the opening piano theme of Jordrök I was intrigued and then hooked. Its use of Mellotrons (an instrument of worship in these circles), angular guitar / bass riffs with gentle harmonic passages, flute, thick keyboards, densely busy drumming … These aspects supported both heavy and light passages that put the “symphonic” back in symphonic rock.

Änglagård had it all – complexity, dynamics, and subtle catchiness. They were playing chamber music with electronic instruments. The compositions were well thought out and arranged, with a sophistication typically not expected from a bunch of long-haired 20-somethings.

Not only did they match the technical prowess and writing skills of classic 70’s groups such as Yes, Genesis, ELP, and the like, they outperformed their progenitors without falling into the traps of being too self-righteous, overblown, or pretentious. I caught a lot of slack for the latter types of comments, but I’ll stand by them even today. Hybris is a progressive rock album that people who don’t like the genre can respect. You can’t say the same about Messrs. Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

While Jordrök was instrumental, the remaining three tracks included vocals. Said vocals were, well, not the highest point of the album. The singing was certainly not bad, but it was strained at times. Still, the playing was otherwise so powerful and delicate that it rarely mattered. To that point, the passage around 2:40-3:30 of Vandringar I Vilsenhet still ties me in knots with its dueling guitars, analog keys, and flute over galloping bass.

In 1993, Änglagård was invited to perform at ProgFest in Los Angeles. The event had its share of drama, being scaled back from a 2-day to 1-day affair with half of the bands canceled. Änglagård played second and was largely unknown even among this crowd. They shyly approached their instruments (which included three Mellotrons) and ripped through Jordrök.

As the last note faded, the audience…went absolutely nuts. I can’t remember ever seeing so much excitement from a bunch of nerdy, mullet-sporting white guys.

They finished their set by completing Hybris and capping it off with a Genesis cover. This combination sent much of the crowd rushing for the merch table. The moment was a palpable inflection point. Änglagård had made progressive rock progressive again. Later that night we managed to hang with the band in the hotel. They were polite, humble, and quite reserved.

Hybris remains my personal favorite of Änglagård’s short discography. In listening to it once again in preparation for this article, I can say with table-pounding certainty that it has withstood the last three decades.

But their story does not stop with this one album.

In 1994, they released Epilog, a darker, more brooding, all-instrumental effort. While it is quite good, I cannot say that it struck me the same way as its predecessor. I saw them again later that year. They played proficiently and with more confidence, but there was a sense that they were dialing it to some extent. Their interactions with one another were just not as warm or playful.

After that, they broke up for a long time.

Seemingly out of nowhere, the band came back with a new lineup and new album in 2012. Viljans Öga was a return to form with a folkier approach but the same signature complexity and spirited compositional form. Like Epilog, it was instrumental.

Five years later, they toured the U.S. to support the album. I managed to catch them once more, this time in Chicago, and the show was quite good. It was certainly more than just nostalgia. They announced that they were working on new material and even played some of it. But none of this has been officially released yet, and we are over a decade without new Änglagård. Given that the members seem to work at a geological pace, perhaps there will be more to come. Or maybe not.

A side project, called All Traps on Earth released a single album a few years back that is quite good. Check that one out. There are a couple of live Änglagård albums as well, and they are quite worthwhile.

Opinions on Änglagård and the progressive rock of their era border on the religious. I’ve struggled between being open and honest versus respectfully quiet about my viewpoints. I hope that the midpoint that I strove to reach works. My criticism of the genre is mostly tongue-in-cheek. It was a big part of me for a few years and I am certainly guilty of much of what I poke fun at.

Nonetheless, Hybris probably remains in my top 25 of all time. It broke ground by taking old ideas and combining them in new arrangements, and ended up raising the bar for “prog” bands going forward. For this reason alone, it is a singularly important album.

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