by Bjorn Springorum
Something gloriously unexpected happens once you leave the safety of your comfort zone behind. Setting sails for new adventures and new horizons is also what Tom Englund of Swedish melancholic metal masters Evergrey and renowned classical pianist Vikram Shankar are doing. Their mutual brainchild Silent Skies is like an ocean of melancholy, a sublime tapestry on which they project their gentle, breezing, touching cinematic music.
Scandinavian melancholy is more than just a cliché in the loud and drastic world of rock and metal. It’s a tangible, omnipresent state of mind, buried deep within every soul in the Northern Hemisphere. On their soaring, touching sophomore album “Nectar”, transatlantic duo Silent Skies shows what’s at the very core of melancholic music once you delete distorted guitars and expressive drumming: a nucleus of piano-driven, orchestral, shimmering music reminiscent of some calmer Anathema works or the wistful visions of Ólafur Arnalds. So beautiful it makes you cry. So painful it makes you heal.
Everything began a few years back when Englund stumbled across one of Shankar’s piano renditions of an Evergrey song. “I instantly realized that he understood what Evergrey was all about,” Englund says. “I don’t think we would have ever worked together were it not for this.” Shankar has been an Evergrey fan ever since his high school days. “They are part of my musical DNA,” the artist from North Carolina states. “I listened to them for years and years. The way they made music influenced my way of writing and playing, too. When Tom and I are making music, I instantly know what he wants to say. We speak a common musical language. We both want to express that which touches us profoundly. Only then,” the pianist says, “music can truly move others.”
“Nectar” indeed is a moving affair. Yet, it’s so much more than Evergrey-esque tunes set to piano, cello, samples and subtle percussion. “Our music allows you to get to a state of calmer breathing,” says Englund. “To reflect, to take time for yourself. To me, this is just as heavy as heavy metal. We just took away the distorted guitars and the drums.” His virtuosic friend nods in agreement. “I have always been interested in capturing heavy music with my piano. I have been doing piano arrangements of metal songs for a decade now and I have always loved how a piano can stage a whole metal song – with the deep percussive low end and the high shimmering keys. If the listener is willing to take a leap of faith with us, they will discover a lot of kindred spirit between this and metal music.”
Even more so than on their praised debut “Satellites” they channel the elegiac spirit of Anathema or Katatonia and wreath it into a soaring ocean of sound not unlike a movie score like “Interstellar”. It’s monumental without being pretentious, grand without being over-produced. “There’s a human presence in the songs,” Tom agrees. “This kind of music is too delicate to be produced the way a metal album is produced.” Gentle and with great care, these two kindred spirits have created an album so achingly beautiful it deserves to be heard all over the world. “The piano you can hear on the album is actually my childhood piano in my parents’ home in Cleveland, Ohio,” beams Vikram. “I always wanted to use this piano for a serious, heartfelt project but it never felt right. Bringing a part of my heritage and upbringing to this project means a lot to me.”
His old piano is joined by some bubbling Moog, retro synthesizers from the 1980s and live cello courtesy of Raphael Weinroth-Browne (Leprous), caressed by Englunds heartfelt, aching, breaking voice. “The way he sings makes you listen to every single word,” Shankar says. “It’s as if Tom is speaking directly to you. It’s very beautiful and poetic.” It’s important, too: Englund addresses issues of mental health that are still not talked about enough. “Our personal issues set an important foundation of understanding each other and getting it when one of us doesn’t have the energy to work on music. We know how it feels when you question yourself as a musician.”
This is not just another lockdown project. It’s a personal matter of deepest importance for the two, almost reluctantly shared with the rest of the world. Englund, ever the laconic Swede, grins: “It’s sad music alright. Yet this sad and wistful music gives us an energy we don’t get when we listen to AC/DC. It brings you to explore your inner self.”