Review of the Album: WHEEL Charismatic Leaders

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The trio of Finnish progressive metal band Wheel (consisting of vocalist and guitarist James Lascelles, lead guitarist Jussi Turunen, and drummer Santeri Saksala) has built a strong reputation over the past decade. Their mix of infectious melodies, vivid landscapes, and energetic instrumentation has drawn comparisons to artists like Karnivool, Godsticks, Caligula’s Horse, and Earthside. It’s clear to see why they have garnered such acclaim. The trend continues with their latest offering, Charismatic Leaders, a captivating and emotive journey that stands shoulder to shoulder, if not surpasses, their outstanding previous album, Resident Human.  

Charismatic Leaders sees Wheel advancing following the July 2023 departure of longtime bassist Aki “Conan” Virta. While Jyri Helko (Warmen) has been standing in during tours, it remains uncertain if he (or someone new) contributed to the new album. Nonetheless, they have not lost any of their allure during this transition, and with Meshuggah guitarist Fredrik Thordendal and the multi-talented Daniel Bergstrand (Meshuggah, Devin Townsend, In Flames) at the helm as engineers/co-producers, the trio has never sounded better on a studio release.

Thematically, the album delves into traditional and unconventional concepts of being a “charismatic leader” in contemporary society. Lascelles contemplates: “Conventionally, [it’s] a term used to depict the leader of a cult, [but] I believe the interpretation is evolving, especially with the way politics has changed over the past decade. It seems to be less about policies and more about these personality cults, as seen with Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. I started noticing these figures everywhere and realized, ‘There’s enough material here for an album.'”

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Lascelles also describes it as their “heavier album,” stating: “For fans of metal who appreciate Wheel‘s music, this is the one for them. While we haven’t become caricatures of our previous works, we have undoubtedly shifted towards a more metal-oriented direction, aiming to create a metal album.”

This is not an exaggeration, with the intense introduction of djent-inspired riffs and rhythms immediately establishing “Empire” as one of the band’s most aggressive tracks to date. The various guitar tones are raw and powerful, and despite maintaining soulfulness and clarity, Lascelles‘ chorus retains a distinct edge. Consequently, the song is a meticulously crafted blend of anger and vulnerability, with lyrics (“Digging deeper / Eager to connect / And we succumb to it / Feeding on the rage within / Blinded by our fury / Hastening the demise”) reflecting both Wheel‘s stylistic evolution and the contemporary themes they explore.

The remaining six tracks tread similar – and equally impactful – lines between intricate aggression, deeply poignant hooks, and captivating atmospheres. “Porcelain” and “Discipline” excel in emphasizing the latter, with sustained notes and silence effectively conveying emotionally resonant messages. Similarly, “Caught in the Afterglow” is a poignant instrumental break entwined with desolate acoustic guitar strums and subtly unsettling ambiance. It serves as a sobering segue into the expansive “The Freeze” (which encapsulates all the album’s strengths into a breathtaking conclusion).

Charismatic Leaders is undeniably Wheel‘s most substantial album in terms of sound and concept. Fans seeking more intensity in their music will likely appreciate it more than its two predecessors. Nonetheless, it may lack some of the variety of Resident Human (a trade-off subject to personal preference). Regardless, Charismatic Leaders stands as another exceptional addition to their discography, reinforcing why Wheel truly deserves recognition in the progressive metal realm.

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