Hibernal, Replacements - as reviewed on The Phantom TollboothIn Replacements, we enter a stark, dystopian world where “greater good” mentality has drowned society with melancholy.  This is a fantastic piece of multi-genre art, incorporating elements of musical composition and talented voice acting, though at its conclusion, you might find yourself with more questions than answers.

Artist: Hibernal (http://hibernal.bandcamp.com/)
Label: independent
Time: 12 tracks / 66:00 minutes

In a way, it seems strange to review an album where the main event is not the music itself.  Some might liken this to Genesis or Yes getting lost in costumes and the theatrics of their onstage performances, but what Hibernal does is not a gimmick.  This genre-bending outlet of Australian musician Mark Healy is a musical project which delves into ambient, prog, and art rock, while taking the very idea of the concept album to a whole new level.  Both albums thus far – The Machine, his debut, and Replacements, this forthcoming sophomore release – are narratives with detailed plot and characters overlaying instrumental music.  In that regard, Mark doesn’t write songs with lyrics; he writes compositions with inseparably fused musical and narrative elements.  The end result is not unlike an abbreviated radio drama, but with broader vision.  This is a high-quality multimedia production with guest musicians and talented voice actors.

I could take Replacements apart track by track, but I don’t think that approach lends itself to such a cohesive piece.  The album might as well be one sixty-minute track, though it is broken down like chapters or scenes.  One track bleeds into the next as the story unfolds through music and narrative.  As Mark himself says, Replacements is best experienced like a movie: from start to finish in one sitting, because it is a fully immersive experience.

The music on the album is gritty, grunge- and metal-influenced guitar work accompanied by bass and electronic drums, arranged to punctuate the story as it is told.  Though I felt the music on The Machine was somewhat of an afterthought, it is absolutely essential on Replacements.  Here, it is integral to the storytelling itself, filling in gaps between voices and plot events: where the journey becomes frantic, guitars explode into frenzied riffs and growling chords; where the story crawls with suspense, the music fades to an ethereal bed of keyboard and strings, perhaps with some hesitant guitar noodling overtop, creating anxious and tense atmospheres.  Throughout the album, there are driving sections, emotive acoustic guitar passages, and soft calm-before-the-storm moments before the next frantic explosion.  The music captures all the emotions of the story – the fear, anger, desperation, and penitence of its characters – and baptizes the listener in them.

The story itself takes place in a stark, futuristic world where “greater good” mentality has drowned society with melancholy.  This experience is epitomized in the character of Artimus, the first-person narrator, who carries on an empty existence in this dystopian world-that-might-one-day-be.  He’s a man with a past and no love for what legal authority still exists.  We meet him in a dark, rain-drenched alley where he is wandering the city, looking for something which he can’t quite identify.  He is restless, lost, empty.  Then, he meets a woman whom he immediately recognizes as a “synthetic” – an android that looks entirely human, designed to accomplish the menial tasks of mankind’s existence.  Artimus can’t understand why she snares his interest, because his distaste for the synthetic “race” is one of the driving factors in his life, but something is different about this woman – though just what exactly will not be revealed until later.  This chance meeting sets the stage for the resulting journey, which will find the pair inextricably linked.  Although the album is littered with hints as to what transpires between them, the conclusion just might leave you with more questions than answers…

Central to Replacements is the question it asks – literally through its narrative and figuratively through its larger moralistic message: “Is everything replaceable?”  Can you replicate the priceless things in life – even people?  If you could pay for such substitutionary elements, how much would you be willing to sacrifice for them?  These hypotheticals the album poses are not so futuristic that they are inapplicable to our current societies.  What a pastor might tackle through a sermon or an inspirational speaker through a seminar, Mark Healy does under the guise of Hibernal.

Replacements will be released March 24th, and pre-orders will also receive an instrumental version of the album as well.  This is a fantastic piece of multi-genre art, and I cannot recommend it enough – especially to anyone who enjoys audiobooks, grows nostalgic thinking about radio drama, or craves unique compositional elements.  Don’t miss it.

Justin Carlton