Much like Polarized put the first two albums of the Germans' earlier lineup to the whetstone and sharpened them to a gleaming finish, so too does Lifeline improve dramatically upon the direction Ivanhoe was taking with their post-hiatus effort Walk in Mindfields, to the point that this is overall their most formidable and consistent work to date. Mischa Mang's performance here is impressive, and the songs themselves are penned into a memorable panorama of contrasted melodies, grooves and uptempo twists that are both immediately accessible and difficult to forget many months after exposure. Now, I admit that there needs to be a moratorium on using female models posed as 'fairies' or 'angels (with present or clipped wings') on album covers, and Lifelife does indeed 'go there', but place aside such this lamentable choice in facade and you've got yourself one charmer of a progressive metal disc.
Just about every song here brings something new and refreshing to the table, with Mang's voice so engaged to the cornucopia of riffing that it wrings additional splendor out of even the simplest of grooves. Though the guitars still seem as enormous as Walk in Mindfields, they are far more controlled, surprising since they've got Chuck Schuler back in the line-up for this record, making them a six piece. But there's just enough restraint to never hamper the moody atmosphere of the synths. The simple, driving chugs that support "Mad Corner" escalate beautifully into the romance of the chorus, where on "Lifeline" itself this gorgeous melodic riff opens a barrage of choppy, memorable chords that allow both Mang and the organs to pour their souls out. I will say, though, that "Suffering" is my favorite song on this album, potentially ALL their albums, a piece that jerks between groovy, chug driven verses, thundering, epic pre-chorus and woozy, atmospheric chorus while the guitars strut their strings all over the place, escalating into one of the better leads I've heard in their entire canon.
That's a hard track to top, really, due to its perfect amalgamation of grace and power, and yet the Germans do not let up for the emotional "Angels Hologram" with its sparser percussion and light piano adorned verse, or the thudding grooves of "Time Machine" and "Finally". The latter half of the record seems to be stretched a bit, possibly due to the fact that it possesses the longer tracks (most are 6-8 minutes), and there are a few segments that miss the mark in terms of utmost, memorable quality, but once the album erupts into the more Eastern vibe of the epic Egyptian finale "Cheops", it all seems to come together as this truly solid, ambitious work that really binds all of the band's past into the 21st century context of the enormous production values. This thing sounds loud, with Mang's weighted, silken timbre the perfect balance to the sheer power of the chords. Stunningly, this doesn't seem to be so much studio tweaking as it is the band's sheer skill, because if you've seen live videos they sound quite close.
Ultimately, apart from the trite dalliance of its cover art, Lifeline is an incredibly mature album that demonstrates why so many more people need to check out this band. There are so many weapons at work here, from Soulas' pristine bass lines to Mang's distinct voice to the grooves and leads of the guitars. Really, if you've been waiting for your next Dream Theater or Fates Warning to come along, look no further. They aren't so flashy as the former or sultry as the latter, but they certainly scratch the itch for a niche that seems sadly underrated. Despite several videos, gigs at events like ProgPower in Europe, they don't seem to have culled the level of attention they deserve, so please, whether your tastes range from Pagan's Mind to Ark to Myrath, at least give this record a try.
Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (there is someone to be found)