Progressive-leaning heavy metal bands have a tendency to emerge close to fully formed thanks to the instrumental diligence typical of most musicians enamored with the form, but even by the strictest standards, Madison, Wisconsin's Luna Mortis are a particularly impressive group. And somewhat surprising, since their name and female lead singer initially suggest they may be yet another, melodramatic operatic metal band along the lines of Nightwish, Within Temptation, or After Forever -- the likes of which have saturated the metal market throughout the new millennium's first decade. But no, Luna Mortis are indeed rooted in more progressive terrain, paying visits to a wide spectrum of heavy metal subgenres throughout this debut album, but doing so with an unusual songwriting concision that would be the envy of most acts, never mind the long-winded proggies. Simply put, eclectic standouts like "Ruin," "Phantoms," and the title track sound like Dream Theater on a diet plan (and pissed as hell because of it); stripped of all of those lengthy solos and other twiddly bits so that one can almost envision those hook-challenged Julliard graduates chafing at Luna Mortis' unseasonably natural songwriting instincts. As to the numerous subgenre visits mentioned before, both opening scorcher "Ash" and "Last Defiance" flirt with black metal blastbeats and scratch vocals, at times; the slowly marching, semi ballad "The Departure" is, improbably, as majestic as it is immediate; "Embrace the End" goes from doom to trad-metal (and back) in the blink of an eye; and the Malmsteen-esque solos of "Reformation" and "Never Give In" elicit both neo-classical metal fantasies and power metal dreams that don't suck. The band's range even extends into token melodic metalcore, as evidenced by "Forever More," which still makes for a great example of the genre, for what that's worth. Oh yeah, and that lady singer mentioned earlier, one Mary Zimmer, handles numerous personas of clean and harsh deliveries with effortless aplomb (alongside sparring vocal partner and lead guitarist Brian Koenig), matching her instrumentally adept bandmates pound for pound. In short, Luna Mortis have come up with a keeper on their very first try, and only the prospect of falling through the cracks of their multitudinous influences (and their respective fan bases) could possibly cause Absence to be absent (har har) from most best-of lists for 2009.