Electro Quarterstaff – Aykroyd – 3.5/5
There seems to be few modern debates that emerge quite as frequently as that of Progressive Sludge; the “Mastodon vs Baroness” argument that splits educated metal fans right down the middle, both with very different way's of going about their music and so naturally appeals to different fans. It's an argument that doesn't look to be getting any simpler either as the still-instrumental Electro Quarterstaff emerge with their second album, five years since their last, with a sound that seems to take Baroness' penchant for 'noodling' guitar lines and meandering song structures, Mastodon's more technical musicianship, and then throwing Gorguts influences into the mix for what I can only assume is for 'shits and giggles.'
It is, at least on the surface, immensely technical and certainly not the easiest of releases to get into, but it's something of a façade; the music isn't really 'technical' by the strictest definition. There's little that feels overtly dissonant or syncopated, is all played at a constant tempo – and that goes for the entire album, not just a single track – and maintains a 4/4 beat structure throughout. Instead the technicality arises from the manner the instruments harmonise with one another; with three guitarists and a bassist (a welcome new addition to their line-up) all playing their own thing, intersecting at times but more often than not playing a 'riff salad,' delivering a constantly shifting barrage of notes throughout their unconventional song structures – the last bastion of 'technicality' that the band employ – just waiting to be dissected, and don't go expecting the drumming to make anything easier to follow first time around. None of the musicians on their own would likely garner much attention for their guitar playing but when everything is combined it becomes impressive how they never seem to get lost or stumble over each other's lines; that one section moves into something else so rapidly and inexplicably without leaving a man behind. I get the strong impression they could slice a song into a dozen or more chunks and rearrange them and nobody would be any the wiser.
It is, at least in theory, an interesting idea; the individual lines constantly creating something new to discover upon each listen but the problem is that it all sounds so damn similar. One track will end and the next begin and you won't notice. The guitarists never change their tone or tempo, the drumming never seems to follow any sort of regular pattern – except of course the beat pattern – and there's nothing to ground things with only a few distinguishable moments amongst the madness which allow you to figure out what track you're on. The distinctively slow opening track or that slightly folkier bit in “Waltz...,” spring to mind, but often when the track gets under way again you'll find yourself hopelessly lost amidst the sound they've created. It's a tricky album to find yourself invested in and even more difficult still is, when you've successfully done this, finding enough memorable material within its depths. As such it is an incredibly difficult album to recommend. The brief moments that have you nodding your head in appreciation are outnumbered by the passages of unbridled chaos but suggest there is still hope for them yet, they just need to stop trying to prove they can play riffs and start thinking about proving they can incorporate the variety of influences they claim to hold and create a coherent composition.
Highlights: Waltz of the Swedish Meatballs, Descent By Annihilation Operator
For the truly daring, try playing both the above songs simultaneously!