Sunpocrisy - Samaroid Diaroma's - 3/5
I've been listening to this unsigned Italian band's debut on and off now for at least a month now, each time thinking it should be something I'd like and each time finding myself bored well before the albums finished. Progressive sludge with a psychedelic twist; alternating sludge aggression with calmer, almost ambient inspired passages to lend contrast, a delightful psychedelic guitar harmonising with the track on top. The capabilities of the musicians never truly falters; the guitars remain upbeat and technical, the bass is present, the drums more than capable. So far so good, but whilst the sound they've created feels perfectly fitting, its in the finer compositional details that everything starts to crumble.
Each track consists of two very distinct but specific tones, alternating between them for the tracks length. Had this existed on a track of normal length this wouldn't be so bad, but largely consisting of ten minute epics, it often finds itself getting stale well before the end. And even if you do manage to make it to the end, the following tracks often do very little to liven things up and change the manner it proceeds. The composition of the individual lines leave much to be desired too; the rasped 'nyc hardcore' style vocals in particular are horrendously monotonous with the cleans faring mildly better; the guitars during heavier passages chug along in a manner that at their worst wouldn't feel that out of place in a deathcore release, if not for the tone (and lack of downtuning); even the 'delightful psychedelic' guitars work only to the point you realise how generic and unmemorable they are.
Part of me wants to refuse to call this sludge. Sludge has always implied to me that your wading through difficult times, but remain strong and push onwards through the hardships. It's a real sense of 'I'm fucked but will persevere' that typifies the genre for me, and I don't mind how exactly you get there. It's a tone that at no point does it feel like they've accomplished (perhaps 'post-metal' would work better). In fact, I'm not entirely sure what they're even trying to accomplish, and that's part of the problem. There are hints at a concept at work in the title but with little idea of what it entails (something about the four elements I think?), the indecipherable lyrics and lack of musical diversity, anything more specific would feel like little more than a stab in the dark.
Don't think there isn't conflict as I write this piece, there is undoubtedly something here but it fails to make an impression on me, but – and call this reviewers intuition if you will – for everyone like me who doesn't 'get it,' there will be another who identifies with the atmosphere presented instantaneously, and for them who knows, this could be one of their favourite releases of the year. Sadly, for me, the only reaction it yields is a timid and condescending 'that's nice,' before I wonder what else is on, and that's disappointing.
Over the years this has grown into my own personal project, reviewing the artists that I discover and interest me. If you wish to see more of my work, particularly my more metal-orientated material, you can find me as a regular contributor for the online magazine
The Agonist - Prisoners - 4/5
I don't exactly listen to a lot of metalcore, yet for some reason this is an artist that I always seem intrigued by. Explaining why I enjoy them seems like an impossible task to which I often end up relying on the 'vocalist is hot' cop out, which whilst true, is at best a reason to google her photo rather than listen to anything she actually has to say. The fact she's a vegan PETA fan doesn't exactly help matters either, the mere fact that knowing she doesn't eat meat making me do little more than have a sudden urge to eat a steak. Telling me I can't do something only makes me want to do it all the more. Fortunately it doesn't seem to make too much of an appearance, taking a more pretentious philosophical approach to her lyrics, with talk of Dadaists and Solipsists, ideas that go straight over my head and suspect would be rather insulting to students of philosophy to see their arguments simplified or worse, misinterpreted and misunderstood, and what I'm hoping is irony in “Anxious Darwinians,” and not actually advocating creationism as a plausible scientific theory. I'm not selling this well am I?
Fortunately as each new release emerges my job of backing up my opinion gets progressively easier, each time showing a significant improvement on the last with 'Prisoners' being no different. The vocals have improved, both in the roar of her rasp and her powerful and distinctive cleans which might now make you wonder if there was a second vocalist contributing. The bassist has a stronger presence (albeit still not enough to make out the actual lines being played), the drumming has stepped up a notch from the already impressive point they were before, but perhaps most significant are the guitars, now given the time to solo and demonstrate just how much he's improved over the years, as opposed to being overly vocals driven as has been the problem in the past. Even the compositions seem to have been taken up a step with the progressive elements only coming further into the foray as the album continues, and the complexity of the music increased as none of the musicians seem happy to sit still and play that same repeated line; they always have the compulsion to throw in a drum roll or guitar fill, the tracks never letting up the pace and never failing to move forward.
The problem is, despite their improvements, there is still that inescapable fact that they play metalcore, and many of the common issues I have with the genre present themselves. It's true they solo more than breakdown, and the tracks - particularly towards the end – display an increasing willing to incorporate new elements and further their progressive leanings, but the whole piece has been produced to a disgusting spit-polished perfection. It's metal with added moisturiser that might as well be singing about the pain of breaking a fingernail (at one point there's a chorus of children singing 'we hear you and we don't care.' Really not helping things on the childish angst front here guys). It also still has a tendency to fall prey to the inherent lack of versatility much of the genre suffers from, relying too strongly on catchy chorus hooks between the more aggressive passages, perhaps the only aspect which hasn't seen any monumental improvement, making much of the album blur together. I guess on reflection I'm waiting for them to go full blown prog. I'll keep saying it until they reach their peak; there is a great album in this band somewhere, but this isn't it. I just hope they'll get to it before the last of us give up.
Highlights: Ideomotor, Dead Ocean, Everybody Wants You (Dead)
EDIT: It would seem as though this release sees a new lead guitarist entering the fold. Good move then, in that case.
Ihsahn – Eremita – 4.5/5
This album is, if nothing else, certainly not lacking in it's ability to make you think; the atmospheres, shifting styles and influences, but I'm not just thinking about the music but also to what kind of madman came up with it all. He's always been an artist I've respected, first coming up with the idea of symphonic black metal, progressing the band to the point I expect the rest of them went 'woah, isn't that a bit much?' So he left and formed Peccatum, only to find that they found himself a bit difficult to handle as well. Bitter and twisted, his idea's once more rejected for being too 'unconventional' – bah – he abandoned other musicians and shut himself off like an evil Dr. Frankenstein, hunched over his musical laboratory, butchering musical parts and sowing them together, cackling in delight as he brings life to his very own musical monster. My impression of his musical creation process probably isn't helped by the fact that “Eremita” translates to Hermit.*
If there was an important point to make about this album, it'd probably be not to expect it to sound like Ihsahn's previous work. He may have roots in black metal but here the only remnants of his origins that remain are the signature vocal lines, making sure that even the most harrowing of lines are spoken with perfect diction, and even then he seems to prefer to sing cleanly more often than not. This is not black metal in the slightest; rather he seems to combine a unique form of Progressive Metal – and often not a particularly extreme form of it either – with the occasional Dark Ambient flourishes, Orchestral compositions and Jazz, thanks largely to the inclusion of Jørgen Munkeby, Shining's (the Norwegian one) very own saxophonist. It's like he slammed every “Sigh” album into one amorphous blob.
He called this his most ambitious work to date, and it's honestly not difficult to see why. More than the sheer number of guest musicians – Devin Townsend features in a track, the vocalist for Leprous helps open the album and Loomis contributes a solo – but it's how they're worked, despite their different styles, in a manner that feels like nothing short of assistance to get the right tone for the track at hand. Their influence is felt but it's not a dominative one; it doesn't feel like it's out of place, and no doubt the fact that no two tracks sound alike is a helping factor in that. But more than that, the real star of the piece is in the hands of Munkeby's saxophone, adding so much more to the tone of the track when he is featured and – when coupled with the drumming frenzy of Tobias Ørnes Andersen (Leprous) – ends up delivering such a twisted and demonic performance (think Lustmord playing Free Jazz) that it's hard not to be impressed. Everything is done to further the atmosphere, to progressively explore the concept in question.
There is a strange story being told here, but more than anything it feels closer to a psychological study; “the 5 stages of loss and grief,” except here is more akin to the ten stages of bashing your head against a white padded wall whilst wearing a straight jacket; the descent into madness in all it's variety; the melancholic acceptance of how screwed you are, the furious 'tearing down of the walls' sense of anger and aggression, the demented cries for help as you struggle to overcome the plague that has dropped you in a position where you can see no hope and it's all you can do to slump on the floor and laugh in wonder of how your situation could possibly get worse, and the overcoming – or at least acceptance – of said condition. That I can't quite make sense of it all doesn't mean that it's inherently nonsensical or even vague, just that I have yet to fully penetrate it's depths, and given the subject matter that might well be intentional. There's something undeniably going on; there's an energy and emotion that exudes out of his melodies, Ihsahn's vocals displaying a sense of pain and anguish unparalleled in modern times; frustrated cries as he attempts to get his point across to a listener struggling to comprehend.
And there is little question in my mind just about every listener will struggle to comprehend, you won't understand much more than the vaguest outlines at first. At least a half dozen spins in and only now are certain sections finally starting to make sense in the context of the album as a whole; the cyclical and repetitive chorus in “The Paranoid,” making you want to scream in anger at it right up until you realise he's probably just provoked the exact reaction he wanted from you, or the jarring transition to female vocals in “Departure” taking it's time to finally click, transforming from confusing to me taking a step back having finally understood it's purpose. Whereas in the past much of his work has been fairly accessible, this is anything but; it's a slow grower and one that only gets better with time, as I form a stronger link with what I perceive is going on, but despite my own interpretation it remains cryptic enough that the finer details are really up to interpretation. A dozen people could come up with a dozen different scenario's linked only by this maddening descent, and that's part of the album's beauty.
Highlights: Arrival, The Eagle and the Snake, The Grave
*Note: This might not be factually accurate so much as a the fiction my mind has made to fill in the blanks. In case anyone thinks this is literally true, it's not.
Gru – Cosmogenesis - 4/5
When I first was shown Chimp Spanner I thought the work was brilliant; instrumental sci-fi themed concept album pulled off with djent style; a triumph of taking something emerging and adjusting it to come out with something unique, and if this artist is anything to go by he wasn't the only one enamoured with his work. Just half a year on and we have the emergence of another solo artist, one “Piotrek Gruszka” who likely shortened his name to “Gru” to avoid awkward points where people try to pronounce the Polish language and to sound catchier. It's a shame it has thus far failed to work, the unknown and unsigned artist still struggling to get even the attention of those despite offering his debut album for free, with spectacular production values and an ability that is more than deserving of your time.
If I haven't already, let me make this as abundantly clear as I possibly can: if you liked Chimp Spanner, you will like this. If Paul Ortiz had a twin brother who was separated at birth, it would be Gru. I would call this the biggest copycat act since Bonded by Blood (and countless others) thought Exodus' “had a neat sound,” except in both cases nobody's really complaining because the only people who'd notice the similarities are those who would enjoy them both. Each track opens with a glorious ambient intro, electronic synths setting a tone for the guitar masterclass to follow shortly; his abilities on the fretboard never far from the forefront but more than just simply shred out a technical tune, he does it with a sense of melody that never betrays the atmosphere the the rest of the instrumentation is building towards. In terms of proficiency, he must surely rank amongst some of the most incredible guitarists I can name, beating Ortiz at his own game and encroaching on the territory of Tosin Abasi (Animals as Leaders).
The production is nothing short of astounding either, besting many a so called 'professional' recording I've heard and proving once again that a label and big name producers are no longer needed to make a high quality album. The bass guitars are prominent throughout, the rhythmic sections heard but an accompaniment to the background noise rather than a distraction from the forefront. Even the drums seem bizarrely well done, and despite being digitally produced still manage to come off less mechanical than actual drummers! The only thing it lacks is an overarching concept or purpose; it feels a little superficial, atmospheric but at times a little repetitive which for a longer release might become quite problematic, even though he succeeds in varying the pace of tracks remarkably well. One of the discoveries of the year and it was free. Well I never...
Storm Corrosion - Storm Corrosion - 4.5/5
Ah, the peace and quiet when idiotic Prog fans don’t roar and stuff albums down your throat like the second coming of Images And Words- strike that, even that album pales in front of the gems produced by the mightier bands. But here now, why are we speaking on Progressive? This album or this project has nothing whatsoever to do with that genre save that it have two of the biggest artists from it. Oh so that peace and quiet is really just shock from those idiots? Delightful.
On a serious note though, this album reaches every bit the pinnacle of quality that was expected from the combined talents of Akerfeldt and Wilson, so where does this album shock the ardent Prog fans, well it is not progressive at all. What we are treated to instead are delightful mixes of ambient, electronic and acoustic passages combined with the songwriting genius of the two. It’s not as strange a combination as the fan boys seem to think it is, in fact given their experimentation tendencies (which has been abundantly displayed by both Mikael and Wilson in their bands’ works) this is perfectly befitting of them.
There’s not much to describe in this album sound wise, the most simplistic of music played with the most depth is the best way to describe it. A passage of the keyboard with the violin whilst Wilson’s gentle voice relaxes the listener and yet builds up their imagination, the guitar slowly strumming away whilst the choir builds up a dark climax, all examples of the mystique that this work possesses. Folk interludes, vocal choirs, baroque and rock itself all seems to have found a place in this mesh of sound. The difference with these masters is that instead of creating a tangled mess, they’ve transformed that mesh into a fine woven web; the listener is wrapped at all times but never feels stuck or trapped.
The trump card of the album is the subject matter and the atmosphere itself which is directed well by the songwriting, again another testament to the skill these two possess. Even with the simplest of sounds, the album manages to conjure up a strong picture of what is going on in the song. There is always a dark, twisted feel to the music, not heavy in sense of Metal but eerie and haunting all the same. And yet even with that twisted feel, both musicians do a fine job of capturing the emotions of the listener with fine climaxes spaced out in the songs.
All in all, this duo lives up to the hype that was expected of them contrary to the view of the majority of the fans who feel hard done that a massive wall of Metal and Prog rock was not thrown their way by these two, I suppose they thought Akerfeldt would make up for trolling them with Heritage. In any case, a fine work and definitely one of the highlights for the year, enough said.
Incoming Cerebral Overdrive - Le Stelle: A Voyage Adrift – 4/5
I've seen this band described as Metalcore. I've seen it called Deathcore. I've seen it called Sludge, Post-Metal, Post-Hardcore, Mathcore, Black/Doom and I know I'm missing some. It's a name I'd seen around in passing but with such a name I figured was probably some sort of grindcore, and subsequently gave it little more attention. I suppose in retrospect 'grindcore' might actually fit, but in truth the only genre label I'm truly happy about giving them is the 'Experimental' tag, and of course that actually tells you nothing. So get your blender at the ready; pick out the guitarists from 'Dillinger Escape Plan,' the drummer from 'Mastodon,' a blend of the vocalist from 'Crowbar' and 'Ihsahn' (the vocalist from Emperor, Peccatum and err... 'Ihsahn,' surprisingly), and toss in just enough of Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle) to make this most unlikely combination somehow work despite every indication that it probably shouldn't. If you aren't happy with that, then I'll call it “Experimental Technical Sludge,” which is just as vague.
I've actually spent most of the last week – when I've not been distracted by other music that is – just trying to figure out whether or not I like what they've come up with. Without a base for comparison it's surprisingly difficult to tell even the most basic of opinions, let alone trying to judge it objectively for review purposes, but at the end of the day the music is well composed. It is unusual but it does retain a thick sludge atmosphere that made the genre known as 'working mans metal;' the blackened and psychedelic tinges just lending enough variety to the atmosphere to keep it feeling fresh and never too monotonous, whilst the thick guitar tone and slow doom-like crashing of the drums thunder the tracks onwards. The problems occur almost entirely when it's the “Technical” part of their sound that's considered.
There's a reason so little Sludge succeeds in being technical; the likes of Mastodon and Baroness (more “Progressive” than outright technical, but the best comparison that springs to mind without straying into “Post-Metal” territory) both significantly 'cleaned' their tone to make the intricacies of their composition more apparent, and most technical artists utilise a clean tone for precisely that reason. This compromise is one that they didn't seem comfortable in making, and whilst a 'no compromise approach' is one that I'd normally applaud, it comes with a rather obvious drawback: the more complex the music becomes, the more becomes lost. If you're expecting technicality in the form of very fast guitar work, then that becomes too at odds with the Sludge aspect and rarely occurs; likewise if you're expecting a slow Doom-grinding then rarely will this occur. There will always be a trade-off but littered about this album are examples of how well they can pull it off, and there are no other artists that seem to have figured this out yet. It's by virtue of that fact alone that I can see myself listening to this for quite some time.
Highlights: Betelgeuse, Sirius B, Rigel
Circus Maximus – Nine – 4.5/5
Every year a lot of music gets released, far more than any one person can listen to, and every year classics slip through even the most attentive listeners finger. I arrived on Redemption's 'Fullness of Time' half a decade late. Disillusion's 'Back to Times of Splendor' suffered much the same fate, and in both cases elicited the question of just what on earth took me so damn long. This is my first foray into this artists work – their first in five years – and the reaction is no different, what DID take me so damn long? Picking up after Dream Theater's classic first few albums and Symphony X's long legacy, it may take the tired tried and tested format and do little too outside the box but I'll be damned if this album doesn't deserve a place by their side. There's power and emotion, pop-like sensibilities mixed in with the heavy grooves; there's a beauty to their melodies that never overstays it's welcome, and far from getting tiring, like a fine wine it only seems to improve with time, the emotion steadily sinking in deeper with each listen.
LaBrie fans will likely note the occasional similarity in vocals, both capable of their epic and powerful lines, but where these guys get one up on the competition is in his restraint; that he can belt out a line doesn't mean the track requires it. The vast majority of the time it's a gentler touch, a soft sadness or lower pitch that he ends up using to lend a versatility to the proceedings. The rest of the instrumentation is no different; the guitars are content to play acoustic lines, add psychedelic flourishes, cleanly shred solo's and provide a deeper 'heavy metal' crunch; the keyboards shift between an ethereal backing, gentle piano lines and 'keytar' solos. There's a maturity to their playing that extends far beyond mere competency and into genuine creativity, and an appreciation of how to effectively juggle a plethora of styles within their given framework and, rather than utilise them for the sake of it, understand them well enough to make it work to the benefit of the overall track.
And this is perhaps the most startling thing about this release, more than the competency of of the musicianship is the stellar composition and just how broad a range of styles they manage to encompass. That they are capable musicians is not in question, but it blends well enough that even the most complex of passages end up sounding simplistic, different lines harmonising with one another to create a rich vibrant atmosphere. They never feel limited in choice; it's heavy, filled with insatiable grooving riffs and immense solo work, inspirational, melodic yet powerfully simple ballads, folky and psychedelic overtones, and everywhere in between. Where most work on getting one particular tone right, finding one specific niche in their corner of the overpopulated prog scene, they seem to want to do it all and somehow often find themselves doing it better than most. The more I listen the more I find new influences littered about; more work that could fit alongside a wide range of artists 'best of' catalogues without anyone batting an eyelid. Circus Maximus, your throne awaits.
Highlights: Game of Life, Reach Within, Burn After Reading
Skyharbor – Blinding White Noise: Illusions and Chaos – 3.5/5
Time for another short and snappy review. If I don't get it out now then I never will. I'll be honest, I – like I suspect most people – wouldn't have ever noticed this debut efforts existence if not for the presence of Dan Tompkins, recently departed vocalist from “Tesseract,” and I expect without him this Indian band would remain in the depths of obscurity. Split into two discs, the majority is taken up by the “Illusion” with the final 15 minutes devoted to the “Chaos.” You can quite clearly tell that the two are separate entities; the former full of atmospheric lines with the latter dominated by frenetic musicianship, switching jarringly between the two. Sadly, despite the decision of whether you prefer your music technical or atmospheric, neither come across as particularly memorable. In fact, this might just be the most forgettable album I've ever heard.
Now it's not that they do anything especially wrong, or even badly; they follow the djent framework to perfection, the rhythm guitar chugging along with plenty of ambient-esque passages thrown in for atmosphere. The drumming is competent and capable of varying things, though is often left so far in the back that the music is left largely to the duties of the lead guitarist and vocalist, and even more so do they perform admirably. What it's lacking is variety; every song runs at the same tempo, every line seems to be sung at the same narrow pitch range – occasionally throwing in the growl, reversed for the second part – and in the same manner (sadly devoid of those epic, sustain filled high notes that made him such a powerhouse for Tesseract). The new, soft tone he takes is not one that he often feels best suited, coming across gentle but lacking any real sense of emotion.
The guitar work is even more of a mystery, even though he uses the same tone throughout the entire release, the wealth of riffs and solo's performed would suggest at least some of them would stick but for some reason none of them do. In a sea of djent acts emerging in the past two years, it is their reliance on subtle ambient guitar work and often generic feeling lines that might have worked a few years ago but now just feels bested by many others already; it feels old already. I've listened to the album more than a dozen times and I can't name a single passage from a single song. My Djent saturation point appears to have been reached, and until they bring something new to the table I can't see my attention returning.