Intronaut – The Direction of Last Things

It is no secret that I love Intronaut. My first time through their latest album was not a pleasant experience. I had my suspicions that this was something I would end up liking. They shifted their sound away from interesting jazz progressions to something more like djenty nu metal. Had they abandoned everything that made them great to cash in on the latest (dying) trend?

Already on the second time through, I started to notice the old Intronaut peek through this more intense and aggressive sound. The first track alone had a huge extended jazzy vamp building up to the climactic ending. The vocals layered in extended chords over the guitar riffs. I had somehow zoned out during all of this in my horror the first time.

The next track brings back their cleverness in playing with time. It is easy to write off the repetitiveness of the pattern as excessive, but it constantly turns around. First, it is a hemiola (the pattern itself has a length that doesn’t sit perfectly in the time signature). Then the time signature itself seems to keep changing if the drums are to be trusted. It is quite the achievement, and I found myself enjoying listening to how the pieces fit together once I realized it wasn’t as simple as mere repetition.

The album as a whole did come off as a bit formulaic. Start with some heavy djent inspired stuff. Transition to a long jazzy or proggy section. Then build up to a climactic ending that returns to the opening idea with some of the middle ideas layered in. I have no problem with this, because it is quite an effective formula. It lets you experience the pieces separately which makes it easier to appreciate them when played together. They deviated from this on “The Pleasant Surprise,” but I actually felt a little cheated that it stayed fast and hard the whole way through.

One of my favorite tracks will probably be most people’s least favorite: “The Unlikely Event of a Water Landing.” It starts very different with some creepy sampled spoken word stuff under weird synthesized sounds. The song stays pretty down tempo the whole time and vamps on a pretty simple idea for a long, long time. This also does some weird time stuff.

I didn’t take the time to figure it out, but I think it is a combo of 3/4 and 4/4 measures and the band isn’t playing them at the same time creating a 3 against 4 effect. The long, mesmerizing effect can pull you into a nice meditative state if you let it do its job. That guitar solo is really good, too. I thought it was cheesy the first time, but I’ve come around to it.

Overall, this is a great effort from Intronaut. I still have my suspicions on the direction their sound has headed, but that well-composed songwriting is still there. I give this an 8.5/10.

Here’s a sample:

Arcturus – Arcturian Reviewed

To be honest, I probably wouldn’t write this review if it wasn’t my most requested album. This new album is quite a strange beast. It has some metal aspects, but also prog rock, dance, and electronica make their appearance. I know those words turned a lot of people off, but I went in thinking it would be a really cool idea if it worked.

I think I’ve said this before, but negative reviews are hard to write. When I hear a lot of stuff I like, I can spend the review talking about those things. This album never clicked for me. Except for a few tracks, I found it to be ordinary in every way.

The most interesting bits were the electronica parts. For example, the start of “The Journey” sets up a beat with shifting electronic patterns under a fluid violin. Then some acoustic guitar comes in and layered vocals. It actually sounds a lot like something Pat Metheny might make. That’s probably a bad thing, but on listening to this album, I awaited tracks like these as a nice break from the monotony of the others.

Take the track that follows. The verse is essentially two chords on repeat. The sound is almost doom-like but without the heaviness. The melody lacks any driving motion (of course, melody is intimately tied to the underlying chord progression, so when the chord progression lacks motion, so too does the melody). The song is one of the least memorable I’ve heard this year.

I’ll reiterate, most of the tracks aren’t bad per se. They are just totally uninteresting at their core. Sure, many have lots of things happening that can distract you like string sections, electronica, crazy vocals, but these tools only do so much for a few listens.

The standout tracks are “Crashland,” “Warp,” “Demon,” and “The Journey.” To me, these ones at least attempted to incorporate the extraneous techniques into a more fundamental role. The melody and chord progressions on these tracks have content, and the sound they achieve is unique.

Overall, I give this a 4/10. I often dreaded having to slog through the drab parts to get to moments of interest. Those moments are good, but too infrequent. Here’s a bunch of samples:

Between the Buried and Me: Coma Ecliptic Reviewed

I think we could sense this coming for a while. Between the Buried and Me have made their most cohesive prog epic album, but have essentially morphed into Dream Theater circa 2000. The album theme can’t be an accident. The songs are about what goes on in a man’s head while in a coma. If you’ll recall, Dream Theater’s Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory is about being in the head of a hypnotized person. Coincidence?

The first two tracks set the stage for the rest of the album. They have progressed towards a more melodic style, and structurally, they focus on building their ideas coherently. A problem that has always rubbed me the wrong way about BTBAM is their sudden shifts in ideas with no bridge between them.

Unfortunately, they also let certain ideas go on too long. By the end of the second track, I want them to stop singing, “You teach us what was.” The melodic idea is not interesting enough on its own to merit that much repetition.

By the third track we get what I’d like more of. They take something that could have been lifted right from some 80’s pop song, but they make it fit in their context. These unique ideas are what make BTBAM interesting and fresh. Unfortunately, they spend a lot of time just copying prog metal tropes. I can’t help but cringe when I hear ideas, riffs, and sounds lifted right from what people have been doing for the last 15 years.

About three-quarters of the way through “Famine Wolf,” they showcase that they can be great when they want to be. The guitar work is written with intricate counterpoint to the keyboard and other guitar. But then they lose it again to close the song out. It becomes lots of arpeggios around a chord progression which has that old school progressive vibe, but makes little sense as a musical idea.

After a few listens, I decided to cut the fifth track from my version of the album. It is one of the few places where they cross over to metal, but the album is vastly improved by removing it. The chorus is a cringeworthy anthem and the non-chorus part is a long string of clichés.

The second half of the album is a bit stronger than the first. They rely less on tropes and clichés. They infuse more original ideas into the prog formula, and the melodies feel less forced. I can’t help but think the first half was an attempt at hommage to their influences. I think the album would be infinitely improved if they focused on developing their own sound rather than copying someone else’s.

The album is quite good when they are on. They album is quite bad at other points. As with most prog metal concept albums, if they trimmed the fat, they could solve two problems at the same time: it is too long, repetitive, and drawn out; and it has too much extraneous stuff (filled with weak songwriting).

Once I stopped trying to take it at all seriously and decided to try to enjoy it for what it is, and I started skipping the worst parts, I kind of liked it. It can be quite fun and enjoyable. I think if they focused their efforts in the right place, BTBAM could take what they are doing here and make something truly excellent with it. For now, I give this a 6.5/10.

Here’s a sample:

Elder’s Lore Review

Elder is a band which borders on sludge, prog, hard rock, psychedelic. This makes it a bit difficult to review, but it has gotten quite a bit of positive attention. It is also a nice break from the types of things I’ve been listening to. So let’s try.

First, the tracks are long. Many are well over 10 minutes long. Take the first track. It is a long journey from the opening riff idea to where you find yourself 7 minutes in, but the composition structure is fairly consistent across the album so we’ll look at how the songs progress.

Elder takes a set of riffs or motifs for the song. They noodle and sequence (move the same note pattern to different parts of the scale) that idea for awhile. This often involves some interesting chromaticism. Then they’ll take a static jam area (maybe sing something that functions as a chorus). These tend to be long and boring, but it creates distance from the first idea so the next unrelated idea flows naturally in the song.

Then in a big climactic section a few of the riffs get layered on top of each other. The outro tends to be a restatement of the original motif by itself again. These songs are long enough, that it took a few listens to finally realize this structure.

Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean it is predictable. The structure is actually pretty well done. Idea, transition, idea, transition, development, layer original ideas, finish up. It gives you something to grab onto with the length of the songs.

Let’s think about the individual pieces and whether they work. The riffs/motifs are hit or miss. I almost didn’t want to listen to the album when the first song started. Their first idea lacks any substance. When it comes back later, it actually fits quite nicely in conjunction with other stuff. But since it is mostly a texture pattern, it doesn’t work on its own.

Other riffs are much better like the one in the middle of the second track. It is kind of cringe inducing with its blatant imitation of 70’s prog rock (think Kansas). But at least it has some melodic meat to it. This track also has a pretty neat hemiola during its climax.

Each song feels coherent, but a bit lengthy. They try too hard to be cautious about the coherence I think. This is the biggest negative for me: the sheer length and repetitiveness of some of the transitions. They are just transitions. Playing the same chord with almost no variation for minutes on end is a big turnoff.

The hit or miss aspect of the ideas makes it hard to fully love any track, but it also means I don’t really hate any either. The best parts of the album are when two good ideas get put together in an unexpected way. The worst parts are where two banal ideas that obviously go together get set up for 10 minutes as if we didn’t see it coming.

The album is a clear step up from say Periphery’s latest release where the ideas had no transitions and didn’t work together. Still, each listen has steadily decreased how much I’ve liked this. Once you understand what is going to happen, it gets a bit tedious to wait around for it to happen. My best suggestion to drastically improve this album would be to make those transitions shorter and more interesting.

Overall, I’ll give this a 7/10. Here’s a sample:

Stimpy Lockjaw’s Stimpy Lockjaw Reviewed

Stimpy Lockjaw is a band that plays prog/jazz fusion/math rock. They are based out of New York, and this is a self-titled, self-released album. I think all the members have other projects, so they are a “supergroup” of sorts. It is really hard to pin down too much else. Their site is fairly non-descriptive. For example, the About Us section says, “We’re a little band called Stimpy Lockjaw. Please buy things.”

The first track has an old school math rock feel to it. I used to listen to Don Caballero a lot, and this track brings back nostalgia for that time. It starts with a short two note rhythmic idea (which is actually a bit more embellished than the actual motif later). The whole song is very minimalist with passing this small concept around the band.

The beginning maybe feels a bit too repetitive and strives too much to have a modern djent sound to it. Once the song gets going it gets better. The idea morphs all over into jazzy sections with a fretless bass, female vocal singing neutral syllables, and some soloing that sounds improvised. But my guess is that it is actually composed.

The second half of the track puts the rhythmic idea into the bass, and slowly starts building up a lot of tension by adding more and more layers. Despite the repetition, I think this succeeds on all fronts of keeping the song interesting and having a lot of forward momentum. The song dissolves at one point into piano nothingness, only to start back up a little slower and a lot dirtier with the distortion on the guitar and the tonality starting to fall apart.

The composition is amazing on this first track, but after having listened to the whole album many times, it is my least favorite. The basic idea described here is how all of the other songs progress. The other songs are far less minimalist and repetitive, though. The second track starts the motif, and already the idea to be passed around is more complicated than most parts of the first track. They also never again bring the djent sound into the songs.

Track two has more of a jazz combo feel to it. There is a saxophone that makes an appearance several times. Despite the complexity, the drumming has a more traditional feel keeping time rather than imitating a rhythmic idea that the rest of the band is doing. I’m also less sure about the composed vs improv aspects of this track. There are solos that really feel improvised. I think if I only heard the first track I may not have stuck this band out, but this second track is the type of jazz/metal combo that I really loved in T.R.A.M. and is extremely hard to find anywhere.

The third track is their “single” from the album that was released for promotional purposes and will be at the end of the post. It is the first track to have vocals that have lyrics. It also feels much more like a prog metal song than the jazz combo of the previous track. Once the opening is done, they set up a piano ostinato and build the next section of the song on top of it, and impressively pass that complicated material to the guitar. This is excellent technical playing.

None of the repetitive sections are that long in comparison with the song as a whole, but I still think this track also suffers a little from how excessive the repetition is. They do a really good job of coming up with ways to keep it changing with instrumentation, style changes, and forward momentum. I foresee the repetition making a large number of repeat listens more tedious. The second half frees up the form with the jazzy soloing again, so if you listen to it, make sure you get that far to hear the type of stuff that appears on other tracks.

The fourth track is half atmospheric, but builds into a full band climax and embellishes with some chromatic runs. The song is fine, but somewhat forgettable in comparison with the rest of the album. The last track also starts as atmospheric sounds, but this one develops into a down tempo experiment with chords. This first half has a different feel to the rest of the album. By the end, they go into their standard mode of passing around a technical ostinato.

I really love this closer, because I think they strike a better balance with the repetition, countermelodies, and chord progressions. When it dissolves back down, they even do some interesting rhythmic things like putting the bass drum “downbeat” a sixteenth note past the true downbeat.

Overall, this is the type of album I’ve been waiting all year for. In my opinion, it is well worth checking out. I give it a 9/10. Here’s a sample:

Destrage’s Are You Kidding Me? No. Reviewed

This album missed my radar, but a reader pointed me to it. It is maybe the most reviewed album I’ve reviewed all year.

Let’s take the first track, because it already contains so many elements that I’m not even sure how to classify it. We start off with some proggy technical noodling. They break with the prog norm a bit here to keep it interesting. First off, it is fast and relentless. Second, there is almost no arpeggiation which has become the cliche thing to do. Instead they ornament around the chord structure with some more classical chromatic gruppettos and mordents among other things.

Pretty quickly we move on to something that sounds like a punk/mathcore fusion. For grooving so well, the underlying rhythmic complexity is astounding. The first few times through I was enjoying the overall experience of how it fit together. Now that I’m listening for details, I have no idea how they made this work.

After a few verse/chorus repeats (in which we get a nice recapitulation of the opening idea) we enter a sort of bridge. This section is really pretty and reminds me of the softer side of Animals as Leaders or CHON or whoever. The technical idea is firmly rooted to that beginning section, so it turns out that what we thought of as noodling at the beginning was actually establishing an idea that would tie the whole thing together.

After that we get to a purely symphonic section which somehow seamlessly transitions into electronica a la Aphex Twin. I actually find this last transition to be quite successful. I’ve always wanted to hear a really good electronica/prog metal fusion. This isn’t it, because the two sections are completely separate, but it gives me hope that in the future we will hear this from them (I find Born of Osiris and The Algorithm to be unsuccessful attempts at it).

Now you get a feel for what I’m up against in trying to describe this album. I think this first track is notably varied in comparison to the rest. It just gives a taste of what is to come. Each individual later track is very different from the surrounding ones, but they tend to be much more unified in style.

Despite the technical playing, complexity, and sometimes dissonant parts, this is an album that is meant to be enjoyed. Most of the album is quite easy on the ears. In some sense, if you get caught up in their technique or think that it is some super deep thing, then they’ve failed. It is playful and fun at times and isn’t meant to be taken too seriously. It has some nu-metalish and alt rock-ish parts. The chord progressions can be a bit pop-like.

Overall I’ve thoroughly enjoyed listening to this album which means they were successful. The technical aspects and surprising change-ups are what make it interesting. They could have written the same album with that stuff stripped out and it would be a straightforward pop-metal album. That would have been boring and I wouldn’t even be reviewing it. This tells me these techniques are a necessary component to this type of album. On the other hand, it is almost never noticeably intrusive (except on track 1) which tells me they struck the right balance and didn’t go overboard with it.

I can’t really predict how much I’m going to come back to this. My guess is that it is a bit too easy for it to have a really lasting return value. For awhile, it will probably be my go-to album when I’m in the mood for this type of thing. For now, I’m going to give it an 8/10. I’ll issue a correction and revise this number upwards if in a few months I’m still coming back to it. Here’s a sample:

Is Progressive Metal Progressive?

I got thinking about this while reading through some of the stuff on The Gabriel Construct’s webpage. He said he wants to make progressive metal progressive again. After thinking about this, I realized that this really strikes a chord with me. It is probably one of the reasons I’ve felt so uninspired by the stuff I’ve been listening to.

Let’s take as a case study: HeavyBlog’s top 12 of 2013 so far list (restricting to 2013 will not influence this discussion at all, since the best prog of 2012 falls into the same tropes) and pull the albums that can be labelled as “prog.” I actually like a lot of prog metal. You should remember this, because it is going to sound like a post in which I slam prog metal. Instead, this should be read as a sadness that such a promising genre has hit a stasis.

This is going to get hairy with putting bands into certain boxes, but as I see it the list is Tesseract (should djent actually count as a form of prog?), Persefone (is symphonic metal a form of prog?), Coheed and Cambria, Intronaut, Extol (OK, I haven’t actually listened to this one, but the list says it’s prog), Leprous, and The Ocean.

What do these bands have in common that makes them prog? They tend to have technical playing with technique that derives from classical skills of fast arpeggios and scale patterns than more traditional metal/rock techniques. The chord progressions tend to be less straightforward. This can mean jazz influenced or excessive chromaticism. The time signatures tend to be less straightforward and can even involve alternating time signatures and metric modulations. Lastly, the songs tend to be longer and more thoroughly developed and tied together with a common theme.

So what’s the problem? Well, at one point in time doing these things within metal was a progressive thing to do. They weren’t being done. It was interesting and new. It was moving the genre forward. Now it seems that these things that define the genre have become tropes. You have to have x number of time changes, y number of chromatic patterns, and z number of songs over 8 minutes long. Oh yeah, and we’ll praise you mindlessly if you make these numbers without actually doing anything original.

Instead of being truly progressive and trying to bring in new influences to make interesting and new music, it all ends up sounding similar. Just because you came up with a way to arpeggiate faster, using a “new” pattern, and you do more chromatic steps doesn’t mean you’re “more progressive” or even more interesting. It is more of the same pretending to be different.

Maybe I’m reacting to an over-saturation of prog lately, and I won’t feel this way after a break from it, but sometimes when listening to prog it sounds like a joke. It sounds like the band is stringing together a bunch of tropes in mockery of how derivative it all has become. Scale the Summit is unfortunately going to get my wrath, but I can’t listen that new album. It has such high praise all over the place, but I’m so bored by it. I mean listen to this. It is pretty, and quite impressive technically at parts, but how many times have you heard this?

No offense to Scale the Summit, I could have picked something off literally any of the bands listed above and some of those albums might even make my top 10 of the year. It is just a feature of the current prog scene. It has become static. There are the occasional minor details that are new, but overall, it isn’t progressing.

Progressive metal can become progressive again. To some people it may seem shocking. What more do I want? They are already employing all of the complexity you would find in any fully trained classical composer. I’d reply, well, yes, any trained composer through the 19th century. But this stuff is more than a century old now. You could incorporate tons of modern developments. You don’t have to write atonally, but you can incorporate interesting post-tonal techniques to make something progressive without losing your band’s characteristic sound.

Other than tonality, there have been tons of other innovations from play style (stop with the incessant arpeggios, please), to modern electronic filtering of sound in new ways, to how your band layers together its pieces texturally, to instruments used (thank you Hybrid for showing us clarinet can be used in metal), to more original genre crossover, and on and on. You shouldn’t have to be an Animals as Leaders or Dream Theater clone to be prog. I bet I could write a fugue a la Hindemith that would sound really good by a metal band. How about someone tries that for originality?

I know there are actually lots of bands out there doing this, but they immediately get labelled as avant garde and pushed out of the prog scene. As I pointed out last time, this term should probably be reserved for the really, really out there stuff. Incorporating these techniques subtly into your standard prog sound should still count as prog metal. We should embrace more experimentation to finally get out of this stasis.