Spectral Lore – Gnosis

Spectral Lore has been on my radar ever since they released the epic III. That album stayed with me for quite some time as a great blend of traditional melody and black metal, yet highly experimental in other aspects. Earlier this year Voyager released, and I didn’t review it because I couldn’t get into it at all.

Gnosis provides a return to the melody and experimentation I loved on III, yet there are significant departures from it. Most of the melodies are influenced by Middle Eastern scales and melodies. Thankfully, this doesn’t come off as a gimmick. Unlike the recent Nile release, these ideas are blended so seamlessly into the music, that it doesn’t sound like it could be any other way.

The tracks run 8+ minutes, but the album as a whole is only 5 tracks long. This makes for a nice total length. The long form of the songs don’t feel too long, because there is steady development throughout. The tracks are instrumental and through composed, so there isn’t a bunch of tedious recycling like many modern long form black metal albums.

One of the “experimental” aspects of the album is that there are lyrics despite no vocals. I’m not sure if I’m just missing them somehow. It is more like a jointly released music/poetry project. My guess is that this is somehow a commentary on how you have to read the lyrics for most black metal anyway to understand what they are.

Overall, this album is a slower and more patient album that III. Every song is mid to slow tempo, and you won’t find much fast technical work or blast beats. A lot of the complexity has been stripped to bring greater focus to the melodic work.

The song I’m going to give as a preview isn’t representative of the album’s sound, but I think it gives the best idea of how carefully constructed these are. The rubato, the dynamic contrast, the use and non-use of instruments in meticulously chosen locations, and the melodic development and counterpoint with the bass all show how Spectral Lore think about constructing songs on this album. These elements of songwriting are present on other tracks, but are harder to hear because of the louder metal sound.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed listening to Gnosis and expect it will be one of my top albums of the year. I’ll give it a 9/10. Here’s a sample:

Leprous – The Congregation Review

If you haven’t been around for a long time, you might not know this, but Leprous’ Coal was one of my favorite albums in 2013. They created a unique sound for a progressive album and made interesting music with it.

The first thing that jumped out on The Congregation was how incredibly similar the sound is. Unfortunately, let’s break down the first part of the first track (the one they released early) to see that the song is kind of a step backwards.

It opens with jamming on some chords. The bass plays a rhythm on one note. Since this note doesn’t change as the chords change, it is known as a pedal tone and is the root of the first chord in the pattern. Then after quite some time, the whole pattern repeats with this lower note down a third.

This creates a “cool” effect by changing the first chord from a major triad to a minor 7th down a third. But since the bass note is meant more as an effect than having actual chordal content, the rest of the chordal pattern is the same.

The first time you hear it, it isn’t so bad. The timing on the chord hits isn’t very interesting. Sure they end the pattern with a triplet pattern to make it sound more complicated than it is (simple 4/4 all the way through). I don’t think they are trying to trick anyone, but it does feel a bit like a cheap trick in order to make something that isn’t very interesting sound more interesting. This is the problem on repeat listens.

This analysis can be transferred across the album to summarize my main thoughts on it. The album is full of effects to make things sound complicated to mask stuff that isn’t very interesting in its own right. Don’t get me wrong. Things don’t have to be complicated to be good. But faux complication is never good.

In the last album, I loved when they surprised you with interesting sounds. A characteristic sound was the fast pulsing quiet rhythm below long synths and high melodic vocals. It was different and exciting at the time. It’s hard to get excited about it on this album, because it isn’t new anymore. They lifted the sound directly from the last album.

This isn’t to say they aren’t doing anything new. There are lots of sections that are different from Coal, but it isn’t exciting like before.

Let’s end with something a little more positive. The melodic content is quite good. I often find the melodies stuck in my head, and some of the only moments I really like on the album are when the vocals stack into large dense chords. The melodies sound natural but have interesting chromatic alterations.

Overall, they seem to have taken many of the aspects of djent I don’t like and infused their music with it. I hate to say it, but I got bored with the album very quickly. It has only been out a few days, and I’m ready to move on.

I’ll give it a 6/10. Here’s a sample:

vod – ᑑᕐᖓᐃᑦ (Tuurngait) Reviewed

ᑑᕐᖓᐃᑦ is the debut album of vod, the solo project of bassist Dave Trembley. For full disclosure, he is a co-founder of Can This Even Be Called Music?, which I read a lot, but I have no personal relationship with him.

Over the past two weeks, as I’ve listened to this, I’ve come away with some mixed feelings. The first thing I noticed was its sparseness. The album makes good use of atmospheric sounds, space, and repetition. But these things in combination with being only drum and bass made the album feel thin somehow. The sound has grown on me quite a bit, but I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I think my hesitancy at first came from the lack of familiarity. It is definitely a unique sound.

Part of the brilliance of this album is that it can make very simple things interesting. The first track can be seen as development of a single pulsing note. In fact, this is much of the 11+ minutes of the song. Yet the rhythmic complexities that develop, and the other riff that eventually makes an appearance have the ability to capture your attention for the whole song. It also builds into some fairly intense moments.

The album claims Tool as an influence, which I hear, but I think the band that most matches the essence of vod is Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin. They are not as heavy but similarly set up minimalistic rhythmic patterns which can lure the listener into a zen-like trance.

I think this is where the album succeeds the most. I can really get into the grooves which morph and change subtly all over the place in unexpected ways. It still surprises me that the parts of such extreme repetition are the parts I like the most. I also think the very few, brief moments of trumpet succeed wildly. The album is very uniform in tone, and those trumpet sections provide a nice change in timbre.

I actually wish there was a lot more of it. Those quiet trumpet noodles fit the context of the album well (and the last track provides a glimpse of what the album could be with extended sections of it). The album takes several listens to start to grasp just how much care and detail were dropped into these patterns and to hear the layering that keeps them interesting.

It pains me to say it, but the parts where the album breaks out of these patterns into heavier parts or climactic parts feels off. I see their necessity, because without them, it would probably be too much repetition to the point of tedium. On the other hand, they feel a bit weak or thin or contrived. It’s hard to articulate exactly what feels off to me. It’s also not all of them, because some of them really build into a big, heavy climax that works (for example, parts of the fifth and seventh track).

Maybe it is when too much is done with the drum programming. Simple is better, and when the drum pattern gets to be a bit much, you can almost feel the programming which pulls you out of the experience. Maybe the cleanness feels sterile.

Overall, this is a solid and unique album. I highly recommend it to someone who is interested in what I said about the rhythmic and repetitive aspects. I also have reservations, because there are parts I could leave. The trumpet teases me and leaves me wanting more. I’ve enjoyed my time with it and welcome the departure from how unoriginal many bands have become. I’ll give it a 7.5/10.

It officially releases April 9, but samples can be heard at bandcamp:

Periphery’s Juggernaut Double LP Reviewed

For full disclosure, I’m coming at this album from someone who gave their last album a 10/10 and declared it album of the year in 2012. I meant to go back and listen to it again before writing this to see how I feel about it now.

The album opens with clean vocals singing a melody and lyrics that will come back across the whole 80 minute ordeal. The song does well to introduce a tone and the theme. The second track already gets into some of the issues that recur with this album.

The style shifts dramatically to lots of chugging djent. I will grant them that when this happens at various points in the album, it is fairly short (a couple minutes max). I know there are people that are really into this type of thing, but I can’t fathom why a band that is so good at composing intricate, interesting music has to resort to it.

This second track and many after pick a single low bass note, then play it loud and rhythmically over and over and over (in some cases they change octaves, but that is still the same note). They try to make it more interesting with some Dillenger-esque technical, dissonant guitar work.

In some sense, this is what you do if you need filler, but this album is already 80 minutes long! If we cut this fat, we’re left with a perfectly respectable length album that is excellent.

The third track changes drastically again. It is the type of thing that made me love the first album. Stylistically, it might be considered hardcore or alternative. The song has a slow build to a nice climax with a jazzy guitar solo that doesn’t get too caught up in itself. The song works and gets the job done. It would make an excellent second track.

Overall, these are the pieces that make this double LP. Periphery showcase their excellent songwriting by bringing back themes, deconstructing them, and developing them in different styles across the whole album. When they are on, this album is truly brilliant.

Unfortunately, they are only on about 70% of the time. A painful part of the artistic process is the cutting block. But the ability to see parts of what you write as inessential and cutting them is vital to an excellent end product. The album doesn’t suffer from being too long (Mahler wrote 100 minute symphonies). It suffers from being unnecessarily long.

Overall, I want to love this, but I just can’t. I can’t dislike it too much either, because it has great moments. I’ll give it a 7/10. If you liked Periphery II, you’ll probably like this. If my negatives don’t sound bad to you, you might even love this. Here’s a sample:

Conquering Dystopia’s Conquering Dystopia Reviewed

I can find nothing but high, high praise for this album on the internet, so it has been sitting on my list for a few months. This is the first album from a “supergroup” containing Jeff Loomis and Alex Webster among others. It is a purely instrumental album. I’ll admit that I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this album. Unfortunately, it didn’t really hold up on lots of repeated listens. This is the opposite of what I’d want from a great album. Usually I don’t get something, and on repeated listens it reveals its greatness to me.

First, this album feels extraordinarily familiar. I can’t quite pin down who I think they sound like. Maybe Periphery (not quite, but I can’t figure it out)? I listen to this album, and I just feel like I’ve heard it all before. The overall sound is a highly produced prog metal band that occasionally throws in some tech death infused parts for variety. It would be unfair to say that you have to do something totally new sounding to be great. I definitely think you can sound very familiar, do it extremely well, and still make a great album. But the familiarity here leaves me unsettled. I’m not saying this is what happened, but how would you feel reading a book made up of quotes from other books?

The reason I enjoyed this album so much at first is because of how great the technical playing is. The shredding and soloing has lots of fantastic melodic material embellished in all sorts of neoclassical ways with traditional scale and arpeggio patterns. The articulation is varied and clearly executed. It is technical playing at its finest for sure. This alone would have had me giving pure praise a few years ago. I’ve come to want more than pure technical wankery, though.

I think this album really shines in those moments where the band forgets about how good they all are at their instruments. “Doomsday Clock” is one such example. It switches to part acoustic guitar. It has musical direction as it builds both dynamically and harmonically. This is a song with depth that I can return to. Unfortunately, the track immediately following this one is more typical. This depth isn’t there. It is all flash and no substance (and in fact my least favorite).

I think the band has really good melodic sense. The melodies that the riffing and soloing are based around are well-made. They are simultaneously catchy, yet interesting and original. Still, I just find the overall package somewhat stale and lacking any real depth that will reward spending lots of time on it. Even the crazy soloing isn’t unfamiliar enough to require effort to process.

The next reprieve from the technique is “Lachrymose.” I have mixed feelings on this one. Overall the song’s melodic and harmonic development is solid. It is actually quite a moving song with the legato electric guitar solo providing a longing feeling over the more rigid picking of the acoustic accompaniment. It might be a bit overwrought at its climax though. It feels a bit like a cheesy 80’s ballad. Still, I have to applaud the change of pace to something that tries to provide a bit more depth.

There are a few parts that come close to this such as on “Nuclear Justice,” but for the most part they return to their technical powerhouse for the rest of the album. Also, “Kufra at Dusk” has a pretty good breakdown for a few seconds at the end. I can probably count the moments I’d want to share with people on one hand. The only track that really seems to integrate the technical with the other elements I’ve been praising is the closer (and I think they realized it which is why they ended the album with it, but it does get dangerously djenty at parts).

Don’t get me wrong. This album is worth some time. It has magnificent playing by some of the masters that you don’t want to miss. The only reason I’m being so harsh is because of how universal the praise has been. It is a good album. It just isn’t album of the year material. I imagine that the sophomore effort will fix a lot of the issues I raised. These musicians are just getting used to playing together as a unit. I’m looking forward to what they put out next.

Overall, I give it a 7.5/10. Here’s a sample:

Exivious: Liminal Reviewed

This is my single most anticipated album of the year. I’ve been tracking the progress on this one for about a year. Exivious’ first release was something I just couldn’t get enough of. It was unlike anything I’d heard before. It was complicated in every way imaginable yet still had a great groove to it. It was modern jazz played by a metal band (as opposed to your run of the mill metal band with jazz influences).

Now that you know my bias coming into this thing I’ll tell you that I’m trying to be as level-headed in this review as I can. I’m fully aware that my expectations and faulty memory about what the original album was may have led me to have too high of expectations, making a great album seem not as great.

Before getting on to why I’m disappointed let’s start with something else. Every track has a lot of great stuff in it. I’d still say this is a really great album well worth getting if you liked their first one. Exivious has a sound that you just can’t find anywhere else and they maintain that consistency here.

There’s still quite a bit of great jazzy sounds, chord progressions, and solos. As I said, basically every song still has the Exivious complicated edge to it. Take “Triguna” for instance. There’s a cool soundscape done with non-standard guitar tones. They use some pitch bending in their chromatic ascending progression to really create the effect of moving upwards. The time signature gets all whacky in part too. This might be my favorite track. They use a great range of dynamics and the songs crescendo to climaxes and decrescendo back to some softer stuff giving a lot of variety and well thought out compositions.

And holy crap talking about solos. One of the best solos on any “metal” album I’ve heard happens in “Deeply Woven.” During a crazy thrashing bit this weird sound comes in faintly. You’re not sure what it is. Then gradually it comes to the front. You realize it is a (soprano?) sax. Jonas Knutsson just kills it on this track with his crazy soloing.

Where does my disappointment come in? Well, it kind of comes from my Is Progressive Metal Progressive post. I mentioned at the beginning that Exivious is basically a jazz outfit on metal instruments. I don’t really get that feel on this album. For the most part it feels like a djent album with a lot of jazz influence. The emphasis has changed somewhat (or I’m just mis-remembering the first album).

The first track has the majority of it as this incredibly static djenty thing that could be lifted right off of a Tesseract album or something. The beginning and end are really great, and I get what they were trying to do with a slow build to the climactic ending. It just feels so overdone and the key word that I’ll keep coming back to is static. If I was feeling the groove more and could get into the build I think it would be fine, but I can’t.

There are huge chunks of songs all over this album where they go harmonically static and the song falls flat for me. I just completely lose interest. What is strange is that sometimes the soloing is pretty interesting (like the early part of “Open”), but that lack of motion by the rest of the band to back it up just rubs me the wrong way for some reason.

This isn’t accidental. It can’t be. These guys are just so great at what they do that something like this could not have been unintentional. They did it for a reason, and I can imagine some potential reasons like highlighting the soloing better rather than detracting with a mess of complicated stuff from the rest of the band. Again in “Immanent” there is some freaking amazing rhythmic stuff happening, but the harmonic language feels extremely static.

Anyway, I admit that I had the same exact reaction to The Ocean earlier this year, and with more listens I found that what I thought was static was actually really interesting. I also admit that strictly speaking some of these parts are not harmonically static, they just feel that way to me. I will continue to listen to this for awhile. Overall, it is still a fantastic album that any fan of progressive metal should love. For now I’m giving it a 7.5/10.

Here’s a sample: