Head Hunters (1973) is Herbie Hancock’s twelfth studio album, and my personal favorite of his (sorry, Thrust). The 1973 jazz-funk album was a big landmark in not only Hancock’s career, but the genre as a whole; taking the lessons he learned from playing with Miles Davis (the father of jazz-funk fusion) and perfecting his own style made Head Hunters intricate and innovative enough to become one of the most influential jazz-funk albums of all time.
Chameleon is the first track on the album, and is a great jumping-off point for anyone new to the genre or the artist. The bassy-synth intro line is instantly recognizable and consistent throughout most of the piece, grounding it and giving it identity while also cementing its funk roots. Beyond that, Harvey Mason plays a very funky drum groove both from a music theory standpoint and a listening one: strong accented 8th notes on the hi-hat leading the 4/4 charge, heavy but well-placed kicks supporting important notes in the bass line, and plenty of snare ghost-note nuance to go with it. These bass and drum lines help distinguish the piece as well as provide a typical rhythm section “pillow” for soloists to lean on during shred sections; and boy, there are some shred sections. Herbie Hancock is an incredible keyboardist, stealing ideas, repeating rhythms, associating with the melody, and using off-key notes to attract attention; after all, one does not get to train with the great (and terribly picky) Miles Davis for nothing. Hancock’s fantastic keyboardmanship is only accentuated by a defining characteristic of Head Hunters: the guitar. Or rather, the lack of it. That’s right, there are no guitars in the entire album, and everything that sounds like one is likely a clavinet. When you can’t rely on a guitar to climax a song with a shred section, you gotta do it yourself: loud distortion and pure speed on the strings gets replaced by precision, grooviness, and deliberation on the keys. The overall flow of the piece really benefits from this as well, tying in each section more closely and placing a bigger emphasis on the instrumentation rather than the instruments. The aforementioned flow is also incredible in it’s own right, and presents itself in a variety of ways: a noticeable tempo change from the beginning to the end, several very unique and well-arranged sections, engaging pickups and interludes, and carefully placed solos accenting each section just at the right moment. Chameleon stands out as a composition with vague hints of tradition hidden behind layers of innovation and pure groove; pure groove that extends beyond just the first song.
Ah, Watermelon Man. Watermelon Man is such an iconic piece, and actually predates the album by about a decade, first appearing in Hancock’s 1962 debut album, Takin’ Off. Similarly to Chameleon, Watermelon Man also starts with an captivating intro, this time a little less traditional, however. Beer bottles, yelps, and other unusual sounds introduce the song with a lot of flair, and are a welcome sound to the tired ears of any traditional Western music fan. A bass and drum line soon enter to give greater context to the strange yelps and African percussion, followed by a smooth melodic line to transition into a much more low-key section quite definitive of the piece. Hancock has described the piece as drawing heavily from the name, attempting to emulate the scene of a watermelon salesman at a street corner; I want to say that he has achieved this emulation with incredible precision, but I have never interacted with a street-corner watermelon salesman before, yet expect it to sound something like this. Watermelons aside, this piece has a lot of great horn solos and a lot of dynamics. The difference between sections is subtly introduced and developed, only to be yanked away suddenly, jarring the listener into wondering how we got to an enthusiastic horn solo from a guy blowing into a beer bottle, and being a little surprised that we didn’t realize it until it already happened.
The third song, Sly, is named after Sly Stone of Sly and the Family Stone, and for good reason; the piece is dedicated to his work. It begins very simply, at least in comparison to the previous tracks, due to the fact that short staccato phrases introduce the song. Instead of defining the vibe of the song, the staccato accents contrast it; the piece carries a very suave feel in the beginning, and Hancock’s superior musicianship is displayed through his maintenance of the smooth tone underlying his incorporation of sharper sounds. Soon the piece changes into more of a Watermelon Man feel for a section, preceding a false ending that sets up a really upbeat and fast section of the piece defined by quick chops-reliant jazz drumming and bold, short, sharp notes forming the core of the sax solo. This speedy section is also accompanied by great rhythmic and melodic diversity, with many stacking sounds providing a polyphonic contrast that hammers home a feel I can only describe as an “angry Tyson,” because it feels like jabs are getting thrown a hundred times a second and it’s all one can do to bob and weave before getting hit again. But a lull comes in the form of the same false ending that heralded the conclusion of the smooth section, only to precede another quick one! This will be the section we ride out the piece on, so I’ll take a moment to discuss the wider musical context of this album: Hancock began his career with a sextet, only one member of which (Bennie Maupin, saxophone) stayed to record Head Hunters. The new group was called, you guessed it, the Head Hunters, and was a tendril of Hancock’s musical ambitions focused more on earthy, lighter music as opposed to the music he had been playing previously, which he described as “ethereal kind of far-out spacey stuff” and a “heavy kind of music.” It’s a bit ironic in my opinion, because the next album, Thrust, would literally have a spaceship on the cover, but regardless, the two albums are my favorite in the genre and deserve no disrespect.
Vein Melter. Gee whiz, what’s in a name, huh? I really don’t know what it means, or even if it fits the song, but it’s certainly got some flair. Besides having an original name, this song is a slow, gentle giant, seeking to do no harm and simply exist peacefully; it does so with a slow tempo and soft instrumentation. Despite the song’s slow tempo, it goes by fast, probably induced by the captivating yet subtle soloing of Hancock and Maupin; Maupin especially shines in this piece with his opening solo setting a beautiful and seductive tone to frame the rest of the piece. This is all reinforced by Mason’s restraint on the kit and a variety of supporting percussion, as well as some ambient sounds backgrounding the quieter sections of the solos and even some orchestral strings here and there. There is also a notable woodwind presence, with assorted flutes really driving home the slow, enticing aspects of the piece and contrasting the synth-ier parts. I truly wish I had more to say about this song, but by its very nature it is a piece better listened to than talked about.
So that’s it, only four songs comprising an album that doesn’t even span 45 minutes, yet was so potent that it set the framework of an entire genre for years to come. Head Hunters is a must-listen for anyone interested in funk, jazz, and especially funk-jazz fusion; it’s also a must-listen for anyone with ears, because you’re wasting them if you’ve never fed them the delectable four-course meal that is Head Hunters.
Red House Painters, led by guitar player and vocalist Mark Kozelek (now operating under the name Sun Kil Moon), began in 1992 with Down Colorful Hill; the album is a slow, melancholic one very definitive of their genre, which some have dubbed “slowcore”: a subgenre of alternative/indie rock that focuses on slow tempos and soft instrumentation. Down Colorful Hill was vital in establishing Red House Painters as a worthwhile and innovative indie rock band, and the album has defined the band as a cornerstone of the genre ever since with its dragging melodies and solemn notation.
24, the first song on the album, starts and finishes with an acoustic guitar like many of the entries on Down Colorful Hill; a slow and repetitive riff takes its sweet time gently introducing the tune and inviting Kozelek to speak some words on maturity in his characteristic autobiographical prose: “We’re not kids on swing sets on the blacktop,” “at 15 I thought I’d have it down by 16,” and “24 keeps breathing in my face” are all lines that demonstrate his uncertainty and fear of aging, despite the fact that he was only 25 when the album was released. Like the guitarwork, the drumming (Anthony Koutsos) is very subdued and gentle, including not a single hit that isn’t absolutely necessary and filling with two or three snare raps at most; truly, Koutsos embodies the “less is more” mentality so alien to young and energetic rock drummers. The bass (Jerry Vessel) follows the examples set by the other instruments, and sometimes even sustains notes for bars at a time to accentuate the almost frustrating slowness of the song.
Medicine Bottle is a much faster feeling song however, and starts with a drum click and subtle distortion screech before heading into a bassier and more drum-heavy groove than the previous song. Eighth notes on the ride, constant guitar strumming, and a more prominent bass line may make this song easier to listen to than 24; it has a solid and consistent feel that, despite lasting over ten minutes, never gets old. The instruments sullenly tease the chorus a couple bars before letting Kozelek preside over the initial verse, which he does by speaking about himself (as always) in sad and longing tones. The chorus appears again, this time accompanied by vocals that give it a more defined tone – this definition extends to the next verse, which has a much more “sing-song” feel than the spoken-word vocals we’ve been getting used to. The return of the chorus, a third time and just as fresh, precedes the lyric-heavy bridge section; this section in particular opens up the meaning of the song: something’s not right with Kozelek’s love life. Apparently he’s having some issues with his lady, because he’s “building walls higher than the both of us” and should “try living life instead of hiding in the bedroom”: clearly, Kozelek has depression, an affliction that is crippling in the real world but quite a condiment in the musical one. I do believe that without Kozelek’s own personal problems, the album could not have been as good as it is; he is the primary songwriter, after all. His lyricism and imagery, supported by the restrained instrumentation of the album, add a flair that is not only the cherry on top, but the milkshake itself. In a genre like this, the composition of the poetry is just as important as the actual playing of the instruments, and I wouldn’t pick anyone other than Kozelek to carry that burden. Medicine Bottle has a lot of repetition, and by association, a lot of nuance: every verse is the same but different, whether it be the cadence of the vocals or grace notes on the strings. A truly solemn piece Medicine Bottle is, yet the next tune is anything but.
Down Colorful Hill is the title track of the album, and features a more prominent kit presence than the other songs by way of a snare roll introducing and supporting the whole rhythmic tone of the song, something very welcome to a drummer such as myself. This song is a real gem, with cryptic but meaningful lyricism and a similar but less nuanced repetition than Medicine Bottle; it also carries a tone of “hopeful melancholy” that I always recognise as very difficult to pull off, so props to Kozelek and his crew for mastering such a deep and complex idea with such consistency and grace. This song, similarly to its predecessor, is over ten minutes long; normally, a composition that long should likewise scale the number of distinct sections, but Down Colorful Hill has less than five (I’m being generous by counting small changes as entirely different sections). Somehow, it’s alright. I don’t mind hearing these near-identical verses and unchanging choruses as much as I thought I would, and oddly enough, it reminds me of the progressive death metal band Meshuggah. Meshuggah, despite having exponentially more complex and varied sections in their songs, also often hold sections for minutes at a time; such repetition really tests the listener and shows a great amount of confidence in the band’s own songwriting, something I also see here. However, after about the six minute mark, the song takes a relatively sharp change with the addition of minor distortion and some interesting cliffhanger-y phrasing, both accompanied by background drones. After this section, there is a return to the initial snare roll and guitar riff, but of course with added instrumental and vocal nuance; I did not expect any change when returning to the intro, which says a lot about this song.
The intro to Japanese to English is surprisingly captivating for being so simple, hosting the drums, headed by an open hi-hat on the upbeat, the guitar, carrying a riff as always, and the bass, supporting with sparse but vital pulses towards the end of each bar. The vocals are nothing to write home about at this point, as we know what to expect and indeed receive such drawn out and almost excessively melancholic vocals as predicted. The bridge sees the ride bell replace the open hi-hat on the upbeat and the bass add a more syncopated feeling pulse on the “e of four” of each bar, but other than that not much change occurs. However, the chorus is pretty dang interesting – at least relative to the established feel of the album – for its sixteenth note hi-hat groove and its more active strumming riff, as well as an interesting entrance from the bridge and exit to, well, the bridge again, which is where the song ends. Last thing I’ll note about this song is that when Kozelek says “Japanese to English and English to Japanese” in the bridge, he says the last word as Japan-ese, and not “Japanese” as we Americans usually say it. It totally threw me off the first time, but when I realized that in order to fit the meter of the song such syllabic transgressions need be perpetrated, I accepted it for what it was (but that doesn’t make it any less weird to hear).
Surprising enough, Lord Kill the Pain is just about the most upbeat song on the album. Crashing in after a guitar walkdown, the drums excitedly smack a snare on two and four and the guitars, both electric and acoustic, strum away in front of a nice, happy bass line. But, of course, everything is not as it seems, and the song is understandably one of those upbeat-sounding but depressingly-lyricised irony songs; personally, I do not like that idea unless it has a real reason to be that way, and even though I know I can contrive a reason for this song to do such a thing, I won’t. I will, however, talk about the lyrics themselves more so than the music (despite the fact that this is my favorite song on the album) because there is quite a lot to cover. Quickly, my favorite lines are definitely the out-of-nowhere “kill my girlfriend and kill my best friend Sam… kill my neighbors and all my family too” if only because I think it’s a hilarious non-sequitur, but other lines struck me as well such as “let me hear the whining sound of a pig drown” and “let me see the burning down of my hometown“; these lines are pretty edgy, obviously, but in all honesty I find them very original and I did not see them coming at all, despite being preceded by open supplication for mass murder. Musically, it’s a shame that I won’t spend much time therein because there are a lot of fun and interesting ideas floating around that still manage to maintain the upbeat feel of the song.
Lastly, a love song – not romantic, but fraternal. Michael is about Kozelek’s titular best friend, and is really, really charming. I absolutely adore this song, and even though it’s not my favorite, I think it’s the best one on the album; the nostalgia, the singing, the laid back but appropriate instrumentation, everything just comes together. In the interest of proper reverence to the piece, I will abstain from discussing the lyrics and encourage the reader to listen to the song on his or her own time to fully appreciate the scope of the lyrical composition. Musically, however, most of the song is traditional strumming and drum support which, at this point, is getting old, but the chorus (or post-chorus?) has chord changes that hit the spot, scratching an itch I didn’t even know I had but now can’t stop itching. These strong chord twists happen at the end of each phrase and man, they are really well chosen. My final thoughts on the song are that it powerfully ends Down Colorful Hill and takes it into a new, less depressing direction that allows the listener a guilt-free disengagement from the album.
Down Colorful Hill is one of the least-metallic albums I may ever review, and maybe that’s for the best; sticking to what I know, while falsely indicative of a narrow taste in music, seems to yield deeper and more entertaining reviews in my opinion. Of course, being an art, the value of these critiques are completely subjective to the audience, but I still take into account my own reflections and opinions on what I write. That being said, I thoroughly and consistently enjoy this album even when not in a mood of nostalgia or melancholy, and the musical and lyrical content stands on its own as what I would deem objectively interesting. Oh, and I forgot to mention that I really like the album art.
Stone Temple Pilots’ sophomore album, Purple (1994), is a direct sequel to 1992’s Core; maintaining the earlier album’s grunge foundation while adding a more diverse, unseen side of STP. Purple heralds a lighter, more upbeat era for the band, yet raises the question of whether or not they will maintain the deep, rough feeling that defined Core and grunge as a whole.
Robert DeLeo’s bass answers this question immediately with a resounding “yes!” in the album’s first track, Meatplow. The first four beats of the album immediately dispel any notion that STP has strayed too far from the path, and it is a welcome reassurance to any fan of their first album; it also sets up the rest of the tune as a dirty, down-to-earth, typical grunge piece that runs on pure bass. The rest of the song plays off of the initial tone, using it as a harmonic centering point not only for the other sections of the song, but also for the next tune in the album.
If Meatplow runs on bass, then Vasoline runs on drums. The intro is reminiscent of their debut album’s Naked Sunday, except that it sets up a driving rhythm rather than a driving melody. That driving rhythm is a grouping of 3 beats over a 4/4 time signature, and along with paradiddles and other rudiments on the drums, dominates the song and serves as it’s defining characteristic. Weiland also has quite the presence here, with his typical grainy, grungy voice singing lyrics that are both accessible and meaningful, a staple of his lyricism demonstrated prominently in Sex Type Thing. The song is centered around drums and repeating rhythmic ideas; from the verse (led by a 3/4 polyrhythm on the guitar) to the chorus (built on paradiddles from the drum set), this song is very rhythmic.
Lounge Fly enters with a reversed audio track, which establishes its identity as one of the trippier songs on the album (if you listen closely, you’ll find that the reversed track lasts throughout almost the entire song). Backed by a constant but interesting tom-heavy drum groove, the bass takes a backseat at the start of the song, adding only subtle harmonic changes to build tension; until the chorus, that is, where it takes on rhythmic and melodic duties in exchange for its harmonic presence. This song includes an iconic “STP Acoustic Interlude” which is followed by a solo that really benefits from the interlude’s harmonic contrast. Another chorus, another, shred-ier solo piloting a fadeaway outro, and we are now ready for one of STP’s greatest hits.
Interstate Love Song. It’s no wonder this song gets so much airtime, as it provides a level of accessibility to mainstream audiences that seems ludicrous compared to how complex the song actually is. Also, it happens to be one of the more upbeat songs on Purple, which of course means that the lyrics have to contrast that. And they do, talking of drug addiction, lies, hopeless love, long-distance relationships, and all the things an unsuspecting listener wouldn’t expect. Besides great lyrics and a great title, Interstate Love Song has plenty of unconventional phrasing: the main riff spanning an unusual 3 bars, a 2/4 bar remainder that bridges the verse to the interlude, and a 10 bar chorus ending with a bar of rest; all that niche complexity and nuance is diffused in such a way that the average listener is not overwhelmed by it, and in fact, is intrigued by it – that could be why this song did so well on the charts.
Next comes Still Remains – a sweet song that has great atmosphere and harmony, not to mention the occasional tambourine. Honestly, this song isn’t much without the vocals, but they really deliver – long, drawn out syllables providing a main melody and consistent presence so as to maintain the listener’s attention and let the background instrumentation serve humbly. The lyrics are still a bit sad, but this time they really fit the feel of the song and give depth to the constant vocals.
Pretty Penny shines as the pinnacle of STP’s diversity on this album, straying from the pack by bringing all acoustics and some lovely poetry. The percussion is of particular note, sending forth a gentle bongo groove to ground the tone of the piece while calling on intricate cymbals to elevate the piece when necessary. Pretty Penny also speaks to the band’s newfound confidence in the wake of Core’s success not only through what they play (acoustic guitar, bongos, tambourine, etc.), but how they play it (confident consistency, slow progression, soft tone, etc.); STP established themselves on great riffs and a solid percussive backbone to create their identity in the grunge world, and Pretty Penny sees them defiantly stray from that, as if to say, “you know who we are, we have nothing to prove, and we’ll play what we want.”
Silvergun Superman wastes no time introducing itself as a traditional grunge piece, using distortion and washy cymbals to dispel any doubt that this is anything but a typical grunge anthem. Yet any doubt would have been well placed, as the piece rapidly gains depth through the chorus, comprised of a distinct harmonic shift, a switch to clear, bright cymbal playing, another tambourine, and an uncompromising distorted guitar that shows its range by sticks around to complement a much more upbeat section than it initially signed up for. The patented “STP Acoustic Interlude” makes another appearance, this time setting up a bomb-ass solo section right after a couple bars of verse & chorus. And the solo section is “bomb-ass,” not only standing up on its own shred-y merits, but metamorphosing into an incredibly well executed and musically impressive shift of rhythm and tone to close out the piece.
The album’s ballad, Big Empty, also proves to be quite the shift of rhythm and tone as it enters with the slowest, most drawn out start we’ve seen on Purple yet. This dragged laziness is all part of the act though, and it sets up the chorus perfectly; a chorus that is impressive in its lentitud poderosa, that is to say, its “powerful slowness”, that ebbs and flows yet permeates the whole piece. Big Empty also has another very nice “STP Acoustic Interlude” that crescendos quickly and smoothly to set up the final chorus, which radiates feelings of longing and melancholy, finishing the piece just how they started it.
Youthful energy flows from Unglued like a fountain: the strong, loud vocals, the simple yet punk-esque drum backbeat, simple chord changes, and a fast, distorted main riff – not to mention the lyrics, which, upon further inspection, support the “youthful energy” diagnosis wholeheartedly. This song is the shortest one on the album, exploding onto the scene and vanishing into thin air quicker than might be expected in contrast to the other songs on Purple.
Army Ants opens with a heavily distorted strumming pattern that lasts 8 bars, preceding a 2 bar silence, preceding a bunch of bars of awesome music. Seriously though, this song has a great upbeat grunge feel that follows Unglued very naturally; this time, however, STP speaks on conformity instead of impulse control, comparing close-minded, follower-type people to “army ants.” This song has lots of great drumming and solos that perfectly maintain the punk-grunge feel without taking away from the expected melodic and rhythmic complexity. Like Unglued, this song is short and catchy, but also has the privilege of preceding one of my favorite STP songs of all time.
Kitchenware & Candybars – what does that mean? I’m not sure anyone knows, but you’ll certainly have time to think about it during this song; by opening with a repeated acoustic guitar riff and soft vocals, K&C makes it known that it is a more unconventional STP tune than the last two. Despite its unconventionality, the song follows a similar pattern to Big Empty by setting up powerful choruses with soft yet interesting verses – verses which progress in musical complexity as the song does, I might add. Many strings also accompany this tune, appearing in the chorus, interlude, and bridge sections to add a bit of unexpected classical flair to the already atypical song. Atypical except for the fact that the solo shreds super hard, of course, and also that it precedes a final, hard hitting chorus… that precedes a Richard Peterson song?
Yes, My Second Album, the 12th song on Purple, isn’t an STP song at all! It’s a song about, you guessed it, their second album (and Peterson’s), and it is certainly a different tune, with all the big-band staples like piano, trumpet, strings, and, of course, a classy crooner (give it a listen, it’s great).
Purple remains one of the greatest grunge albums of all time, and, in truth, my favorite grunge album of all time; everything about it shines from its confidence to its competence, and it is a great way to follow up the amazing Core. As I said, I consider this a true sequel to their debut album, and anyone who’s given a listen to Core knows what a tall order that is because it’s not easy to reproduce perfection.
Bleed the Future (2021) is the latest album from the definitive tech death band Archspire. Archspire’s incredibly fast and brutal death metal set an unchallenged precedent back when The Lucid Collective released in 2014, and, by following it up three years later with Relentless Mutation, the band staked their claim utterly alone at the top of the tech death food chain – nobody plays faster, harder, or more intensely than the talented Toronto tech death team. The only problem with being the fastest, hardest, and most intense band, however, is that you can’t get faster, harder, or more intense – or so it was thought. Bleed the Future proves that there is no such thing as a superlative, and that to be truly the best you must always surpass yourself….and so Relentless Mutation surpassed The Lucid Collective, and Bleed the Future has surpassed Relentless Mutation. So get ready, because this album is truly faster than light, harder than bedrock, and more intense than a drill sergeant who got into the DEA evidence lockers.
We leap into a brutal verse, lazer sharp riffs and hammering chugs crowning machine-like drumming, staccato strumming strobing erratically, maddening mini-breakdowns halting for harking, hoarse vocals, and absolute face melting action swirling around us in a tornado of liquified flesh. There’s no doubt: Archspire is back. While showcasing unparalleled instrumental prowess, the band also maintains their mastery of atmospheric entrapment through precise sound and visceral lyrics, not straying far from the themes they’ve been developing since their debut in 2014. Drone Corpse Aviator is a clear homage to the previous album’s antagonist, “The Drip,” describing horrific scenes of cadavers being reanimated by onyx bile and black-vested death cultists worshipping through corrupted sanguine rituals. These disturbing and frankly metal-as-hell scenes are a staple of Archspire lead vocalist Oli Peter’s immersive and grim nightmare fiction; Peters has always placed an immense emphasis on the captivating and unforgiving world in which the albums take place, and without his macabre creativity, listening to Archspire just wouldn’t be the same experience. The same thrilling experience, I should say, as Drone Corpse Aviator grabs hold from the start with a fade in similar to the one from Human Murmuration 4 years prior, yet much faster and more aggressive, perfectly and immediately addressing a recurring trend on Bleed the Future. This speed and aggression pauses briefly, as usual, for an instrumental break consisting of graceful cymbal work and beautiful–yet sorrowful–string playing the likes of which we’ve come to expect from its absolute mastery on Relentless Mutation. Two of these instrumentals precede a banger breakdown and iconic “DRONE CORPSE AVIATOR!!!” respectively, and cement the song as exactly what everyone was hoping for and more from Bleed the Future.
“Buduh-caduh buduh-caduh buduh-caduh buduh-cadah BOOM” is how Archspire first teased the new album with Golden Mouth of Ruin a couple of weeks ago, and to be honest I haven’t listened to much else since (spoiler alert, so far this is my favorite song on the album). The title, Golden Mouth of Ruin, is referencing Peters’s newest creation, the Boanet, alien-human hybrids with giant golden xenomorphic maws on the backs of their heads–crazy and brutal, but par for the course with Archspire. Chugs are the main idea here, with a steady eighth note riff testing just how much your ears are accustomed to the nuance of the 8-string death metal guitar while short rests add an extra layer of rhythmic complexity. As any seasoned death metal fan can tell you, chugs are only half of the story when it comes to death metal guitars: “weedly-dee’s” and “noodly-doo’s” also make up the core harmonic diversity in tech death, and emerge almost exclusively to deliquesce your countenance–that is to say, melt your face. One thing in particular I like about this song is the arrangement of the solo section: the backgrounds begin at about a minute and fifty seconds in, shrouding a gnarly bass solo with savage vocals only to drop the voice and replace the bass solo with an identical guitar one, a drum fill, and a rhythm guitar solo before repeating with additional vocals. It has a lot of character and is an interesting look into how to effectively repeat solo ideas in a death metal setting, considering that often tech death solos are strictly weedly-dee shred fests with no discernable repetition (they’re still great though!).
The title Abandon the Linear sounds very similar to a lyric from the bridge section in A Dark Horizontal, “defying the linear,” and I’m not sure what the “linear” is, but knowing Peters’s work it’s likely something that kills you or maims you or turns you into dust or melts your bones. Just a guess. And I’m kidding of course, because as a die-hard Archspire fan I know that the “linear” refers to “The story about the first two people who share the exact same dream. One man becomes blood, and the woman turns to sand, together they merge and form the shoreline of a new dimension. Others begin to join their dream, and with each new being the dimension grows larger, essentially creating a new earth free of linear time. Basically it’s about two minds constructing matter from the unification of consciousness during lucid dreaming,” which is a quote from Peters about his lyricism in the first album, The Lucid Collective, so the “linear” refers to linear time. Oh, right, uh, onto the song. I love the intro’s slow repeating riff and epic background solo which sets up a verse of uncanny barbarity, which in turn precedes an exceedingly filthy bass section (I’m talking covered in grease, exuding an absolutely revolting miasma of pestilence and decay). After that, a bar of rest sets up a badass solo that oversees a brief return to the initial motif. There’s a lot of relatively restrained guitar work in this song that creates peaks and valleys, accentuating a musical disparity sorely needed in the genre. Abandon the Linear is also a great lyrical piece: phrases like “laughing up blood” and “a state of savage bliss” help justify the claim that death metal screams aren’t all edgy nonsense, and in this case actually have some very respectable and impressive (but still quite edgy) prose behind them.
The titular track instantly displays its rhythmic motif through sharp monophonic phrasing that coalesces drums, strings, and vocals into one force: “Be-fore, AnythingExpelled, BreathUponTheEarth, BoanetHadFormed” (or “BAEBUTEBHF” for short) are the words being “spoken” during that intro motif, and the aforementioned staccato monophonic phrasing is very subtly reminiscent of the intro on the previous album’s Calamus Will Animate, but that’s a bit of a stretch, even for me. Adding to the song’s individuality and character, the initial rhythmic idea is repeated in varying ways from a brief bridging phrase to a time signature shift in the verse (a bar of 7 into a bar of 8 begun and ended with the initial “bum-bum”). This song is an absolute POWERHOUSE and pulls no punches, holds no bars, and follows no rules; Bleed the Future might not be my favorite song on the album (yet), but a part of me knows it’s probably the best. Drawing from all that Archspire has accomplished in the past, this song takes inspiration from the aforementioned vocal solo on Calamus Will Animate, the elegant instrumental mastery of Relentless Mutation, andthe absolutely DISGUSTING soloing that defined The Lucid Collective and mashes it all together with the band’s newfound speed and ferocity to create an anthem so completely encapsulating of all the band is, was, and will be. Bleed the Future stands as what may be the pinnacle of tech death today, and is further proof that the only band that has shown itself capable of surpassing Archspire is Archspire itself.
Drain of Incarnation starts very prettily, with a lovely siren song that lures you in, captivates you, holds you, grabs you, and then screams in your face – can’t have too much beauty in a genre called “death metal,” I guess. The verse slams you hard, with a 3/4 time signature atop a solid quarter note foundation and an eagerness to jump into soloing that occurs briefly before shifting focus back to the atypical quarter note cornerstone. A more typical breakdown follows, packing some of the fastest blast beats in the industry courtesy of Archspire’s resident human-octopus hybrid: Spencer Prewett, a machine more than a man whose ligaments and tissue have been replaced by hydraulics and steel fueled by a concentrated solution of pure dedication. Screeches, speed, and staccato spaces are dominating the song, swirling around eardrums and popping in and out of existence like whack-a-mole. More solos, more face melting, more blast beats, and more Archspire goodness close out the song while adhering respectfully to its incredibly confident rhythmic composition. Lyrically, Drain of Incarnation seems to be about a similar subject to The Mimic Well: both the Drain and the Well birth creatures of the Drip, they are both horrific pits of tar, and they are both semi-sentient alien entities. Unlike the Well however, the Drain is on fire. Constantly. And everything that comes out of it is on fire. Constantly. I’m not quite sure how that could possibly benefit the survival of any organism (or how it could get any edgier), but it gives Peters a reason to write a line in Latin (which always makes things more badass), “Ignis Nativitas,” which, if my memory of Catholic school Latin serves me well, means something like “Nativity of Fire.” Fitting.
The beginning of Acrid Canon is so damn cool it could freeze the balls off of Aten. The powerful, epic melody and outstanding background atmosphere are only hindered by the innate brevity of any given section in a teach death song, but not for no good reason, as the song returns to it soon enough. There’s a lot of traditional tech death stuff going on, with vicious distortion and blast beats padding the time between the afore-drooled-over intro/chorus section that makes Acrid Canon so unique. The song soon jumps back to that chorus section again, and back to that same damn ridiculously legendary melody and background with a nice, low, very Meshuggah-like chord on the third beat of the seventh bar that stands out to me and really seals the section up well in my opinion. This song is nothing if not brutal, and I imagine it really appeals to the hardcore moshers in their audience (but what Archspire song doesn’t?). The last solo, the chord progression before it, and the outro after it are a gnarly triple threat that complement the intro/chorus very nicely and fade the tune out with gravitas. Acrid Canon also tells a great story about, well, acrid canon (most Archspire songs are titled after the subject of the piece, and this is no exception). Evidently, someone has a Boanet growing inside them (think chestbursters from Alien) and it’s just about ready to hatch. The death cult “A.U.M.,” a recurring group in Archspire lyrics, knows of this and detains the narrator for experimentation and analysis; as the examination happens, the Boanet in a neaby subject begins to hatch, causing the narrator to violently vomit. Upon sight of the “four foot coiling gleaming slug” breaching his fellow prisoner’s sternum, the protagonist loses consciousness, however not before making sure to internalize this experience in his “acrid canon.” He later wakes up under hazmatted scientists, wondering, nay, hoping, that it was all just a horrific nightmare, but “peering around the room again, [he] saw the gore that proved it happened.” Such a sight prompts another vomiting episode so repulsive that his captors all “recoil enough for [him] to run away,” and he heads for the nearest town to find some semblance of salvation. But salvation is still second to savagery in this septic surrealism and scalped, strung up children greet our protagonist in droves – he tries to free them, but instead “caused them to scream, alerting their harvesters.” He dives into a car and drives off, soon glancing down at his chest to find a sign fallen from a skinned child “that stuck to [him] with clotting blood,” instructing him to transcribe runes with chalk made of bone; this esoteric scripture haunts his last moments of consciousness while he scribbles down the little he can articulate before pounding the car horn in pain as the Boanet rapidly grows in his chest, his last, desperate, panicked words echoing out, “this thing is in me, the Boanet’s growing… the creature is in me, the Boanet’s growing, the Boanet’s growing, the Boanet is coming out…”
When I first heard Reverie on the Onyx I couldn’t believe my ears – my all time favorite classical piece and what I would argue is the most well-known track from Mozart’s requiem mass, Lacrimosa, seemed to be playing through the same headphones I was listening to death metal on. It took little time for me to realize exactly what had happened; Archspire had done the one thing I had always wanted but never expected them to do: read my mind. The long-term implications of that discovery have yet to breach my conscious, and despite the fact that I should be worried that 5 burly Canadian men now have unbridled access to my deepest ruminations, I still assert that it is a worthwhile trade. Severe breaches of personal privacy aside, the fact that they made Lacrimosa into a tech death song blows my mind; this is some Symphony X material. Frequent returns to the Lacrimosa motif in varying styles make this song incredibly unique and an absolute pleasure to listen to, not to mention the fact that everything not directly mimicking the motif is still inspired by it, creating a piece as centered around something else as it is around itself, if that makes any sense.
The last track on Bleed the Future, A.U.M., starts with a phone call like Gojira’s 04, except that this time it’s not 50th birthday wishes, but rather a perturbed German preaching personal problems – this nameless European has little in common with the average Archspire listener, save maybe the last quote, “bring back the f****** danger in the music!” Actually, so much so that last quote that the band almost named the album “Bring Back the F****** Danger” (I suspect I’m not alone in an immense relief that they chose not to). The moment this phone call ends, one “ting” followed by an incredibly high-tempo and brutal chug riff set this song up as a no-nonsense tech death masterpiece, further reinforced by an aggressively Archspire verse complete with a rising and descending guitar solo adding flavor to the initial hammering riff. Musically, this song is FAST – it’s quick, speedy, rapid, brisk, what have you. Even the polyrhythmic 5-over-4 instrumental is fast as a bat outta hell, with a nimble bass line and swift guitar riff setting the stage for one of the most effective solos on the album, and shining above the chug riff’s unrelenting cacophony is the shrieking guitar and unforgiving vocals that explode until the very end.
Bleed the Future may be the fastest, hardest, and most intense album I have ever had the pleasure of listening to. To live at the same time as people who make that level of music is such an absolute privilege, and without Archspire I may not love metal as much as I do today. When I discovered them in late 2019, I feasted on Relentless Mutation until I knew every second of every song, then at the start of 2021 I dined on The Lucid Collective; now my hunger is sated once again. Archspire, like any good band, has fostered a passionate community, of which I am glad to be a part. And, furthermore, I am now proud to be a contributing part of that community, with this review hopefully being the small stain I leave behind on their presence that serves as proof that I truly do appreciate their music for all its worth and more.
Archspire might be the only band to make a half hour of music last more than 3 years, 3 times.
Rivers of Nihil is, if you couldn’t tell from the name, a metal band; a technicaldeath metal band, to be specific. Be warned, however, that “technical death metal” is exactly what it sounds like, and is definitely not for everyone, so if you’re reading this review and are not a windmill (big metal fan), then I DON’T recommend listening to the album. With that out of the way, Monarchy (2015) is the sophomore studio album from Rivers of Nihil and, like the albums before and after, is quite an interesting set of tunes. This album has incredibly sharp guitar work, classic octopus tech death drumming, and a really great overarching theme that gives the album a unique identity.
Heirless introduces the album with all the depressing badassery of death metal, leading with a slow and deep guitar motif accompanied by some light tom work on the kit and an atmospheric ambience. Being an intro song, Heirless is just about 2 minutes long and serves only to precede the first “real” song on the album, Perpetual Growth Machine. And this song is definitely “real,” considering that it slaps you in the face with blast beats and cacophony the moment it starts playing – whatever one might expect from “death metal,” this would be it. After the intro section, the verse takes hold with a much more traditional chugging riff behind the rough metal vocals, soon to be overtaken by a return to the Heirless motif for the bridge. The soloing that follows is, as most on the album, far too brief; the solos are some of the best parts of Monarchy, and the only criticism I have of them is that they really should be allotted more time in every song. Perpetual Growth Machine is a song very defining of the first half of the album, but I personally am not a huge fan of it; this is because it somewhat follows a hard-and-fast rule that pretentious metal elitists obey to the letter: NO MELODY. Well, I like melody, so no wonder I’m not super into this song (but it does have its moments).
Reign of Dreams begins with a pretty rapid guitar riff and some equally rapid blast beats in front of a quiet atmospheric chord progression, the likes of which I’m always a sucker for. The intro riff continues into the verse while the drums shift to a more consistent double-bass feel – the bridge riff is pretty similar to the intro riff, and masks another really subtle background progression before transitioning into the pre-chorus. The pre-chorus and chorus establish some patterns that become more apparent in choruses later in the album, namely stretching out vocal syllables, bringing out the background noise, and structuring more of the riff around the chord progression via shorter phrasing. The solo section comes a bit later, and, as usual, delivers. Briskly. A quick crescendo, some arpeggiations, and we’re back to the chugging riff; towards the later part of the album, and namely this album’s entry in the Terrestria recurrence, the solos get longer and more enjoyable, so just hold tight. I wish I had more to say on this song, but as it stands I don’t fully appreciate it yet.
My favorite of the first six songs on the album, Sand Baptism (absolutely sick name by the way), establishes itself from the get-go as a bit different than the previous three entries: it doesn’t immediately slap you in the face. How polite. But in all seriousness, I always appreciate a gentle opening in metal music, and it is, in my opinion, a very underrated and underused way to enrich an otherwise seemingly cacophonous genre. The ideas at the beginning of Sand Baptism are stellar, and were when I really got in tune with the “theme” of the album: desert! As someone who recognizes that he can tend to take the album cover art as a little too indicative of what a given concept album is about, I’m still confident that I nailed this one, at least superficially; I’d talk more on how the music interacts with concept itself, but I’d like to save for that for another song I find less captivating and interesting than this one. Back at the intro, the ride cymbal makes its first official solo appearance, but not its last in Monarchy, and helps cement a kind of airy, albeit solemn atmosphere in tandem with the other sounds before bringing in the guitar for the intro riff. When the guitars and toms come in, I get this visceral image of a arduous trek through a hot, sandy, desert, and a lone man peeking out over the ridge of a dune and solemnly looking up at the sky, the hot sun beading sweat upon his brow and beating rays onto his face. Coincidentally, when I looked up the lyrics, that’s the first line of the chorus: “He stares at the sky.” Excellent artist-listener communication from Rivers of Nihil, and further proof of their commendable musicianship. The verse, bridge, and pre-chorus are all pretty predictably death metal-ly, with sharp and speedy riffs attacking relentlessly and not varying much, but enough to distinguish one from another with relative ease. The chorus really brings the song together, and like how it began the tune, it hammers the desert concept home; the first line of the chorus, “I am the sun,” really strikes me as memorable and powerful, and is also reminiscent of another iconic line in the last song on the album, so I’ll callback to this later. Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that we’re allowed another meagre portion of delectable soloing, if only to remind us how hungry we are.
Remember what I said about “gentle openings?” Forget that, as Ancestral, I has one of those literally-screaming-right-off-the-bat openings like Meshuggah’s Shed off of Catch ThirtyThree (great album, give it a listen). The intro really turned me off of this song, but on further listens I can at least pick out some of that background atmosphere I expressed a fancy for earlier, so there’s that. The verse, despite being an almost typical chug fest, has some level of subtle charm that keeps me listening -the bridge leaves more space, which I appreciate again. The chorus (which then shifts into the solo section, but keeps most of its identity) continues the trends I mentioned earlier, that is, establishing the desert theme, letting some notes hang, leaving space, following the chord progression, and emphasising the background atmosphere. Rivers of Nihil, from what I’ve observed, have very earth-centric concept albums, both art, lyric, and music-wise – The Conscious Seed of Light felt based around a swamp or jungle, Monarchy feels based around a desert, Where Owls Know My Name feels based on a forest, etc. Of course, this is my own interpretation, and I will admit to partial confirmation bias when trying to tack themes onto metal albums.
Dehydrate (getting more confident in my “desert theme” diagnosis now) starts off really strong, with a great lick on some kind of string instrument. To my chagrin, however, the song heads straight into “hard & fast” territory, with chugs, weedly-dee’s, noodly-doo’s, and the whole noisy ensemble we all know and love taking centre stage and barely letting up for a moment. The chorus (or whatever section precedes the solo) is the only time the band lets loose any slack, and they do so in a similar fashion to the choruses in the previous songs, leaving space, following progression, etc. The only other notable things are the return of the ride cymbal front and center in some sections as well as good background atmosphere in those same sections. Dehydrate, I’m sorry that I don’t love you as much as the others, and that the song that comes after you is so good that I’m not really going to pay much attention to you, but you should know that your band loves you very much and I feel bad that I let you down.
The last four songs in this album might be the only reason I’m motivated to write a whole review on it – simply put, these four songs are my favorite of their entire discography, and I’ve learned to play them all on the kit because sometimes listening just isn’t enough. Where to even begin…
Monarchy, the title track, is incredible – from the first moment, I was hooked. The drumming is full of ghost notes and rapid, accented 8ths on the hi-hat and ride, almost reminiscent of something funky, and the guitar and bass harmonise so well together to cement that desert feel that I’m almost inclined to say that everything on the album builds off of the feel this song elicits. Oh, and, by the way, food’s here. That’s right, solos for breakfast, baby! Right after the intro we are BLESSED with a fantastic guitar feature that leaves space and melts face, taking us right into the undulating sands of a land without rain, followed by a post-solo breakdown complete with vocals that have just the right amount of “umph” to herald something truly excellent. In terms of the verse, the vocals and drumming really seal the deal, but there’s nothing wrong with the guitar either – it’s hard to explain why this particular series of chugs is better than the ones I called “typical” earlier in the album, but not everything about music has to make sense. I would go in depth and cite all the vocals I find memorable, but we’d be here forever, and if you give it a listen you’ll likely end up remembering most of them like I have; the vocals on this track add so much flair to the song that it’s hard to really put them in the “garnish” category that I often pen most metal vocals within. The rhythms really shine in this tune as well, with a lot of the best moments occuring when a section with a strong quarter note feel shifts into a triplet feel, or vice versa, and you can really substitute any note length into that statement like a Mad Libs – it just works. Also, I would be absolutely remiss if I didn’t thoroughly gush over the second solo in this song: from beat one I fell absolutely in love with the epic-as-hell guitar doing everything it’s done before but better, the drums playing the initial groove but switching ghost notes to hi-hat hits, the desert feel, everything just comes together so nicely. I need to finish up with this song, but after the second solo there’s not a single wasted second, and the third solo is awesome too and the return to the intro motif and the iconic vocals and the syncopation and the phrasing and gosh, everything is just great. Really, really great.
Terrestria II: Thrive. I’m beginning to think that my “earth-centric concept albums” diagnosis was also right, because there’s been a Terrestria entry on every Rivers of Nihil album to date. However, “Thrive” seems a bit odd to me as the name of the entry on the desert album, but I guess we’ll find out. The intro is nice and calm, really atmospheric, and one of the best parts of the entire album. I can remember multiple occasions where I would just sit on my windowsill in the evening and play this song (and sometimes just the intro) because of how effectively it can teleport one to a completely different place. Another great thing about this track is that it’s chock full of solos, almost like it’s the solo tax collector, and that’s why all of the other songs have hardly any solos, because they’re not really motivated to pump them out if Terrestria is just going to end up with half of them anyway, and at the end of the day every song knows that it’s just the tracks that are close to Terrestria that get to have any solos at all and that’s just because they have connections with it, so it’s not really fair but they still put out some solos anyway because you can’t really get by if you don’t have any solos and at a certain point you just gotta grit your teeth and bear it. Yup, almost like that. Regardless, the solos on this track asolutely shred, and I’m talking about real mastery here – this is some fantastic stuff that has me coming back again and again just to hear the same damn notes over and over, but for some reason my ears can’t have enough. What’s between the solos is marvellous as well, and crosses so much ground that it’s really hard to tack one feel onto this song – when the song is over, I’m always so amazed at how a track likethis can feel right at home on the desert album and still really live up to its name: “Thrive.”
Time for Circles in the Sky, which has by far the most beautiful opening on the album (sorry, Terrestria). Subtlety is the name of the game here, with gentle tugs on the bass and heart strings augmenting a beautiful background drone and complementing a really unique guitar feature that I can barely describe (so I won’t). The bridge to the verse is still quite beautiful, but in a more death metal way this time, with a strong chord progression and some pleasantly unexpected notes here and there. The verse itself, however, is one of the best in Monarchy, with a really well-executed speedy chug riff that, like the one on the title track, somehow just works better than the others on the album. By the time the chorus rolls around, you know what to expect: shorter phrases that match with the chord progression, etc., but one thing that is a little different is that the guitar doesn’t increase its rhythmic diversity, but rather decreases it, the result of which is a much larger emphasis on the chord progression and bass, which luckily can stand on its own just fine; the drums change around plenty during the chorus, which helps keep it interesting. The post-chorus and solo sections go full instrumental, which is a stark shift from the tone of the album, but works excellently (and so does the solo itself!). The longer the song goes on, and the more the tune reverts to the chorus and verse riffs, the more I realize that this is really a rhythm guitar piece, which explains the decreased rhythmic diversity and emphasis on chord progression. It’s pretty damn hard to pull off a worthwhile rhythm guitar piece, especially in heavy metal (where rhythm guitar saturates), and even harder to pull off a rhythm guitar piece that I actually enjoy, so grats to the band here for expanding my horizons. Towards the end, and quite unexpectedly, the strings that began Dehydrate make a return, shifting tone and corralling the song back to the desert theme all by themselves – perfect for setting up the following solo, which is one of the best on the album (not just because it’s one of the longest). The fade out isn’t particularly remarkable relative to the rest of the piece, but I really like how it bridges into the final song on the album.
Suntold and I go way back, it being the first Rivers of Nihil song I ever listened to. Something I find that happens quite often in my musical journey is that one song really catches my ear and sticks its foot in the door, eventually enticing me to explore its entire album and eventually its band’s discography as a whole: Gojira’s Silvera, Meshuggah’s Bleed, TOOL’s Forty-Six & Two, Megadeth’s Holy Wars, Lamb of God’s Redneck, and many others. Suntold is no different, and I’ve come back to this song countless times, whether just listening to it on its own or with the intent to enjoy the whole album. Be warned, however, that I love to play this on the drum set, so I will go into music theory detail on some of what’s going on in this track. Let’s begin. The intro is almost the exact same drum groove as Monarchy, only slowed down and with more distinct accents – everything’s there, from the ghost notes to the periodic shift to and from the ride cymbal. After the intro, a quick breakdown leads into the chorus, which is the absolute highlight of this tune, both music theory-wise and listening-wise. I’ll start with the music theory: the chorus is in 4/4 (so one quarter note = one beat), and the chorus is split into two groups of two phrases, each group consisting of 16 beats, with one repetition of the whole chorus consisting of 32 beats. In the first group, the first phrase (which accents the first three quarter notes) lasts for 10 beats, and the next phrase lasts 6 beats. In the second group, the first phrase lasts for 9 beats and the second phrase lasts for 7. Both groups are 16 beats long, but divided into phrases of slightly different lengths: group one is 10+6, and group two is 9+7. Listening-wise, the chorus hinges on the monophonic guitar-drum symbiosis to establish a hardcore, deep, no-nonsense main idea; the vocals, however, add that extra flair that makes the chorus truly memorable: “I am crease, as I am fold. I am composition; thus, I am suntold.” Like Sand Baptism, these lines add so much character and flavor to the chorus and the song as a whole that it’s set apart from the rest of the album. The words are said with such conviction and ardor that I can’t help but wonder: what is this entity, that is crease as it is fold? What does that mean? I really feel like the lyrics, the vocals, and the song itself are somehow much deeper and more thought out than what comes before. That’s the word, depth. This song is deep – not philosophically, not emotionally, but musically and individually. As a quick music theory interjection and lazy segue, I’ll note that the song as a whole is in 7/4, with the exception of the chorus and some other sections.
Also, while under the protection of the one lazily inserted section in this whole review, I wanted to take a second to talk about my only criticism with this song. There’s a line in the verse that goes, “No creature has truly lived until it has truly died.” If you don’t understand the problem with that, let me explain: as long as you are alive, you are living, which is present progressive tense (an ongoing action). If you “have lived,” that is past perfect tense (action started in the past which ended in the past). So, by the laws of grammar, in order to “have truly lived,” you must be done living, which means you must already “have truly died;” tautologies are not lyrics that get extra points in my book, so strike one for Rivers of Nihil. This isn’t nearly as bad, however, as Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train, in which he admits on several occasions to be “going off the rails on the Crazy Train;” dear Mr. Osbourne, if you are “going off the rails,” that colloquially means that you’re going crazy. If the colloquialism is predicated on the assumption that a regular train is the one that is being derailed (which is highly likely considering the fact that the lyrics in Crazy Train are based off that colloquialism, which means that it came afterwards, so all preceding trains may be considered “regular”), and if simply being on the Crazy Train is proof that an individual is crazy, then what exactly happens when you “go off the rails” “on the Crazy Train?” Are you going crazy on the Crazy Train? But if the train itself is crazy, then it likely wouldn’t consider adherence to its status quo of craziness exceedingly “crazy,” and the only thing that would really get you called “crazy” on the Crazy Train itself is being normal. So you’re either going off the rails on a regular train, or you’re just sitting on the Crazy Train. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, Mr. Osbourne. I don’t mean to beat you into the ground, and to that end I have so far mercifully omitted the secondary argument that a train going off the rails tends to grind to a halt after a few seconds, so by the first chorus of the song the Crazy Train would just be lying on its side in a ditch, which isn’t super crazy. Lastly, on God is Dead? you use the line “rivers of evil run through dying lands.” What the f*** is a “river of evil?” Is evil a liquid? What is wrong with you?
Anyways, Suntold‘s verse is very low, with abyssal eighth-note chugs masking the same drum groove from the intro, albeit with different accents and crash hits, which are a big part of the drumming on this track. Crash hits, even though they might seem arbitrary and noisy, are vital in supplying impact to the guitar riff and tone of the song. The next two sections make that quite apparent, with an unchanging guitar riff spanning more than one section, meaning that the only real difference is the switch on the drums from 16th notes to 8th notes and various crash hits. After those sections though, a brief interlude (with the solo ride cymbal returning to make the 7/4 feel of the song apparent) sets the tone for a solo that, while supported by the whole ensemble in its own right, seems to somehow herald an imminent change in tone. The solo itself is great (and long, thank heavens), utilizing all the stuff we’ve come to love from Rivers of Nihil guitarmanship over the course of this album, so the specific tenets don’t even bear repeating. Then a short snare buildup, well, builds up to what I can only really call a breakdown (ironic), that would have a purely epic, almost power metal feel if not for the tech death instrumentation and established tone of the album. Quickly heading back to the chorus, which I can’t in good conscience talk anymore about, and diving into an instrumental outro backed by spoken-word vocals standing on a rock-solid double-bass pattern, Rivers of Nihil leaves us terminally with a soft, echoing string pattern that gently lulls the album to sleep.
As someone who loves concept albums, I really, really enjoy the way that the band makes each release a microcosm of a larger picture through art, music, lyricism, and a confident ability to convey a specific message or image through music. And as someone who has taken a consistent academic and personal interest in Ancient Egypt, I was drawn to Monarchy because my head is already filled with pictures and images of a desert civilization; I always imagine camels, pyramids, dunes, and a scorching sun when I listen to this album because my brain can’t think desert without thinking Old Kingdom Egypt. I’ve made it abundantly clear that this album appeals to me on much more than just a musical level, but I hope that I’ve done a good enough job articulating the specific musical aspects of this release to prove that it has objective musical value outside of my personal bias towards it. As it stands, I can’t admit to being a die-hard Rivers of Nihil fan, but I can definitely claim to being a die hard fan of Monarchy.
Despite being released on April Fools’, Immutable is no joke. Sixty-six minutes of the punishing brutality we’ve come to expect from Meshuggah can bring any man to his knees, and I barely managed to recover quickly enough to put out this review while the album is still somewhat relevant. Meshuggah is one of my favorite bands, and is undisputedly one of the most influential and unique metal bands of all time; the complexity and sophistication of Meshuggah’s compositions is next to none in the metal scene, enfeebling the noblest music theory pioneer and smiting any layman who dares to approach true understanding of the iconic Swedish quintet’s musical masterpieces. Immutable, the band says, literally asserts the unchanging nature of Meshuggah’s core style–one which has been turing eardrums into battlefields since 1987. The band’s ninth, full-length studio album, the obvious result of almost forty years of R&D from the greatest metal minds of our age, has once again raised the bar and delivered work that I can confidently say is another gleaming gem socketed in the flawless golden crown of Meshuggah’s discography.
DISCLAIMER: Meshuggah, as a band, is built on pushing the bounds of music theory and polyrhythms; therefore, any review I make of an album of theirs will undoubtedly contain exponentially more academic jargon and gobbledygook than 99% of the other reviews I write. I hope that those who don’t understand music theory will still have a good read, and that those who do understand music theory will communicate to me anything that needs correction. That being said, enjoy.
Broken Cog introduces many of the major themes of Immutable, which are obvious from the get-go: near-excessive repetition of ideas, drones, guitars tuned down to the depths of Hell, and plenty of drum-string monophony. The first idea Broken Cog throws at us is 22 eighth-notes long, which is divided into two phrases of 7 and 15. Every eighth-note has a hit except for the last two of each phrase, so rests on beats 6 and 7 for phrase one and beats 14 and 15 for phrase two. This riff lasts for about three whole minutes, which translates to approximately… a whole lot of repetitions; however, to make what I previously labelled “near-excessive” bearable, the band incorporates plenty of background ideas like drones, distant-sounding chug patterns, extended vocals, chord changes, and crash hits. Harmonically supporting rhythm-based main figures is an integral part of what I think makes a good metal song, and when I review Age by technical death metal band Aegaeon, I’ll go more in-depth into what I think layering should sound like in a genre such as this. Anyways, if the intro riff lasts three minutes and the song is about five, then what happens in the remaining ≈ 120 seconds? Well, I’ll tell you: Meshuggah comes out swinging with a relatively melodic and objectively rhythmic main riff that stands on its own just fine, but, in a move that I ferociously endorse, gets supported anyway. To support a primarily rhythm-based main figure in metal is really a must, but to support a rhythm-and-melody-based main figure in metal is going above and beyond the call of duty, and frankly I fervently hope that the band makes more of a habit out of it because Broken Cog does it so well. I can’t stress enough how much easier to listen to the guitar becomes when the light, rapid triplet, pseudo-drone riff aerates the backgrounds a few bars after the song’s second idea paves the way. The subsequent breakdown also has a supporting triplet drone, but such backup is not unexpected for a mainly rhythm-based melody. The song fades out with a return to the initial 22 beat riff and an ethereal voice uttering the phrase “voices, murmurs, whispers, purpose” repeatedly before a full stop.
The next song, The Abysmal Eye, doesn’t start quite as cryptically as the previous entry, but is none the worse for it, hosting an monophonic and rhythmic intro riff featuring the always-appreciated supporting drone to introduce what proves to be a very impressive tune. The verse riff soon swoops in, changing just enough rhythms to maintain the initial energy of the song but claim its own place in the form, while world-class drummer Tomas Haake throws us a 4/4 life preserver by hitting a stack on every quarter note upbeat. By the time the next verse rolls around, Haake replaces the upbeat hits with constant eighth-note strikes to what may still be a stack, or could very well be a hi-hat, grounding the ever-present “Meshuggah 4/4™” whether you like it or not. After the second verse, in which I forgot to mention the riff changed slightly as well, the chorus comes back, but I can’t help feeling that it’s a little different. The name of the game for this song is nuance (ironic for extreme metal, I know), and we got a taste of it earlier when the drums shifted from upbeat quarter notes to constant eighth notes; oftentimes with Meshuggah a riff can feel different even though it is the same rhythmic idea, whether because it ignores bar limits or even harmonic confines (lookin’ down at you, Do Not Look Down), so take what I say from here on out with a grain of salt. Even so, there is still undeniable nuance in this song from slight changes between verses and between choruses, the latter of which is not actually the case at about the two and a half minute mark, where The Abysmal Eye jumps into not its third chorus, but its third distinct section, the solo section. Meshuggah solos can be a mixed bag, with the really avant-garde stuff bordering on nonsense sometimes, but I’ll always approach music with the “it’s 99% subjective” attitude and thus forgive many musical ideas I disagree with. Of all the composers I can think of off the top of my head, Thelonious Monk (yes, you read that right and yes, he wore a fez) most habitually walked the avant-garde/nonsense line, but nobody debates his musical prowess and the value of his solos, so to even assert that there is such a line in music is a stretch in and of itself. This solo though? No-nonsense, without a doubt. As an ignorant drummer, I will not pretend to know how technically difficult the guitar is to play, but I’ll be damned if someone told me that the solo on this song could be composed and played by any old schmuck. The solo is succeeded by the chorus, which again I will mention has those wonderful supporting drones to go along with the badass distortion on the guitar. The ending is actually pretty traditional, and without the obvious polyrhythm element is something I could believe was from another metal band – not to say it’s bad, far from it, but being hit with something even vaguely traditional after having the “avant-garde” discussion will certainly warp one’s perception.
Light the Shortening Fuse has a very unique sounding opening that I will, to the chagrin of many, analyze. The full idea is 26 sixteenth note beats and is hard to distinctively split up into specific groups, so I’ll just explain the riff in its entirety. The initial walkdown is seven beats followed by chugs repeating along a pattern of two three-beat phrases, one two-beat phrase, three three-beat phrases, and a final two beat phrase, the totality of which which looks something like:
I think it worth mentioning that without the seven beat walkdown starting every repetition, the riff would have been really hard to identify as a single repeating pattern. I’ll keep the music theory light for the rest of the song, but that riff just caught my ear as something that required attention. The riff is not alone, however, as the oh-so-supportive drone comes back to lend a helping hand to what, despite its intense rhythmic complexity, would be an otherwise tedious section to listen to. In contrast, the verse needs no help whatsoever as its crushing brutality and ragged vocals (courtesy of singer Jens Kidman, or as I call him, Jens Oxymoron) clearly establish the brutal death metal tone that Meshuggah has dominated for over 30 years. Post-verse, the song gets a little too attached to the two and three-beat phrases I noticed in the intro, which gets somewhat stale without any supporting harmony. But suddenly, a brief instrumental interlude comes out of nowhere to save the song by throwing down some epic chord progressions and synchronised hits before filling up the spaces with, well, fills. The instrumental is my favorite part of the song, partly because it gives the tune a lot more character and distances itself from being “just another death metal chug fest,” but also because it isolates the background rhythm guitar that has been the hero of the album up to this point, giving it some well deserved recognition. The outro is a combination of the instrumental and the intro, seated on an almost ugly, concrete rhythmic foundation meagerly supported with some dirty glass drones. Overall, great intro and solid instrumental section, but the outro feels like it’s missing something and I don’t find the verses to be particularly memorable.
At around this point in the album I began to notice that Meshuggah has taken a liking to holding its listeners hostage with the intro riff before untying them with the jagged blade of supporting harmonics, but by that point the Stockholm Syndrome has set in and, all according to the band’s master plan, everyone willingly stays for the rest. This is also the case with Phantoms. As much as I would like to break the intro riff down into its rhythmic parts, I want to give love to riffs that aren’t just the first ones. Ah, to hell with it, I’ll break it down anyway…
[Two days later]
*Ahem* If you recall the beginning of this review, I mentioned how Meshuggah “enfeebles the noblest music theory pioneer”–well, with this regard, their currents turn awry and lose the name of action. When I decided to break down the first riff in Phantoms, I thought I would be getting, y’know, some cool Meshuggah ideas and a bit of intellectual stimulation. That was not the case. What I got instead was the most ******* contrived riff I’ve ever heard and a stream of grey matter leaking out of my ears and pooling onto my desk. I’m not going to pretend to like this riff. I never liked it, and after meeting it where it stood, I like it even less. But of course, the work is already done and I owe it to the brave brain cells lost in the Battle of Immutable, as well as my audience, to finish the job. Alright then, let’s make this quick. I’m counting each beat as a sixteenth note, so what’s written out as 4+7, for example, is equivalent to 11 sixteenth notes, or 11 beats. As with all Meshuggah songs, Phantoms is in 4/4, and with a sixteenth-note subdivision, a bar count of 16, and a total phrase length of 182 beats, this riff comes out to one full repetition and a remainder of 72 beats. There’s a little more to the story here with regard to how the sections deal with the riff’s incompatible bar count and how the melody interacts with the harmony, but I’ve done more than enough already so this is all you’re going to get. Humph. Enough music theory. The verse riff is a great transition from the intro all things considered: the chugs become muted, the vocals come in, and the pattern sounds simpler (but not by much). The chorus thankfully, unlike the intro, supports its riff with a background drone despite the fact that the guitar is just melodic enough to maybe not need it. It’s welcome regardless. After a return to the verse and another chorus, a new section appears, bringing (somehow) a more syncopated and jittery feel than the last few chug riffs, but momentarily it becomes clear why that is the case: it heralds the breakdown. The breakdown rectifies all the song’s past grievances, sounding like it comes straight out of DOOM, hosting an absolutely nasty chugg riff, Haake’s infallible drumming, and those distant, wailing, almost evil drones that always cemented the “welcome to Hell” feel ever-present in the aforementioned Mick Gordon soundtrack. My relationship with this song is not completely clear, but I’ll figure out how I feel about it on my own and spare you all the drama.
EDIT: I thought I’d put this here so that I didn’t interrupt the flow of the previous section, but I have recently been made aware that the riff may not be exactly what I wrote. The riff may actually one hundred and ninety-two beats, ten beats longer than my initial diagnosis. I will not change what I wrote for the following reasons: first, I’m not going back and counting out every beat to check – I’m traumatized enough. Second, because I won’t check it, I don’t know for sure if it is actually wrong. Third, if I went back and corrected the riff, it would not be my own work nor a reflection of my own musical abilities, both of which are reasons that I break down riffs to begin with. Lastly, I still feel pretty damn good about getting (maybe) within 10 beats of an almost TWO HUNDRED beat riff; that’s absolutely good enough for me and I see my failure as a kind of battle scar. All that being said, I’m obliged to insert a possibly more accurate take out there for the sake of pursuing the truth even if it discredits my own work.
FURTHER EDIT: At the behest of a reader, I’ll write the above riff out using only two’s and three’s.
Deep and heavy is how Ligature Marks makes its entry onto the album, throwing down some of the lowest-tuned guitars I’ve ever heard, displaying yet another staple of Immutable. I am, of course, loath to ignore the well executed background drone which adds that extra bit of flair every metal riff needs now and again–a fact Meshuggah knows better than anyone. The verse also has a drone, and is the section I’ll take a deeper musical look into. I took the liberty of transcribing the verse riff during a particularly boring AP Calculus class, making Ligature Marks the first ever song to feature a Metalbum original illustration. For some reason, I wrote the riff in 5/4 instead of 4/4, so just ignore the bar lines. Anyway, the riff is just two alternating phrases: the first phrase is three 5 beat groupings of hits on 1, 3, and 5, with another 5 beat grouping of hits on just 1 and 3. The second phrase is very similar, comprised of three 5 beat groupings of hits on 1, 2, and 4, and an extra grouping with an added beat at the end.
The way I wrote it, it takes 5 full repetitions of the phrase to circle back to beat 1, but that’s also because it’s in 5/4, which is not how it’s written or played in the actual song. You’ll have to do your own math to get the real numbers on this one, but I’ve already done all the heavy lifting for you. Another riff on the board. After another verse, the third distinct section is introduced with a much groovier feel that still maintains the staccato signature of Meshuggah. However, accompanying the riff is another drone, the same one from the verse–this means that Meshuggah has come back to finish what they started in Broken Cog, that is, graciously supporting a melodic-enough main riff with a background drone. After the application of the aforementioned melodic reinforcement, the outro section takes control and me off guard. It’s a . . . strange section to hear in a Meshuggah song, to say the least, but with supporting drones vouching for it I’ll let it slide.
God He Sees In Mirrors has a very similar sounding opening to Ligature Marks, but sounds groovier and transitions into the verse much more quickly. In fact, the sections in this song rotate relatively fast by Meshuggah’s current standards, and by competent execution thereof the song benefits greatly and flows more naturally than many of the preceding entries. That also means that I’ll likely stay away from dissection this time around, as I’d really rather just focus on how the song moves and progresses aside from the math and rhythms. Case and point, the transition to the verse: after only 30 or so seconds (a blink of an eye for the band) the drums fill to a crescendo, all instruments drop out, and Kidman comes in screaming alongside Haake’s snare, crashing down like a comet. I really enjoy this part, and it reminds me of the iconic final line in Rational Gaze from 2002’s Nothing, “Never stray from the common lines,” which also throws down a mean riff afterwards; this time around, however, it’s “On the throne sits the snake.” Still as badass as it’s twenty year-old predecessor, of course. The verse also has an undeniable grooviness and unique feel to it that is quite refreshing after a long trek through a dense jungle of repetitive and hyper-complex ideas, precipitating a simple enjoyment of metal music through the absence of the overbearing polyrhythmic jittery-ness that usually permeates Meshuggah songs and demands to be understood. I needn’t fully understand this song, nor do I. What I do understand, however, is that Meshuggah certainly heard what I said about Broken Cog and responded by cracking open a crate full of drones and supporting chord progressions, which they proceed to implement in the chorus. This drone has a strange tinge to it though, almost like it’s an audio track played backwards. Needless to say, I love it. Once again, Meshuggah has outdone themselves by backing up an already groovy and melodic riff just for the sake of making a more perfect composition. Ah, Meshuggah perfectionism, what would I do without you? Anyways, the next verse, whether different from the first I cannot tell, hits just as hard as its predecessor and is succeeded by an absolutely nasty breakdown executed with technical perfection. Another verse and we arrive at the solo section. Another banger, of course, taking inspiration from its cousin on The Abysmal Eye and its ancestors from past albums to deliver the expected extreme metal solo mastery and more. God He Sees In Mirrors is a vital organ of Immutable, proving that Meshuggah still has the fast thrash-metal songwriting and musicianship that put them on the map with Chaosphere and Destroy Erase Improve decades ago. Yeah, they still got it.
Read any of my past metal reviews and you’ll know that I love myself a good subtle intro, so it’s no wonder I’m a sucker for They Move Below with its stunningly beautiful strings and enthralling composition the likes of which I haven’t seen Meshuggah replicate so closely since Nothing‘s Acrid Plasticity. When the instrumental section ends, I’m not upset, however, but proud. Meshuggah is one of those bands who are so good, so well-entrenched in the metal scene, that they can do whatever they want with full confidence in their own songwriting and musicianship (I said something similar about STP in my review of Purple). Yet when the full force of the band comes crashing down, I don’t find myself longing for the past, but excited for what’s to come, which begins as a groovy riff and some helpful drones. The first riff lasts almost two and a half minutes(!) and serves as a framework for the other instrumentation happening alongside. The pattern of the riff itself doesn’t change much, but that which surrounds it does and makes it sound almost like three distinct sections; I can’t resist breaking this riff down, so I’ll give it to you quick. Counting in 4/4, and calling each eighth note a “beat,” the riff looks something like this:
Lotta two’s, I know, but that’s how I gotta type it unless I write it out on another piece of half-done math homework. The third section is the one that really got me hooked, and I’ll dissect it with pleasure (Metalbum’s first double feature–two dissections on a single song! I’m like a musical coroner, I guess). Like the intro on Light the Shortening Fuse, this riff is best looked at as one phrase. I’m going to count eighth notes here, so one eighth note = one beat. That being said, the pattern is relatively short, consisting of 23 beats; the phrasing sounds like this:
The harmonic structure changes however, so it doesn’t end up sounding like that singular phrase repeated verbatim every time. Regardless, the rhythms of the chugs in this riff are certainly similar to others in the song, and it can thus can be presumed that most of the other guitar structures use these or similar eight note groupings to construct their riffs. Actually, with that in mind, I’m going to leave the other riffs in the song unspoken for. The solo, however, will indeed boast me as its glorious and most vociferous mouthpiece. When I first heard it, it sounded like a melody, repeating every so often, nuanced enough to be confused for a riff. Yet when it really kicked in, I was enraptured. Somehow the band managed to capture the beauty of the intro and caravan it undamaged even through the muck and mire of distortions and chugs. Unfortunately, I get flashbacks to the solo on Closed Eye Visuals (from Nothing), which, being perhaps my favorite Meshuggah solo ever, does raise the bar a tremendous degree. Despite that caveat, I enjoy the solo and am thoroughly impressed. The groove doesn’t stop after the solo though, and the remainder of the song is a masterful unification of rhythm, harmonics, and melodics that makes repetition inventive and stagnation progressive. My measly words cannot truly give justice to how much my ears are pleased by the post-solo of They Move Below, so I’ll let my lack thereof do the talking (or lack of talking).
Kaleidoscope doesn’t mess around. One snare hit, a distortion guitar, and absolutely no BS. Straight to the point, this song opens with one of the heaviest and nastiest riffs on the album. Like God He Sees In Mirrors, the riffs in Kaleidoscope seem just simple enough to be enjoyed without the temptation to delve into the rhythmic composition, something I am absolutely relieved to hear. It’s wonderful that, almost forty years in, Meshuggah can just sit down and play some metal–not to say it’s incomplex–that doesn’t rack the brain. I don’t want to spend too much time on the musicality of Kaleidoscope considering its role as a relief song (or as much as any song can be in this God-forsaken genre), but I also want to give it the credit it’s due. Thus, I have an excuse to talk about the lyrics. Meshuggah’s lyrics are written almost exclusively by drummer Tomas Haake, and as a drummer myself, I’m always glad to see a drummer-poet break the “one-trick pony” stereotype that, while often true, can prevent drummers from pursuing lyricism (which might actually be for the best, now that I think about it–I’ve heard some really dumb stuff from drummers). I’ve been a fan of Haake’s lyrics for quite some time, and always cite obZen as his best album lyrics-wise; this is primarily because all of its songs stick close enough to the overarching concept of the album for Haake to develop more complex ideas in the limited time an album format allows. However, Immutable, which I consider an album based on a musical concept more so than a lyrical one, needs each song to be written with unique enough lyrics to assert any clear poetic value, which I would say is the case with Kaleidoscope. Coincidentally and ironically, there are lyrics in the song that are quite reminiscent of those from obZen and past releases, like “this beautiful, terrifying state” reminding me of “explosions of terror and beauty” from Closed Eye Visuals and the myriad of paradoxical lyrics from the title track of obZen such as “a state of perfection immersed in filth” and “salvation found in vomit and blood.” Haake has always brought sophisticated lyricism through both interesting original thoughts and intriguing syntax modification, not to mention some im-puh-ressive vocab for a born-and-raised Swede. Musically, Kaleidoscope is a song that may not seem to have all of the brain-melting confusion of the earlier entries, but it most certainly deserves its place on this album as a hardcore, maniacal metal anthem which, like They Move Below and God He Sees In Mirrors, says more about the band through it’s straying from the usual habits than do those songs which simply execute those habits well.
The Paradoxical Spiral – er, I mean Black Cathedral, starts with some kind of guitar thing that, as a drummer, I can’t describe. Listen for yourself, and then listen to The Paradoxical Spiral from Catch Thirty-Three because it’s the same exact thing. Oh, uh, by the way, that’s the whole song too. Yeah, so, Black Cathedral is just two minutes of that thing I mentioned earlier and nothing else. Not sure I’m qualified to talk on this one, so I’m just going to move on.
EDIT: Apparently it’s called “tremolo picking.” Bully for them.
I Am That Thirst has an opening similar to Light the Shortening Fuse, with a walkdown followed by some quick alternating chugs. Alright, look, before we go any further, I’ll be honest with you all here: I didn’t break this one down. This is the only riff in the album that I display broken down without actually having done the dissection myself. All credit goes to Yogev Gabay on YouTube, who, with his Time Consuming series, has essentially become YouTube’s resident polyrhythm expert. I’ve been a huge fan of Yogev for some time now, and unfortunately allowed myself to watch his video on I Am That Thirst before I wrote this review (and therefore cannot unlearn what he taught me). Credit aside, the riff is in sixteenth-notes, so one sixteenth note = one beat; the phrasing is three groups of four sixteenth notes followed by alternating duo groups of three and two, which, when written out, looks like this:
Moving on, the verse riff has an awesome feel to it, hosting just enough subtle melodic content to enrich the section without taking away from the heavy metal feel; it also transitions very smoothly back to the intro riff and, later, into the chorus. Speaking of which, the chorus has one of the most well-executed drones on the album over a surprisingly quiet main rhythmic riff; it’s almost as if the riff is the one supporting the drone this time around. Most of the sections, up until the post-chorus section, have been pretty quick, so when the aforementioned section appears with a slow, almost cliché death metal riff, it certainly comes as a surprise. The last section, to Yogev’s elation, sees Meshuggah, possibly for the first time ever, switch subdivisions mid-riff – if you want to know more, go check out his video on I Am That Thirst because I can’t explain it and its significance better than he does.
The Faultless opens with an almost comically metallic riff, as punishing and as heavy as an anvil to the sternum. However, the addition of some flair makes the riff really hit home, calling in the support of another drone (almost a solo if you ask me) and a really saucy three-note tag at the end of each riff, the third installment of the latter leading into the verse. The verse changes little but makes enough space for Kidman to fill in the gaps with his classic brutal delivery. Soon enough, the next section, also hosting vocals, switches the riff even further to introduce what I would like to call the chorus. But, before we have time to fully appreciate it, we are swept up into the pre-solo section, and in no time we find ourselves drowning in the whirlpool of guitar shreddery, swinging our eardrums round and round and flinging us into one of the most unique breakdowns on the album. A heavy, palpably doom-metal and almost Black Sabbath-esque chug riff lays down a track that hosts a voice I can only describe as demonic, preaching some of what I would honestly call the most coherent and least mysterious lyrics Haake’s ever written: “Of all the wounds I expected // Heartbreak, bereavement, and despair // I never saw these coming // The gashes of your betrayal.” Whether it’s their delivery or their composition, these lyrics really hit hard and give the song ample character to precipitate enough imagery and atmosphere to flavour the rest of the tune on subsequent listens. The Faultless, like God He Sees In Mirrors, has a plethora of iconic and quickly-changing riffs that give the song a sense of pace which prevents any slowing down of the feel as a by-product of dissection; I’m not trying to excuse my lackluster analysis of the riffs themselves, but rather assert that as an individual composition, The Faultless is best left untamed.
That three note tag at the end of the intro/chorus riff isn’t just “saucy:” it’s absolutely filthy. I’m talking covered in grease and stains, ash and dirt caking every unsaturated surface, the mere stench evoking the most primal urge to evacuate immediately or suffer unprecedented noisome disruption to the point of regurgitation. They dug that tag out of some ungodly trash heap and didn’t bother to clean it at all, perched, rotting banana peels and browning apple cores undisturbed, shards of glass from empty, broken bottles protruding from awful gashes, and scraps of ruined cloth clinging to whatever sticky surfaces remain unclogged with other refuse. Words can hardly describe the absolute FILTH and NASTINESS that such a tag has unleashed. I’m telling you, between this tag and that one muted bass line in the middle of Gojira’s Another World, I’m about ready to throw my almost paper-thin and equally undefined “keep the vulgarity to a minimum” rule out the window. It’s that gross.
Armies of the Preposterous introduces itself with (and maintains) a really solid double-bass groove on the kick drums which serves to cement it as one of the “jankier” and less flowing Meshuggah songs, in contrast to the previous entry on the album. Reminds me a lot of Swarm from Koloss (2012). This riff is actually pretty easy to understand: it’s just groups of six sixteenth notes over 4/4. “Oh, but Metalbum, that’s so lame – why don’t you break down one of the more complicated ones?” Because I’m tired. Its song number twelve, this review has taken me over two weeks, and I’m tired. You’ll get a one sentence “analysis” and you’ll like it. Anyway, this relatively simple polyrhythm backs the verse, which is also the first section of the song; no intro this time, it seems. Even into the pre-chorus the double bass continues to punish, taking breaks only to let certain distortions ring out for an extra beat before coming back, whip in hand. By the time the chorus rolls around, the feel becomes much slower, the riff becomes more sparse, and the harmonic drones change chords in time with the thereby accentuated 4/4 backbone. When the chorus returns the second time, it is accompanied by vocals and a twice-as-long bar count, providing a vague but necessary overall narrative structure for the song. The subsequent breakdown and following outro, despite having original enough feels to each, make clear the song’s emphasis on the earlier-cited double-bass-backed jitteriness; somehow the repetition and near-overreliance on this staccato texture improve the song both musically and individually instead of greying it out as a boring, monotonous piece. Meshuggah knows that repetition is not equivalent to repetitiveness, but they sure walk the hell out of that line.
Before I talk about Past Tense, I wanted to highlight the role of its cousins in their respective Meshuggah albums. These “cousins” are usually very toned-down and calm pieces usually characterised by acoustics, slow tempos, and no drums. I’ll admit that these are usually some of my favorite songs on the album, but not always. Some songs I include in this family are Acrid Plasticity from Destroy Erase Improve (1995), Obsidian from Nothing (2002), The Last Vigil from Koloss (2012), and of course Past Tense from Immutable (2022). In retrospect, some of Meshuggah’s albums actually lack such a song, and I’ll admit that they’re likely the worse for it. Each of the aforementioned albums benefits greatly from each of those songs, and there’s little I wouldn’t do to see such an entry on the likes of 2008’s obZen or 1998’s Chaosphere. With the song contextualized, I’ll go ahead and say that it is less “pretty” than Acrid Plasticity, but more so than Obsidian – it occupies a space similar to The Last Vigil, but the latter has only a single idea whereas Past Tense has a lot of development. Where The Last Vigil has one section, and Obsidian has two, Past Tense has four distinct sections – and they’re all great. An awkward and malignant section one, a sensibly developed and more digestible section two, an ominous and foreboding third section, and an “all of the above” final section give Past Tense its own original spot in the ranks of its predecessors and a deserved place as the closer on Immutable.
I can still vividly recall one day in my sophomore year of high school when my drum teacher, on the topic of my interest in polyrhythms, asked me if I had heard of Meshuggah. I said no, and he told me they did all their songs in 4/4 but… not quite; I thought that was cool and I checked out Bleed, which happened to be their top song at the time (and it probably still is). I loved it, but when I went to listen to more of their discography, I was repulsed. “I mean, I like metal, but how can anyone listen to this? It’s so loud and fustercluck-y,” I thought, but somehow I overcame my repulsion and kept coming back again and again and again and again, over and over until I had cordoned off a whole section of my brain to house my treasured memories of the distinct tastes and sounds of all of Meshuggah’s output. When Immutable came out, I knew that I would have a hard time compartmentalizing all of my past thoughts on Meshuggah, but luckily for me the album was original enough to not need shamefully constant comparison to past works. Two weeks and over five thousand words later, I’ve barely managed to scratch the surface of my love for Meshuggah, and I doubt I ever will. Ironically, however, I never recommend Meshuggah to anyone. Why? Because it’s work. It’s not some Grateful Dead-esque chill out music where you can just turn your brain off and “feel the love;” no, Meshuggah is work, especially if you want to understand it. I didn’t like Meshuggah when I first started listening to them, and I doubt many people will. But if you’re willing to put in the work, then I can’t fathom a more satisfyingly sophisticated musical endeavor than the pursuit of proper Meshuggah appreciation. Lastly, meshuggah means “crazy” in Hebrew, and I’ll tell you right now that these guys are definitely ******* crazy. Good luck.
Fortitude (2021) is Gojira’s 7th studio album, and sees the French metal quartet maintain patterns from 2016’s Magma, namely a far more melodic and pop-y feel that seems to stem from industry confidence as well a warm reception to their current trend. Gojira has seen a lot of change since Terra Incognita (2001), from beginning at well-crafted but traditional death metal then slowly moving towards a completely unique and self-contained genre, which I have dubbed “métal passionné” (as opposed to my prviously coined, “earth metal” (chemistry innuendo intended), which applies more broadly to the band’s discography). Yet there are countless things to laud about Gojira besides their passion and “earthiness”: the musical journey the band has undertaken, the message they preach, the talent, the songwriting, the range, the musical competence, and many, many other things; needless to say, Gojira is one of my favorite bands of all time, and the band that got me into metal to begin with. Perhaps they shall do the same for you with the impressive and accessible Fortitude.
A rising snare march and lazer sharp guitar playing introduce the album on Born For One Thing; then, suddenly… the snare drops out… and a FURIOUS verse begins and demands attention. And attention will be given, drawn out by either the powerful but nuanced drum groove, or the classic Gojira riff reminding all that they still know their roots. Regardless, once attention is relinquished, it will not be given back; so listen closely, because in this song drummer Mario Duplantier introduces a core characteristic of Fortitude: restraint. In this album Gojira explores the negative side of music (that is to say, the art of empty space) and Mario’s sparse but well-placed kicks on certain sections display that well. In fact, this song is very drum-centric, with syncopated accents being a big part of Born For One Thing and making an appearance in almost every single groove: the initial march, the verse, the breakdown, and the chorus, all reinforced by a mimicking guitar functioning as a sort of melodic sheath.
Amazonia isn’t led by the drums however, and actually shines in its instrumental diversity: weird, jungl-y percussion, choral vocals (a trend in Fortitude), and what sounds like a mouth harp. This is all to cement the song’s identity and message as a sadly typical but delightfully well-executed “save the forests” anthem, focused specifically on the titular location, the Amazon rainforest. Any long-time Gojira fan will tell you that environmental appreciation and awareness has been the core artistic theme for their lyricism and songwriting ever since their inception, and I personally think it’s a criminally oversaturated message astonishingly redeemed, and in fact elevated, by the band’s incredible musicianship. Musically, this tune is one of the strongest on Fortitude, bringing to the table a rich atmosphere, an undeniable air of confidence and defiance, and further proof that Gojira still remembers they are a metal band who is expected to deliver hardcore bangers.
Speaking of “hardcore bangers,” Another World is one of the grooviest yet heaviest songs on the album, despite Mario taking a bit of a water break in the name of musical emphasis. Emphasis on what, you might ask? Well, the magnificent string playing, of course! Another World shines brightly as a strings piece, with a driving riff establishing tone and a subsequent chug riff creating much-welcomed harmonic diversity. Yet as much as tone establishment and harmonic diversity are core aspects of any complex composition, and as much as we definitely appreciate the verse and chorus providing those to us, it is the breakdown that shines above the rest of the song, simply because it’s so damn groovy. About two minutes into the song, the strings drop out for 8 bars (presumably to undergo intense mental and physical preparation for the upcoming riff) and leaves the drums to, well, hype up the return of the strings. And the hype is well deserved, as the most nose-wrinkling, disgustingly good riff just waltzes in for about 16 beats, tears the house down, and leaves like nothing happened. Seriously, I don’t know how they managed to get a sound like that, but I suppose understanding it would just take away from its majesty.
Hold On is the clean up batter for Fortitude, and evidently the band has been “grinding and grinding,” because those are the first words of the intro chant; an intro chant that actually has a lot of charm and sets up a mysterious first riff which has a interesting, almost Meshuggah-like “4/4 but not quite 4/4” feel to it. Then the drums come in with a more typical Gojira feel (owed to the kicks supporting strong notes in the riff), but still maintaining that aura of restraint and emptiness that is so unlike any album they’ve put out before. Despite the unconventionality of the drumming, the song (and the album) has a lot of callbacks to previous compositions through certain riffs that are reminiscent of certain albums; the breakdown has an airy, atmospheric tone very similar to Silvera from Magma, while the solo section is something completely new. We will see many more callbacks as the album progresses, mostly referencing their 4 most recent albums: From Mars to Sirius (2005), The Way of all Flesh (2008), L’Enfant Sauvage (2012), and Magma (2016). Their first two albums, Terra Incognita (2001) and The Link (2003), do not get as much recognition, however, and this makes apparent their departure from blast beat heavy, rhythmically intense death metal in favor of a much pop-ier, much more accessible type of metal.
New Found begins like it’s a track right off of The Way of all Flesh, with a low, chugging verse riff preceded by a choppy and off beat intro riff using screeching distortion the likes of which actually seem to be identical to their 2016 album’s hit single Stranded. Already reminiscent of two different albums, this song takes the mantle from Hold On and solidifies another main theme in Fortitude: callbacks. And they’ll callback to another two two albums before the song is over, with the 3-minute mark cleverly concealing a ¾ polyrhythm kick drum pattern identical to Blow Me Away You (Niverse) from Terra Incognita, and an interlude-to-closing-riff section similar to Flying Whales on From Mars to Sirius. Yet with all these callbacks it is incredible that the song has such a new feel, especially in the chorus. The chorus section really is like nothing they’ve ever made before, and is very characteristic of their new sound, bringing choral vocals, held notes, airy cymbals, and a hopeful tone that is a huge deviation from their typical vibe.
What is not a huge deviation from their typical vibe, however, is the title track, Fortitude. Upon listening, you might be inclined to say, “Metalbum that makes no sense, this sounds like a huge deviation from the rest of the tracks on the album!” and to that I say, “Yes, but the rest of the tracks on this album are not Gojira’s typical vibe.” Well then what is their typical vibe? In this case, one completely acoustic, toned-down, low energy song per album. Fortitude takes the exact spot that Torii, Liberation, Unicorn, The Silver Cord, and 04 did on The Link, Magma, From Mars to Sirius, The Way of all Flesh, and Terra Incognita respectively. This iteration, however, places an emphasis on choral vocals and percussion rather than string playing, once again portraying core themes of the new album. Fortitude also does something the previous incarnations did not, which is lead directly into another song.
And the song the Fortitude chant leads into is… The Chant? Indeed, and what a surprise it is to see a chant in a Gojira album; a happy surprise, considering they execute it well, and with all of Fortitude’s signature flair. The song begins at the chorus, which makes sense considering it follows Fortitude and since it’s the main theme of the song, accompanied by a strong ride cymbal and the titular chant. This is followed by the verse, in which the sound of the vocals strongly resemble the effects used on Mario’s voice in Low Lands 5 years earlier; besides that, the verse also serves to ground the song as a metal piece, albeit a very alternative one. Part of the aforementioned Fortitude flair includes choral vocals and exotic percussion, both of which make an appearance throughout the song. What else makes an appearance, more notably, is some really impressive guitar soloing, pushing the envelope wide open for rhythm guitarist Joe Duplantier and lead guitarist Christian Andreu to pursue an almost bluesy tone that is completely new for the band.
Longtime Gojira fans will be happy with Sphinx, as it combines a lot of techniques and songwriting from previous albums, most prominently a very L’Enfant Sauvage feel with some The Way of all Flesh guitar licks here and there. In the verse, the vocals see a return to Joe’s familiar growl, and in the chorus, his passionate cries that can douse any riff in hot fire. Also, this song is stuffed with callbacks, so let’s get through them rapid-fire: at about 2:39, the voice from Satan is a Lawyer; at about 3:20, the distortion from the beginning of Magma’s title track; and the verse’s vocals, rhythmic pattern, and pitch all highly resemble the verse from The Gift of Guilt. For the shortest full-length song on the album, Sphinx crams in a surprising amount of Gojira’s best ideas.
Into the Storm might be the single most interesting song on Fortitude, fusing two decades of mostly traditional Gojira with an entirely new feel so indicative of their current direction. Beginning with a frequency-muted double bass drum track reminiscent of Only Pain and The Cell (and a general Magma feel), this song wastes no time getting into the thick of things; soon, a terse snare roll signals an entry into a classic and heavy Gojira verse riff. Classic and heavy for about 8 bars, before the first of many contrasts in this song makes its appearance in the form of, you guessed it, choral vocals; this is mimicked briefly in the chorus before returning to the verse riff again. This verse riff and especially the intro drum groove are very polyrhythmic, so much so that the initial groove deserves a little more attention and analysis to appreciate it fully (note that the following will be incomprehensible jargon to most readers unacquainted with music theory). The piece is in a typical 4/4 time signature; the bass drum provides a 16th note subdivision; the snare drum plays quarter notes in 4/4; the ride bell plays dotted eighth notes (one hit every three 1/16 notes); all over a 6 bar chord progression; it may seem deceptively simple on paper, but actually listening to the groove is a bit more chaotic and nuanced. With the drums out of the way, we can now focus on the unprecedented harmonic and vocal contrast of this song by Gojira’s standards; the reader must understand that for a band tempered by the flames of underground death metal, choral vocals and bright harmonics are NOT an easily executed idea when paired with a desire to maintain even a vestige of the band’s heritage. Despite this, Into the Storm really knocks it out of the park with Gojira’s frankly astonishing risk-taking shift to accessibility through a combination of harmonics and vocals the likes of which have never been seen before; the only thing linking the sounds of the chorus to anything even remotely Gojira is the passion that reliably permeates Joe’s cries and some chords from past compositions.
Oh boy, The Trails has a lot of good stuff going on: Mario on the mic, some powerful lyricism, the best chorus on Fortitude, and not to mention the whole song being a callback to Low Lands from their last album. In fact, Low Lands is just a bit faster and that’s it; an acoustic feel, Mario on the mic, a great chorus, it’s all there. Callbacks aside, this song still stands on its own merits, and by “its own merits” I really mean the chorus section. Holy cow Mario, I thought agonizing passion was really Joe’s signature aura, but it seems the two share more than just parents; the opening line, “How can we be so blind,” is so sincere and so full of ardor that I can’t help but place it among my favorite Gojira moments ever (and it’s not even super metal-y!).
I hope you enjoyed your half-second of rest, because as soon as The Trails is over, Grind takes control. Grind is the most heavy-handed and traditional Gojira song on the album, with an intro riff very clearly inspired by Adoration for None off of The Way of all Flesh. The verse riff then swoops in to solidify the “traditional Gojira” diagnosis with a brutal chugging lick accompanied by a screeching climb of the guitar. Another groovy and thrashy riff precedes a chorus similar to that of Into the Storm but much more familiar and atmospheric due to the melody and vocals that give off a vague Ocean Planet vibe. A terse snare roll interlude (#3 on the album) and a guitar riff not unlike the first on Amazonia set up a very heavy section that warms (or rather conflagrates) any old Gojira fan’s heart. And that conflagration is stoked by the chorus, yet soon fades away into cinders with the outro into a natural and soothing nothingness that envelops the listener with a palpable feel of longing only tameable by the adage, “don’t be sad because it’s over; be happy because it happened.”
And I am quite happy that Fortitude happened, because it tamed the beast that Magma released: change. These last few albums have seen big changes for Gojira, and it had many fans worried that the band was stepping into terra incognita (pun absolutely intended) that would not be kind to them. But all along we should have been worried that the band wouldn’t be kind to the unknown, because they were certainly not, navigating and disrupting the field of modern metal with the purposeful recklessness and vivacity of their eponymous monster. Fortitude represents the beautiful debris of that recklessness, the negative, the art of empty space; Fortitude represents creation born from destruction.