GODSTICKS – Inescapable

The sound of the third Godsticks album came as a bit of a surprise. At some point between the release of their second album ‘The Envisage Conundrum’ and the writing of 2015’s ‘Emergence’, things took a heavier turn. It wasn’t necessarily for the better. What had once been a fairly inventive prog band with a few harder moments was now a full on prog metal band. The lion’s share of ‘Emergence’ was rather…dull. Still, some fans seemed to take to the more aggressive sound and it undoubtedly attracted a few new ears. For better or worse, at least this was a prog band actually progressing.

Five years on, things aren’t always as angry on their fourth long player, ‘Inescapable’. There are some massively crunchy moments to be found (as with the opening track ‘Denegrate’ and the devastatingly weighty ‘Resist’), but the album also presents plenty of opportunity for the listener to get lost in a more adventurous world of sounds, taking cues from Radiohead and ‘Fear of A Blank Planet’ era Porcupine Tree along the way.

It’s straight in with the heavier things, though, as ‘Denigrate’ kicks off with a riff that sounds as if it’s been pilfered from Helmet, such is its relentless chug. By the time the vocal arrives, things settle down somewhat into a concoction of contemporary prog metal mixing with a vaguely Soundgarden-ish influence, giving lovers of melodic but heavy sounds enough to enjoy. Moving through the first verse and chorus, Darran Charles seems to be in very good voice and Dan Nelson’s bass work is especially appealing. For lovers of older Godsticks, though, it isn’t until the instrumental break that any genuine interest arrives. With the absence of a vocal, the band stretch into some very inventive playing, where a flawless lead guitar break leads into a darker and more proggy interlude and various keyboard bleeps add a more retro bent. When the main riff kicks back in for one final verse with its blend of post-grunge heaviness, prog metal crunch and occasional Eastern flair, it sounds better than ever. Not only is this a very strong opening track, but it’s better than everything on the previous record.

Scaling things back, ‘Victim’ moves more into a Pineapple Thief and Porcupine Tree sphere. For the first verse, the band blends Steven Wilson influences to a something that might sound like Radiohead if they remembered how to write songs. This brings a fine mix of higher register vocals, haunting guitar lines and – eventually – an arty, semi-chunky guitar riff, all of which lends a very full sound. At the end of the first verse, you might decide its the kind of thing you’ll love or hate. If, for some reason, you don’t love it, stick around, as this is a number that genuinely progresses as it goes. A soaring lead guitar and at least two more different approaches to a lead vocal make this a track that feels genuinely epic; the way the lead guitar weaves in and out of a fantastic bass loop during the coda could even be an album highlight. It’s really great to hear Godsticks actually applying some of ‘Emergence’s heaviness to something genuinely interesting. ‘Relief’ offers a heavy, chopping guitar and an uneasy vocal, resulting in some of the most unsettling prog metal ever. Luckily, once everything is dominated by a bigger crunch, the mix of prog metal, post-rock and heavy artistry create something that has so many layers, you can’t help but be drawn in. This is more about riffs than hooks, of course, but a repeated refrain of “fuck you and your beliefs” is surely going to lodge itself in your noggin from somewhere around the third play. It’s fair to say that although ‘Inescapable’ is bigger on interesting melodies, it isn’t always subtle!

Unfortunately, after a flurry of amazing tracks, things take a dip with ‘Resist’ where Charles and company revert to the completely uninteresting, grungy sound of the ‘Emergence’ album. A riff that sounds like a recycled Alice In Chains reject peppered with a couple of time signature shifts is by turns boring and fairly tuneless, but none of that is as bad as the chosen vocal. Throughout these four minutes, guitarist Gavin Bushell chugs away while Charles wails in a really unappealing manner. It’s one of those vocals that can’t quite manage enough force and range to match Geoff Tate on a great day, but it also doesn’t have anywhere near enough darkly dramatic charm either. What you’re faced with is a singer who sounds like he’s wandered in and started wailing with the wrong band. Two minutes in, this track becomes tedious; by the close, it’s a firm reminder of why so much of ‘Emergence’ was nasty. This is a throwback in the worst possible way.

Leading into the album’s second half, ‘Surrender’ sounds so much like Audioslave in places that you might just believe for the briefest of seconds that Chris Cornell has returned. More alternative rock than prog, this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but between a strong melody, a great vocal and an absolutely cracking lead guitar break, it covers a lot of ground. It’s nice to hear Godsticks applying their obvious talents to something in a more melodic vein while staying quite heavy. As part of a double whammy of excellence, ‘Breathe’ slows the pace considerably and moves into unsettling and floaty art-rock territory. Darran’s lead vocal adopts another obvious Thom Yorke influence (something improved by the multi-layering of voices) while a world of shimmering guitars and slow beats set up something geared far more towards late night listening. Bushell’s lead work is very understated, but between a tone that takes on a bell-like clarity and the presence of a few jazz flourishes, he presents a genuine range. It’s hard to believe these are the same players who gave the world ‘Denigrate’ on the same recording.

‘Change’ is a number that that never rushes; it takes almost ten minutes to complete its musical cycle and within that, you’ll find three movements, each one as good as the previous. To begin, it strikes a perfect balance between melody and heaviness as the band finds a slow rhythm hidden underneath a jarring guitar part. Things quickly shift towards some very jagged prog metal, giving a sign of things to come, and eventually, everything settles into a moody arrangement where a warm bass and croon-ish vocals set up an almost floaty vibe. In terms of playing – jarring guitar riff aside – there’s a lot here geared towards the prog fan rather than the metal buff. The overall mood settles somewhere between Radiohead and ‘Something Else Is Missing’ era Pineapple Thief, which is never a bad thing. All of this would make a decent, self contained four minute piece, but ‘Change’ has other ideas. Much bigger ideas. At halfway, it’s all change and the band drops into some absolutely fearsome prog metal. A purely pneumatic riff dominates at first, but Charles shifts his voice accordingly and leads the band back into something that fuses prog ideas with groove metal. Between the sludginess and grinding, there’s so much for metal fans to love and after a couple of minutes, you might even forget where this track began… Throw in a faultless lead guitar break with another Eastern tinge and it becomes the album’s highlight.

As for the remaining couple of numbers, nothing quite matches the highs of ‘Breathe’, ‘Change’ or ‘Denigrate’, but thankfully, there’s nothing as boring or turgid as ‘Resist’ either. ‘Numb’ features a hefty groove from drummer Tom Price, but from there, doesn’t seem to have too far to go. A solid but ultimately ordinary riff creates little more than the kind of alt-rock/prog metal blend you’ve heard from Charles and company several times already, while ‘Time’ promises a lot with a really crunchy riff from the outset, but actually feels like an obvious retread of ground already visited earlier during ‘Surrender’ and parts of ‘Relief’. If that mix of alt-rock with proggy overtones floats your boat, it’s a strong enough closer – in terms of the band rocking out, it’s still a fine way to finish, it just doesn’t add anything new to the album overall.

If you’d rather Godsticks stuck to the atmospheric, floatier end of prog and cast aside their desire for the intermittently crushing riff, there’s a good chance that most of ‘Inescapable’ won’t do much for you. It’s worth noting, though, that even though it’s still the kind of album that relies on a certain mood to enjoy, and if you’re in that mood, it might just unveil a few new treats with each successive listen. Except for ‘Resist’, of course: nothing will make you want to hear that more than once. ‘Inescapable’ is many things, but mostly – and thankfully – it’s both more interesting than anything Darran Charles’ former bandmate Bruce Soord has released since Pineapple Thief’s 2010 album ‘Something Here Is Missing’ and bigger on actual tunes than Godsticks’ own ‘Emergence’. That makes it a huge step forward for Charles, and although ‘Inescapable’ is a flawed album, it’s also one that’s definitely worth investigating.

January 2020