IO – Our Disintegrating Museum

cover_6321615122012_rNow, here’s something rather special.  This third release from Brummie math metal band IO brings enough heavy intensity to satisfy most open-minded metalheads while, lurking beneath the surface, their sound retains enough clunking, grinding and, frankly, epic discordance to attract those who love the noisier end of alt- and post-rock.  Looking at each of their sounds and influences individually, you will surely have heard each of their tricks and traits from other math and alt-rock/metal outfits, but these guys combine each of those in a way which makes their complex sound far more compelling than most other bands working within a similar musical framework.

‘The Lost Cosmonaut’ starts off with a huge drum sound split between the left and right channels combined with an equally big guitar riff which gives the feeling of an unheard Tool recording, before falling away to reveal post-rock style discordance and a screaming vocal.  The math-metal influence at once becomes far more insistent than the tunes progressive metal beginnings, but there’s an all-round tightness at play that carries the piece no matter which direction IO decide to try and stretch it.  Despite the riffs – and Dave Wright’s immense drum parts – taking up most of the arrangement, a screaming voice cuts through the various complexities, bring a greater feeling of bands like Bring Me The Horizon and the heavier end of In Flames.  At the point where things appear to be in danger of repeating themselves unnecessary, IO tacks on a lengthy and atmospheric coda.  Most of the riffs subside, while over a simpler time signature the band adopt a few “la la” vocals and top everything with tinkly bell percussion sounds.  This opening number may sound at first like two or three ideas cemented together, but it really works, eventually sounding greater than the sum of its constituent parts.  At first, ‘The Cisco Kid’ sounds as if it’s eight minutes are going to be devoted to similar musical hallmarks as it begins with sledgehammer riffs and another intensely shouted vocal, but then, it swiftly branches out into one of the album’s finest arrangements.  In a way which wasn’t even hinted at previously, the first chunk of this tune works around a near circular riff, with multi-tracked guitars almost having a repetitive hypnotic effect.  Following this, something even more magical happens as the band work through an instrumental section where the drums lay down an almost funky groove and – for a while, at least – the twin guitars of Al Lawson and Stu Atkins seem happy to follow, before pulling away for something far more intense.  Overall, the instrumental parts of ‘The Cisco Kid’ could almost be the work of a different band to ‘Cosmonaut’.  Imagine ISIS with occasional input from the heaviest works of Leicester post-rockers Maybeshewill (but with vocals) and that may provide a useful – if not entirely accurate – reference point.

Taking a step back, ‘Vultures of the Arctic’ begins with two and a half minutes of sheer beauty, as lovely piano motifs are played against bass and drums in a classic progressive rock style.  By the time the whole arrangement kicks in, there’s enough space for ringing guitar lines and even acoustic rhythms to help flesh out the already huge sound even farther.  Never wanting to labour even the finest of musical ideas, things then shift towards more pointed math rock (led by some great lead work courtesy of Atkins) before moving firmly into alternative metal territory.  A mix of gruff and clean voices provide a good focus, but it’s Steve Wood with his enormous bass sound which proves to be the real star throughout.  ‘I’ll Need A Diagram’ presents IO at their fastest and heaviest – and, sadly, their least imaginative.  Those who like the more extreme elements of alternative metal will without doubt get some enjoyment from this number, but the preceding lengthier pieces prove these guys are capable of so much more.  Luckily, the number’s second half takes a more restrained approach: the angry vibes replaced with a waltz of punchy bass sounds, intermittent rhythm guitar and…brass.  It seems these guys have the imagination to constantly surprise [although any surprises will ultimately be void for those reading this before listening!]

The closing pair of tunes, ‘Horse for a Particular Course’ and ‘Voyage For The Alection’, combine various traits as heard through the earlier numbers, but even so, still bring moments of absolute magic.  Wood’s bass sound, in particular, is no less impressive by the end of the album, especially when combined with distorted Thurston Moore-esque/Mogwai influenced guitar drones as it is on the second half of the latter.  ‘Horse’ – a short instrumental – essentially provides a quick glimpse of each of the band member’s potential talents.  The off-kilter time signatures are handled with absolute ease by the rhythm section, while the clean and jazz-rock influenced guitar lines place the band more in line with other UK math-rockers Bear Makes Ninja and Wot Gorilla?, two bands who released material during 2012 that helped strengthen the burgeoning UK math-rock scene.

Whether tackling slow, pounding riffs or somehow tapping into sounds which could have been made by The Jesus Lizard, Between The Buried and Me or ISIS, IO are hugely entertaining.  The riffs instantly grab the attention while the overall sense of the unexpected – and the bands insistence on throwing in as many rock-based styles as possible – makes it almost impossible to stop listening until the last notes have silenced.  Challenging, ugly, cinematic, undeniably cool; the museum can be many things – but like most artistic curios, you’ll need to experience it for yourselves to make complete sense of its overwhelming scale and inevitable impact.

January 2013

CONSTANTINE – Divine Design

Divine DesignFormed in 2006, Finnish progressive metallers Constantine released various demos before attracting the attention of Palokka Records who signed the band for their 2011 debut ‘Divine Design’.  Aptly named it seems, for Constantine’s debut is superbly professional for a band signed to a small label.  No corners have been cut here; even before hearing a note of music, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the packaging itself, a beautifully designed, glossy three-panel digipak adorned with some pretty smart artwork.

Of course, as always, the music within is of greater importance, and in progressive metal terms, Constantine do not disappoint.  Creating a sound that brings together the power of early Queensryche, the bombast of ‘Images and Words’ era Dream Theater and the most harmonious elements of Iron Maiden, Constantine may not always sound wholly original, but they create superb musical atmospheres where every band member gives their all.

Clocking in at just over an hour, each of this album’s seven tracks are simply fantastic.  The title cut starts slowly with an atmospheric fade in followed by hugely dominating chords, before breaking into something more complex.  Various guitar arpeggios show Constantine’s love for Dream Theater and Iron Maiden – the latter made particularly obvious via some solid use of twin lead harmonies and vocalist Lassi’s Bruce Dickinson-esque style.   While drummer Marko plays aggressively and impressively, it is bassist Antti whom perhaps contributes the most interesting musical flourishes; although his playing often gets swamped by the more in-your-face elements, he plays fast and complex musical structures throughout the piece.  In many ways, this opening number is an eight minute showcase for all of Constantine’s talents.  There are not too many surprises from here on in, but Constantine offers some great music within their chosen musical niche.

Slightly more accessible, ‘The Shadow Within’ makes a slightly bigger feature of the keyboards, but even then, they appear more in a blanket fashion as opposed to those the widdly prog-rock kind.  Here, as before, the guitars lend a heavy metallic chug, interspersed by some great melodic flourishes.  Repeated listens are certainly advised, since behind the metal riffing there are some lovely touches to be discovered – again, often from the bass.  Throw in a a huge sweeping solo and another strong vocal and it becomes another enjoyable track  Even if you’re feeling like you’ve heard it all before, take a step back and and try to listen to the different elements individually: it’s hard not to argue that Constantine are musically sound.

‘Through The Veil of Death’ opens with snare drums clashing with a choppy guitar rhythm, before drummer Marko pounds at the double bass drum, creating one ‘Divine Design’s heaviest moments.  Those not into the more power metal side of things need not worry, however, since such aggression is brief.  This is followed by a few droning keys before the band opt for an uptempo groove in keeping with Symphony X’s more accessible works.  The keyboard makes a return during what passes as a chorus, featuring Lassi in fine voice once again.  While there are few hooks to stick in your head, it’s a track which stands up to repeated listening, uncovering hidden depths on those later listens:  the twin lead guitars are top, while the hugely complex bass runs hold everything together without ever coming to the fore.

Several eight minute numbers would already guarantee a fairly weighty listen, but to finish, Constantine go all out on a fifteen minute epic.  A huge intro once again displays even more Maiden love within Constantine’s ranks, as twin guitars deliver riffs in a very Adrian Smith inspired way.  Following this, things get heavier with another chugging delivery bolstered by some solid double bass drum work.  Just as you think it is about to going to get heavier still, there’s another melodic 80s edged guitar solo (of the old school metal kind), before everything falls away to reveal something more atmospheric.  Over clean guitar work, augmented by the sound of strings, Lassi begins to sing.  Here, his accented style isn’t quite as enjoyable as on some other parts of the disc, sadly, but it doesn’t detract too much from the great music.  Elsewhere during this lengthy workout, you’ll encounter Iron Maiden-esque galloping, brief jazzy-prog keyboard interludes, waltzing folksiness, occasional rock piano and even more sweeping and majestic soloing from both guitarists.  A shout out here must go to drummer Marko, who does a sterling job in holding everything together.  ‘The Darkest Grace’ might not convey the same levels of pomp as Symphony X’s ‘The Odyssey’ – it takes years to become that ridiculously epic after all – but for a huge closing statement on a debut release, it showcases some solid ideas.

Those unmoved by any of the bands mentioned here – or indeed any other music fitting neatly into progressive/power metal niches – will almost certainly be unmoved by Constantine’s debut.  In progressive metal terms, ‘Divine Design’ doesn’t veer too far from what’s on show during that title track, but if you’re really into prog metal, chances are, you’ll really love them.  ‘Divine Design’ is a damn fine disc indeed.

April 2012

RETURNING WE HEAR THE LARKS – Proud England EP

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For something recorded in a bedroom, this 2011 EP by Returning We Hear The Larks has a great amount of oomph behind it. The band isn’t a band at all, but the work of multi-instrumentalist Jak Noble, chiefly a seven stringed guitarist – but listening to this release, he’s gifted in most other aspects of his music too. Granted, the drums are programmed, but when constructed as well as they are here, it doesn’t matter too much. [See also Devin Townsend’s ‘Ziltoid The Omniscient’]. Noble’s chosen style fuses progressive metal and alternative metal; naturally his recordings feature a bias toward the “djent” sound at times [the onomatopoeic sound made by heavy riffing from seven or eight stringed guitars]. For fans of the more aggressive end of progressive metal, Returning We Hear The Larks is a project with a great appeal.

Kicking off a quartet of numbers inspired by The War of The Roses (though the concept appears to be rather loose; a theme rather than a strict narrative), ‘Uprising’ begins with an off-beat rhythm. Its intro builds until the guitars crunch through and Noble’s vocal makes an initial impact. His vocal has a sound somewhere between Devin Townsend at his most shouty and a throaty growl, which although takes a little tuning in, works well throughout the number. It is especially effective when counterbalanced against a clear alternative rock vocal which carries a tiny hint of Faith No More. The heavy bass which runs through the short instrumental ‘Unrest’ has a fantastic presence, while the guitars lay down a repetitive hypnotic riff. For a self-produced, self-financed release, the bottom-end has a great sound.

‘Vendetta’ opens with a piece of music which is the polar opposite of ‘Uprising’, as Noble offers atmospheric, clean-toned guitar lines over a blanket of keyboards and a chugging bass, which naturally gets joined by a similarly aggressive guitar riff. The main riff sustains the next couple of minutes, before falling away to reveal an echoed vocal. Before long, the chugging riff returns with a complimentary heavy vocal. The lighter atmospheres aren’t completely crushed through, and the ring of the clean toned guitar adds a pleasing atmosphere. While the track still falls into the heavy end of progressive metal, there’s a hint of Mushroomhead about its overall construction. The closing moments, with pneumatic drum sounds and screaming vocals present the heaviest aspect of Noble’s work. The muddy tone driving the main riff of ‘Conquest’ has a grinding nu-metal edge due to Noble’s use of seven string guitar. The down-tuned sludge is joined by a similar vocal to that used during ‘Vendetta’s closing moments. However, before long, a choir of clean vocals and keyboards provide an expected contrast, after which Noble returns things to a Pain of Salvation meets Meshuggah vibe, before closing things with a full-on, classic sounding progressive metal riff.

‘Proud England’s only real weakness is its short duration. By the time the last notes of ‘Conquest’ have faded, chances are you’ve just started to really enjoy what’s on offer. There are moments here which aren’t quite as atmospheric as parts of 2010’s predecessor ‘Ypres’, and obviously ‘Proud England’s main difference is the inclusion of vocals. Despite venturing into new territory, those already familiar with Returning We Hear The Larks should not be disappointed.

March 2011

PROSPEKT – Prospekt EP

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With the fast riffs which open ‘Dissident Priests’, combined with a time signature which can be found gracing many a Dream Theater cut, it’s quickly obvious from where this Oxford quartet pull their greatest influences. However, Prospekt aren’t a band short on talent. In Blake Richardson they have a power-house drummer; in Phil Wicker a rock-solid bassist; in Matt Winchester, a decent vocalist who, at times, could rival a few of the prog-metal greats. Top these factors with a superb guitarist, whose style fuses an uncompromising heaviness with occasional notes-per-second style flashiness, and that presents a band with a promising array of characteristics. Granted, you won’t always hear great hooks or sing-along material, but like many progressive metal outfits, Prospekt’s musical prowess does the talking for them. ‘Dissident Priests’ may have many of Dream Theater’s key aspects firmly on show, but it’s a number which is perfect for introducing the band. Behind the monster riffs, guitarist Lee Luland throws in the odd horse noise (technical term) and some occasional drifiting into Eastern sounding riffs (coupled with a more Edge Of Sanity inspired growling vocal creeping in) stops things from becoming too predictable. While a strong opening track, there are a couple of better numbers to come.

‘Eternal Memories’ is a short piece, constructed from atmospheric keyboard drones and radio news samples featuring George W Bush and a report concerning the Kennedy assassination. This leads quickly into ‘Shroud’, a heavy riff-based number capturing Prospect on top form. The main guitar riff adopts a heavy chug, again in the spirit of Dream Theater, but also leaning toward the more basic elements of Symphony X. While vocalist Matt Winchester is no Russell Allen (and let’s face it, few people are), his presence and range could be a match for James LaBrie and Shadow Gallery’s Mike Baker. While Winchester puts in his best work, it’s still Prospekt’s instrumental dexterity which steals the show. While still very much prog-metal by numbers, the pneumatic drum work and choppy riffs at the four minute mark provide a particular highlight. While it mostly has the air of a number driven by attitude and riffing as opposed to flash soloing, there is more than enough space for Luland to deliver a couple of top-notch solos toward the end of the seven minute duration.

The closing number ‘Shutter Asylum’ opens with some rather smart neo-classical thrashing where Luland gets to show off a little, but behind his best work, Blake Richardson’s drum style is absolutely relentless. While Prospekt aren’t too shy in showing their influences, the sheer force and speed propelling this number could be best compared to Symphony X at their most aggressive. Once again, the guitar work throughout is fabulous, with a few downtuned riffs giving a sinister edge. While the track already showed Prospekt at their absolute heaviest, the general tone here really hammers their point home.

It’s great to hear an English band taking on a very American style and sub-genre of metal – and potentially delivering the goods as well as the best bands out there. Generally, Prospekt’s debut EP is unlikely to give the prog-metal die-hards any new thrills, but it doesn’t matter. If you’re a fan of any of the bands mentioned here, it’s probable you’ll also enjoy what Prospect have to offer.

You can stream the EP from the widget below, or alternatively, it’s available as a FREE download here!

March 2011

BENEDICTUM – Dominion

benBy the time Benedictum recorded their debut album in 2005, you could say their founding members were already veterans. Vocalist Veronica Freeman and guitarist Pete Wells had been members of a band named Malady for ten years previously and in addition, Veronica also performed as part of a Black Sabbath tribute band, Evilution, with Benedictum’s bassist Chris Shrum and ex-drummer Blackie Sanchez.  It’s unsurprising given this past that their debut album (‘Uncreation’, released on Locomotive Records) featured two Dio-era Black Sabbath songs and also featured guest appearances by ex Dio band members Craig Goldy and Jeff Pilson, as well as ex-Dio/Rainbow bassist and Thin Lizzy cohort Jimmy Bain.

Benedictum’s third album, ‘Dominion’, brings another huge slab of metal. Throughout the disc, the riffs are huge and the drummer attacks his kit as if he has a third leg. With the music being of such powerhouse qualities and the level of musicianship being of a mostly high standard, you’d think ‘Dominion’ would be an unmissable release. However, despite some great qualities, none of its songs manage to be especially memorable. Most of the tunes blend together after a while; there’s very little light and shade.  Although it could be argued that Freeman has a metal voice that commands attention, it’s mostly commanded through volume and force – there’s no real charisma in her performances.

The title cut opens with a few quirky rhythms and keyboard parts but the tune quickly descends into manic, sledgehammer riffing. By the time Freeman’s vocals hit their stride, there’s little of interest melodically. However, those keeping a close ear on Mikey Pannone will hear the work of a great metal drummer – not only is his playing fast, but many of his fills are fairly complex. ‘At The Gates’ is equally as subtle… Although there is the occasional hint that Freeman could sing in a melodic style – as demonstrated on the chorus sections – the verses in turn display a voice that’s as aggressive as it had been on the title cut. The track’s best moment comes from Pete Wells, whose featured solo is reminiscent of old-school 80s thrash.

Occasionally, when things lighten up, Freeman’s vocals show signs of potential power. During the verses of ‘Loud Silence’, she retreats from her usual metal approach, attempting to bring emotions other than anger into her performance. There are fleeting moments here where she could pass as metal’s answer to Grace Slick, but her best efforts seem at odds with music that’s still really heavy. The epic ‘Epsilon’ moves further away from full-on power metal and brings in elements of progressive metal, allowing some interesting (if slightly pneumatic) interplay between Wells and Pannone. A few eastern musical motifs add a small amount of extra interest and there are fleeting moments where Freeman adopts a more tuneful style, but if it’s prog-metal you’re after, there are a thousand better examples of the sub-genre than this.

The best track is ‘Seer’, which features a melodic vocal, a heavy yet melodic riff (due to a slower pace) and a chorus which at least has an attempt at being memorable.  Imagine something which combines the best elements of ‘Rage For Order’ era Queensryche, Dio and a pinch of power metal and you’ll have a fair idea where this number’s musical interests lie. Against the classic sounding riff, Wells’s clean lead notes wail like it’s 1989 and, for once at least, Benedictum offer something that’s a little broader in appeal.

This release features two bonus tracks, one of which should be familiar to many.  In all honesty, though, you probably don’t want to hear Benedictum hammering their way through a version of Rush’s ‘Overture/Temple of Syrinx’. The layered guitar parts of the original version are reproduced here in a much heavier style – and without any of the finesse that was really required. Freeman’s take on Geddy Lee’s vocal is little more than a full-bore metal squeal. Oh dear.

While (from a metal perspective, at least) most of ‘Dominion’ could be described as musically sound, it’s certainly a release for power-metal die-hards only. There are a couple of moments which stand out – and individually, some of the players show a decent level of talent – but more focus on songs would have been useful.

March 2010