Album Review: Howling Sycamore – Seven Pathways to Annihilation

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Band: Howling Sycamore | Album: Seven Pathways to Annihilation | Genre: Progressive metal | Year: 2019

From: San Francisco, USA | Label: Prosthetic Records

For fans of: Watchtower, Cormorant, Coroner, Voivod

Buy: Bandcamp | Amazon | Apple Music

Howling Sycamore’s self-titled debut was one of the strongest metal releases of 2018. The music was an engaging mixture of thrash, black, and progressive metal, and Jason McMaster has some of the most striking and distinct voices in modern metal. I’d been anticipating the release of their follow-up ever since McMaster had first posted about it online, wondering what sort of direction they’d go in.

Seven Pathways to Annihilation is, in many ways, a series of contrasts to Howling Sycamore. Where the band’s debut was a lean, 37-minute assault, this record sprawls. Not just in its 50-minute runtime, but the individual songs feature more internal tempo and dynamic variation. Even the album cover is an inversion from the debut. The blue, multi-pronged bolt of lightning contrasts against the bare, orange sycamore tree of the first album. One place the two albums do not clash is in the quality of the music. Seven Pathways to Annihilation is a fitting successor to the band’s fantastic first album.

“Mastering Fire”, the opening track, feels more restrained than most of Howling Sycamore’s previous output. The drums are masterfully played, with the work on the toms providing just as much textural backing as the guitars. “Departure” continues in a similar vein. The moderate tempo is used to great effect, allowing McMaster’s vocals to pierce through the guitar. No one would ever describe his voice as delicate, but his bombastic delivery is still rich in subtlety and nuance.

“Initiation” is one of the highlights on this album. It’s the most intense song yet, and the dynamism only serves to increase the drama. The guitars’ sparseness makes the soaring lines they cut that much more impactful.

I don’t have many gripes about this album, but they arise in the second half. A curse of bands with distinct sounds is that their songs can have a tendency to run together. They might be good compositions, but they can be indistinct. “Second Sight” and “Tempest’s Chant” suffer from a mild form of this. They’re good songs, but they don’t do much to stand out.

The second half is still quite good, overall. “Raw Bones” ups the band’s intensity to new heights. The passion of each member of this trio is evident, whether it’s McMaster’s shrieks, the typhoon of drums from Hannes Grossmann, or Davide Tiso’s guitars which both pummel and slice as needed. “Sorcerer”, the 10-minute closer, is the strongest track on the album. It features the finest distillation of the band’s ability to construct a song which keeps building and building, reaching a soaring apex. (Otrebor of the band Botanist also makes an appearance on this song, providing hammered dulcimer for the epilog.)

I’m glad Howling Sycamore are back. The contrasts drawn with their first album are clear, yet not overbearing. Seven Pathways to Annihilation has a distinct mood and sound, but there was no radical overhaul of the band’s sound. I could see Howling Sycamore being an acquired taste, but I’d recommend fans of progressive thrash and progressive black metal give these guys a try.

Score: 83/100

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