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

Album Review: Moon Letters – Until They Feel the Sun

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Band: Moon Letters | Album: Until They Feel the Sun | Genre: Progressive rock | Year: 2019

From: Seattle, USA | Label: Independent

For fans of: Yes, Genesis, Camel

Buy: Bandcamp  Amazon

Moon Letters are the first of my fellow Seattleites to be featured on my blog. I’ve seen them live a handful times, and they put on a fantastic show. I was introduced to them when they opened for Pinkish Black at the show with the most confusing lineup that I’ve ever personally been to. (The four bands played retro-progressive rock, Bulgarian folk, punk, and spacy gothic rock.)

This group, like many in the contemporary progressive rock scene, heavily base their sounds on the giants of the genre. Yes and Genesis are their two clearest influences, but the songwriting is original enough for them to rise above the territory of schlocky knock-offs and stand on their own as a distinct band. Continue reading “Album Review: Moon Letters – Until They Feel the Sun”

Album Review: Baroness – Gold & Grey

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Band: Baroness | Album: Gold & Grey | Genre: Sludge metal, Progressive metal, Hard rock | Year: 2019

From: Savannah, USA | Label: Abraxan Hymns

For fans of: Mastodon, Adrift, Inter Arma

Buy: Many options

Baroness are one of the biggest acts in all of progressive metal. Their first two albums (Red Album and Blue Record) are beloved by the prog metal community for their creative fusions of sludge metal, progressive rock, and some surprising pop sensibilities. Their sprawling third album, Yellow & Green, was a noticeable step down in quality, featuring a lot of music that sounded like attempts to make radio-friendly hard rock. There was still good music here, but it should’ve been cut down to one album. Purple, released in 2015, was a step up. It was a metal album, for sure (and a pretty good one, at that), but it still wasn’t on par with those first two albums.

So, with Baroness’s recent ups-and-downs in mind, I approached this album somewhat cautiously. The singles were okay on the whole. Some were certainly better than others, but this is a long record, so I tried to keep an open mind.

The music itself is varied in its quality. The addition of guitarist/backup vocalist Gina Gleason works very well. Her backing vocals add a rich, new character to the music, and she and lead vocalist John Baizley sound great together. Continue reading “Album Review: Baroness – Gold & Grey”

Album Review: Pinkish Black – Concept Unification

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Band: Pinkish Black | Album: Concept Unification | Genre: Space rock, Gothic rock, Experimental rock | Year: 2019

From: Austin, USA | Label: Relapse Records

For fans of: Van der Graaf Generator, Bauhaus, Magma

Buy: BandcampAmazonApple Music

It’s really tough for me to describe Pinkish Black. I love their music; it’s a fantastic, innovative blend of different genres, but it’s packaged in such a way that they’re tough to sum up. The band consist of a keyboards-and-drums duo, but they’re on a metal label and are often mentioned in the same breath as doom metal bands. I’ve heard them referred to as “doom metal for people who don’t like metal,” which isn’t a terrible description. The music is heavy, in that it’s emotionally weighty. My go-to word for describing these guys is gloomy. At the same time, mixed in with this melancholy is a keen sense of musical adventurousness and ambition. The lush synth tones resemble those of acts like Eloy and Ozric Tentacles, though little else in this band’s repertoire resembles those acts.

Concept Unification is Pinkish Black’s fourth full-length album and their first in four years. Their last release, 2015’s Bottom of the Morning, was one of that year’s highlights. Compared to past releases, the sound palette here is very similar: spacy, echoed vocals; bass-heavy piano; lush, cosmic synthesizers; and sparse but powerful drumming. The songs on this album are more experimental and ambitious than past releases. This record is probably their most challenging release, though highly rewarding. Continue reading “Album Review: Pinkish Black – Concept Unification”

Odds & Ends – June 20, 2019

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Odds and Ends is a segment where I do brief reviews of albums I either didn’t prioritize for longer-form reviews, or ones for which I don’t have that much to say.

a1413993540_10Band: BLASTAR | Album: Construct | Genre: Progressive rock, Jam band | Bandcamp

I really loved BLASTAR’s debut album, so I was very excited when I saw them announce their latest release. On Construct, they’ve opted to go fully instrumental. The music is cosmic and high-energy, and the overall sound has shifted more in the direction of jam bands like Aqueous or Umphrey’s McGee, with jazz and folk tones. As I’ve frequently said, it can be tough to make an instrumental album consistently engaging, but this does a good job of holding the listener’s attention. That’s not to say it doesn’t have faults, but it’s enjoyable on the whole.

Score: 77/100 Continue reading “Odds & Ends – June 20, 2019”

Album Review: Dreadnought – Emergence

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Band: Dreadnought | Album: Emergence | Genre: Progressive metal, Doom metal | Year: 2019

From: Denver, USA | Label: Profound Lore Records

For fans of: Tool, Cormorant, Panopticon

Buy: Bandcamp| Amazon | Apple Music

Like any metal subgenre, doom metal has an abundance of sub-subgenres, including stoner-doom, death-doom, and funeral doom. Prog-doom, to my disappointment, is one of the less-proliferated of these, even when put in the context of progressive metal. Other prog varietals—like black, sludge, and death—far outstrip progressive doom in both volume and prominence. Of the rather small cohort of bands who do fuse the murky, morose field of doom with the artistry and ambition of prog, Dreadnought are at the forefront.

Emergence is the fourth full-length release from this Colorado quartet, and it’s a logical progression from their last release, 2017’s A Wake in Sacred Waves. AWISW was among my favorite albums from that year, so this was a highly, highly anticipated release for me. I’m pleased to say it lived up to my hopes and exceeded my expectations. The sound on this album is massive—far more imposing than would be expected of four musicians. The guitar attacks in thick walls of guttural distortion, while the piano thunders and adds a certain weightiness rarely heard in metal. Continue reading “Album Review: Dreadnought – Emergence”