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: 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”

Odds and Ends – May 6, 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.

boltBand: Boltzmann Brain | Album: Spacesquid Brain | Genre: Krautrock, Noise rock | Bandcamp

I wanted to like this album a lot more than I did, largely because of its super-cool album art. However, the dissonance is simply too much for me on this release, and the songs often feel unfocused and meandering. If the band were to tone down some of the more shrieking noises, this would be enjoyable, jammy krautrock. I’m sure the dissonance is intentional, but it more often than not comes off as amateurish, rather than daring and deliberate.

Score: 51/100

yoreBand: Branch of Yore | Album: Kingdom of the First Time | Genre: Progressive rock | Bandcamp

This is a nice, gentle album. Lush synths are the primary instrument on this release, and the vocals are sung delicately and treated with ample reverb. That approach gives this whole release a floating feeling. While I wouldn’t call this album particularly jazzy, many of the keyboard tones are reminiscent of jazz acts. By the end of the album, it does begin to sound a bit same-y, but it’s a nice release overall.

Score: 75/100 Continue reading “Odds and Ends – May 6, 2019”

Album Review: Syrinx – Embrace the Dark – Seek the Light

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Band: Syrinx | Album: Embrace the Dark – Seek the Light | Year: 2019 | Genre: Heavy/Traditional metal, Progressive rock

From: Vancouver, Canada | Label: Church Recordings

For fans of: Queensrÿche, Rush, Fates Warning, Iron Maiden

Buy: BandcampAmazon

Optically, it may be weird to use genre labels including both the words “traditional” and “progressive” to describe the same band. But truth be told, many progressive rock acts do little to progress rock, and traditional metal provides a broad enough template to allow a lot of innovation. Syrinx take their base sound from the realm of bands like Judas Priest and Black Sabbath. But they add the structural complexity and ambition of early prog-metal bands like Queensrÿche alongside aesthetic flashes of some ‘70s prog giants like Yes and Rush. Embrace the Dark – Seek the Light is full of fun and energetic riffs, but there’s a healthy dose of rhythmic weirdness and structural abstractness.

After opening with a short, swirling instrumental, Syrinx dive right into a shining example of their hybrid sound. “Time out of Place” is carried on the back of a tight, anxious riff during the verses, and the chorus features a cascading synth line that could have featured on a classic Rush album. The ensuing “Devil’s Soldier” opens with a soberer tone, but it doesn’t take long to launch into a more aggressive timbre. While one of the less-proggy tracks on the album, it’s engaging, and the vocals, a hoarse semi-shriek, are especially striking. Continue reading “Album Review: Syrinx – Embrace the Dark – Seek the Light”

Album Review: Dream Theater – Distance over Time

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Band: Dream Theater | Album: Distance over Time | Genre: Progressive metal | Year:  2019

From: Long Island, USA | Label: Sony Music

For fans of: You know if you like Dream Theater or not.

Buy: Many options

I must be some sort of masochist. Every other year or so, Dream Theater put out an album, and I self-flagellate by listening to and thoroughly disliking it. The last time Dream Theater put out a good album was in 2004, with Octavarium, and even that was spotty at moments. I’m pretty sure I’m still traumatized from just how bad their last album, 2016’s The Astonishing, was.

Nonetheless, Dream Theater are one of the founders of progressive metal and one of the giants of the contemporary scene. From the early ‘90s into the early ‘00s they put out a string of fantastic records, including two of the most vaunted albums in all of progressive metal. So, it’s with a sense of obligation that I subject myself to every new release from this band, knowing it will likely be uneven and masturbatory to the extreme. Continue reading “Album Review: Dream Theater – Distance over Time”