27 August 2010

Dillinger Escape Plan - Option Paralysis

Option Paralysis
Season of Mist (2010)

How disappointing can a very good album be? Along with Converge, the Dillinger Escape Plan are the big survivor of the late 1990s short sharp shock that was Noisecore. Like Thrash metal laying waste to all that preceded in the 1980s, Noisecore was another razing of the rock establishment. DEP pretty much killed off first-generation Metalcore with their 7.5 minute(!) EP Under the Running Board, in 1998, before minting their bewildering signature sound the following year with début proper Calculating Infinity. This was a super-technical, ultra-heavy, imaginative record that sat comfortably with other gems from that year such as Botch's We Are the Romans, and 0:12 Revolution in Just Listening, by Coalesce.

After half a decade, a Mike Patton collaboration and a change of singer, Miss Machine (2004) was both their breakthrough and disappointment. While vocalist Greg Puciato brought a new-found sense of melody to a couple of songs, the record, for the most part, was retreading a now-familiar path. The quality was upped by the slightly more dynamic Ire Works (2007), but the norm was still the Noisecore bluster the band mastered in 1999.

Option Paralysis is the latest Dillinger Escape Plan record; and the song, largely, remains the same. Familiar is the breakneck, technical metal of opener 'Farewell, Mona Lisa', as is the choppy arthythm of the guitars. To be fair to the band, they have integrated the shouty tech-hardcore with the melodic choruses to a greater degree, to the extent that they have progressed past the heavy song/melodic song duality. But while the recipe may have been revised on Option Paralysis, the ingredients are the same as they have been since 2004. There is no reason why, for example, 'Good Neighbor' could not have been on Miss Machine. 'Endless Endings' could probably have been on Calculating Infinity, moving, as it does from syringe-incisive guitar stabs through jazzy interludes, to disoriented arpeggio. It is very good, but nothing new.

In 1986, Megadeth were pretty much the hottest property in metal, instantly antiquating the NWOBHM that had directly preceded. By 1997 they were completely insipid, replaced by the younger, hungrier, more brutal likes of Machine Head, Pantera and Fear Factory. Time has been kind to Dillinger Escape Plan, in comparison. Unlike decades past, musicians in many genres can release music in 2010 that sounds not unlike music from 2000, and few will bat an eyelid. (Have the likes of Kid A, Dopethrone, Stankonia, Tragic Epilogue and Rated R really aged?) But, compared to their own oeuvre, DEP are growing stale.

The guitars are still phenomenally-played, and do run the gamut from off-kilter staccato to melodic rock riffing and pretty much everything in between. Drummer Gil Sharone, on his second DEP album, further justifies his replacement of human octopus Chris Pennie, whose move to Coheed And Cambria remains a mystery. And Greg Puciato is still emulating Mike Patton as best he can. He's more macho than Patton, but lacking in the Faith No More frontman's endless charisma and vocal variety. Puciato can shout, he can hold a tune, and he can talk all crazy, like. But he just doesn't bring the variety the music is so desperate for.

There are times when it all comes together perfectly, as on the quite stunning 'Widower'. As with 'Mouth of Ghosts' from Ire Works, a piano-based track that leaves all but a handful of Nick Cave songs from the last decade and a half in the dust, 'Widower' lets the keys do the talking. It builds very gradually, from almost A Reminiscent Drive-level gentleness, and even when the guitars are in full effect, they don't overpower the mix, instead weaving buoyant chord progression into it. The dynamics, hooks and performance are all top-notch on this track: its very excellence is maddening, as it gives you a glimpse as to how good Dillinger can be. As they did with 'Mouth of Ghosts' and 'Dead As History' from the last album. As they did with 'Setting Fire to Sleeping Giants' and 'Unretrofied', from the one before.

There are other tastes of heavy mental brilliance, as on the softly lovelorn, Commodores-meet-Mr. Bungle tones of 'Parasitic Twins', itself following lyrically and musically from the spiteful, excellent, dizzyingly ambitious second half of 'I Wouldn't If You Didn't'. At times like this, Dillinger sound like themselves, and nobody else. Which is why it's so galling that they seem content to sound, for the most part, like a band that's trying to sound like The Dillinger Escape Plan circa 1999. Wanky pastiche is fine for the likes of Estradasphere; let Meshuggah lose themselves in the endlessly repeating, labyrinthine circuit board twists and turns of their own musical creation.

'Heat Deaf Melted Grill' is a bit of a damp squib on which to end things, though it's apparently a bonus track. The second half of the album is certainly the superior half, oddly. It's as though the band, despite chestbeating proclamations of being daring or experimental, fears turning off its core fanbase of fratboys and toughguys, seeking to reassure them with familiar moshpit beatdown soundtrack. But it's this - baffling - apparent self-handicapping strategy that is holding them back from actually creating a brilliant record. For years, they have been hinting at greatness, delivering two or three phenomenal songs amid a sea of 'very good' complacency. Option Paralysis is another very good record, but how great could it have been? And for how long will they continue to intentionally nobble themselves in favour of scoring video game soundtrack paydays?

22 August 2010

Skullflower - Strange Keys To Untune Gods' Firmament

Strange Keys To Untune Gods' Firmament
Neurot (2010)

I tried. I listened to it on low volume, to see if that noise-as-ambient (and vice versa, for that matter) rule worked. I played it hella loud, hoping an unholy black maelstrom would sweep me up in its infernal clutches. I tried because Matthew Bower has released some impeccably powerful music in his time, including Orange Canyon Mind and Desire for a Holy War, in recent years. I tried because this is his debut on Neurot Records, a label run by the legendary Neurosis, which has released absolute stunners in the last couple of years from the likes of Akimbo and A Storm Of Light.

Sometimes there's nothing you can do, beyond enduring two hours of boredom. Tracks begin as confused churns of noise, and go nowhere from there, sometimes for up to 15 minutes at a time. The only changes occur when one track ends and another begins; the listener is plunged once more into incessant drudge, like being buried alive in worm-ridden soil. Gone is the fizzling, exciting potential energy of Orange Canyon Mind, replaced with nothing but lethargy.

I once read that, rather than the comic-Satanick likes of Morbid Angel, Skullflower were the real, pitch-dark, death metal deal. Even if that were once the case, this lumpen example would be dead metal. Any energy, light or imagination has been eradicated, as though Strange Keys To Untune Gods' Firmament represented the last signal broadcastable from the singularity of a black hole. And, at least for nihilism on such a scale, Bower should be applauded.

Your reviewer tested this album in a number of contexts. Most successful was a walk home, after a particularly ferocious rain storm. The streets were empty, the uneven surfaces of the footpath filled with stagnant, acidic water. The sky was baleful in its bruised complexion, threatening another downpour. And then it came, soaking everything in seconds; raindrops pounding all beneath them as though with bad intentions; water-covered spectacles reducing vision to a haze of dusk and blotch-streetlights. In this situation, the album made more sense, as a soundtrack to a low-key Omega Man, walking the streets in grim un-light.

Were you able to guarantee blustery weather bordering on the malicious for each listen, Strange Keys To Untune Gods' Firmament might come quite heartily recommended. Similarly so if your aesthetic taste overlaps with the soundtrack of a construction site: pneumatic drills, cement mixers and idling engines coalescing into a steady drone. Otherwise, it's hard to find a silver lining on this darkest of nimbostratus clouds; two hours you'll likely wish you had back. If this is a grower, you probably won't live long enough to enjoy the fruition.
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