Sound — 9
"Are You Kidding Me? No." is the third offering from Destrage, an Italian metal band formed in 2005. Listeners of their 2010 effort, "The King is Fat'n'Old," were treated to a strange hybrid of densely packed, fast-paced progressive metal, molding together Lamb of God riffs with a more prog inspired approach laden with a powerful dosage of their incredibly strange sense of humour. "The King Is Fat'n'Old" had its fair share of immensely heavy riffing, melodic soloing, and over-the-top song themes and structures, but seemed to come across as a little unfocused and disorganized, largely eschewing a solid album framework and coming out fairly cluttered as an end result. Fast forward four years and "Are You Kidding Me? No." has Destrage exponentially stepping up their game, and I really do mean exponentially. The songs are tightly written and structured, and there is a newfound focus and musical coherence to be found here that "The King Is Fat'n'Old" could barely toss a stick at.
On the new record, Destrage have moved away from a Lamb of God-inspired sound to a mix and mash of the musical styles employed by bands such as Between the Buried and Me, The Dillinger Escape Plan, and Protest the Hero. While combining the characteristics of all three of these bands sounds like a daunting task, it works beautifully. There are times where a particular band's influence practically screams out to be recognized, and yet it never seems as if Destrage are directly plagiarizing from their inspirations, opting instead of synthesize their own unique sound from that of these bands. Cuts like "Purania" are simultaneously catchy, technical, heavy, grandiose, and simple all at the same time, and it's a spectacle to behold. The beauty of the album is how the songs seem straightforward enough to keep your head moving along to a catchy beat and swaying to the clever melodic sensibilities found in singer Paolo Colavolpe's enormously commanding vocal presence, and yet at the same time paying closer attention to each and every song reveals waves of incredible complexity under the surface. There is plenty of ridiculous technicality to be found here, but on the surface the songs never seem to be overbearing or claustrophobic, and no riff or solo seems to be forced or out of place.
Guitarists Ralph Salati and Matteo Di Gioia are on absolute top form here. Their riffs go from ridiculous odd-meter tapping to intense 7 string riffing with the odd Paul Waggoner-esque jazzy noodling thrown in. Drummer Federico Paulovich absolutely pummels through every song with razor sharp precision while maintaining a knack for keeping a steady beat going to keep the listener's attention, and 'Obedience' is an absolute feat of a song that we likely won't be seeing YouTube drum covers of for a long while. Bassist Gabriel Pignata opts for a more low key approach, and there aren't too many bass guitar fireworks to be found across "AYKM?N"'s ten tracks - if anything, he singlehandedly keeps the music grounded by precisely making sure to play a support role instead of taking part in the techfest, and the end product is made all the better for it. Guns N' Roses guitarist Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal even makes a guest appearance on the final track, shredding up a fretless guitar on what is likely one of the best musical sequences you will hear all year.
Lyrics — 8
Lyrically, the album splits nicely into the more epic, progressive songs (the aforementioned "Purania," "Before, After & All Around," and the BTBAM-influenced absolute masterpiece that is "Where the Things Have No Colour") as well as the straightforward and heavy ("Hosts, Rifles, & Coke," "Obedience"). Rounding those two out are the songs in between, which retain some of the light hearted aspects from Destrage's earlier efforts (such as "My Green Neighbour," a song about the ethics of killing zombies, and "Waterpark Bachelorette" a song about... a boring bachelorette party at a waterpark?). Overall, there's lots to take in here, and as large and sprawling as the album may seem, each song has a very distinct character to it.
Paolo Colavolpe deserves extra special mention. He is an incredibly versatile vocalist, and by that I mean he could easily hold his own against similar versatile giants of the progressive metal genre such as Rody Walker and Tommy Rogers. Paolo handles all the lead vocal duties on this album himself, which is quite the feat considering how vocal lines seem to go from punishingly guttural death growls to soaring and catchy clean melodies within seconds.
Paolo's clean delivery is particularly unique, as he sounds unlike any other metal vocalist I've heard for a long while, despite the fact that he can very easily imitate his inspirations when need be - "My Green Neighbour" has a midsection where he sounds an awful lot like Periphery's Spencer Sotelo, while the chorus in the punishing mess that is "Obedience" sounds like The Dillinger Escape Plan's Greg Puciato himself is yelling his heart out into the mic at times.
The lyrics in part have improved from the oddball writings to be found in "The King Is Fat'n'Old" (for the purposes of context, that was an album featuring songs such as "Smell You Later Fishy B-tch" and "Home Made Chilli Delicious Italian Beef"). Opener "Destroy Create Transform Sublimate" has Paolo singing at length about his creative process and willingness to take risks in his songwriting approach, while "Hosts, Rifles, & Coke" has him venting about his issues with how much funding the Italian military receives from the government and how seeing more and more people ending up joining what he perceives is a total farce is particularly painful. It's surprisingly powerful and introspective stuff, and his vocal delivery is extremely on point on top of that, even if his Italian accent may make some phrases a little hard to immediately comprehend. "Where the Things Have No Colour" has a strong inspirational message about standing your ground as an individual, while "Before, After, and All Around" talks about him dealing with a painful relationship - while both of these topics don't seem like they'd really work in a progressive metal setting, Destrage pull it off beautifully. "Where the Things Have No Colour" is punctuated by lovely melodies and acoustic lines to enhance the lyrical content, with the song peaking at a soaring chorus that will not leave your head for days, while still distinctively being a progressive metal song and having that nice touch of heaviness. It's extremely impressive to see unfold.
These lyrical themes are unfortunately sold short by songs such as "My Green Neighbor," "Waterpark Bachelorette," and the title track, which more or less retain the over the top oddball humour from the previous record. While all three songs are fantastic musically, and the vocal melodies are more than fitting, the actual lyrical content seems a little out of place in an album that otherwise consists of fairly introspective stuff. It's understandable that perhaps abandoning that sense of humour entirely for this record may have alienated fans of the last album, but I personally feel as if the silliness could have been toned down at least somewhat. "My Green Neighbor" in particular features lines such as "We are no savage / we no pay / to see gladiators kill," leading one to feel a little confused by how this album also features lyrics along the lines of "I drive towards you / through space to reach the time where we were - / two lines at a point / two seconds in an instant / so tight, so brief / that we had no dimension." Both the silly and the more melancholic songs are highly enjoyable on their own terms, but the repeated jumps from light heartedness to dead serious stuff as the album goes on feels perhaps a little too stark.
Overall Impression — 9
Destrage have hands down meticulously crafted one of the best albums of the year. If you are approaching this album from a progressive metal background, at no point will it let you down, and even then there are plenty of surprises along the way to keep your attention regardless - including but not limited to a sudden electronic outro to "Destroy Create Transform Sublimate," the unforeseen Meshuggah-fest that is the ending to the otherwise silly "Waterpark Bachelorette" and the brief midsection in the title track where they transform into a mariachi band (?). In short, this is an album of many excesses, yet these excesses are very tightly plotted and put together cleverly for maximal musical effect, making "Are You Kidding Me? No." an extremely enjoyable and rewarding listen from start to finish. Destrage's songwriting chops clearly have increased exponentially from when "The King Is Fat'n'Old" was recorded, and the way they weave together so many different elements to make a cohesive package of ten songs is nothing short of astounding. Not a single second is wasted as they rip through some of the best riffs you'll hear for a long while.
Perhaps the only low point on the album is "G.O.D.," which attempts to get too much done in a highly compressed three minute runtime, even by Destrage standards. An excellent solo in the middle and fun pentatonic riffing is not enough to save what is probably the weakest track on the album - though in all honesty it's not a particularly bad track on its own, and I find it only comes off as weak because the rest of the album is so much more incredible.
Perhaps "AYKM?N" is a little silly and overbearing at times. But Paolo says it pretty clearly himself on the title track - "if everybody does all kinds of sh-t, why shouldn't I?." While Destrage seem to do a little more "sh-t" than is within most people's comfort zones, the chaos still magically comes together for a highly satisfying end result, and one that is well worth repeated listens.