Sound — 6
A band or artist's second work is, in many ways, almost the first real test of their capabilities. A first album is normally allowed as much time as necessary, leading some to spend half a decade or more perfecting those little pieces before the public even hears a note. A second album automatically has expectations, usually a fan-base with opinions of a varying degree, and if the band is lucky (?) enough, a label giving them a tap on the shoulder every now and again to check on progress, and all of this will naturally either make or break the artist/s in question. Indiana's The Contortionist (Goodfight Records) are somewhat of an oddity, as their debut full length, "Exoplanet", vaguely wandered into the public's view, like a homeless man searching for change, but as with many cases of good Samaritanship, the homeless man was given a few moments of our time. As it happened, the metaphoric man (but literal album) turned out to be an intelligent, bold, and simply rather enjoyable man/album (dropping the gag now, relax). The 5-piece took the now traditional deathcore trappings of chugging rhythms, Between The Buried And Me pseudo-technical death metal riffs, and an almost unhealthy love affair with dissonant harmonies, and infused it with both a more progressive [insert genre here] flair, and post-rock elements of ambient texturing. While unfocused at times, it was a solid attempt at something many had incoherently meandered towards, and tracks such as "Primal Directive", "Flourish" and "Oscillator", as well as the three part "Exoplanet" suite, have lain down the path for a new wave of emerging post-rock/deathcore bands that, sink or swim, are trying to expand out the borders of the fledgling genres off-shoots. Well, fast forward to 2012 and The Contortionist have unleashed "Intrinsic" on the world, and the response so far has been a pretty resounding "Goddammmmn guys, nice!" I am not here to rain on that parade, but maybe spend a little bit of time on the edges with a squirt bottle, spraying small children in the face just to watch them run away crying (which is also a sentence I never thought I would type again). "Intrinsic" is overtly the band's big step towards something bigger and better. The guitar work has been mildly diversified in the heavy department, but refined beyond all expectation in the "light" and "pretty" sections of the store. The chord progressions themselves are almost completely gorgeous, the acoustic repeating pattern that turns into the lead guitar's tapping run near the end of "Geocentric Confusion" being a particularly striking example. Both guitarist's (Cameron Maynard & Robby Baca) and vocalist/keyboardist Jonathan Carpenter use their respective instruments to weave an impressive array of spacey sounding melodies and harmonies, all very classic prog rock, all very beautiful. Christopher Tilley's bass work is run of the mill guitar syncopation for the most part, but the tone is easily one of my favourites ever, and when he gets a chance to shine, he adds a unique layering effect on a level that many modern metal bands should aspire to. Anyone hoping for an album of equal heaviness as "Exoplanet" should not press the play button in that mindset. Breakdown fans? Fear not (more on that later), but those expecting a non-stop assault like "Exoplanet", turn back for a little bit. Whereas "Exoplanet" was about individual parts of a song working towards a traditional "start-middle-climax" structure, Intrinsic sees the band leaning further into a more free-form, mood-scape setting. The album pulses along with the odd spike and the odd dip, which is both its intention, and it's weakness in my opinion. It has taken me almost 20 full listens of the album to truly understand the overall atmosphere of this release, which leads me to the good side and the bad side. The good is that this shows a much more mature approach to the music The Contortionist want to play. In a sea of bandwagons, The Contortionist are at least trying to take the elements they enjoy and apply them in a way no one else is at the moment. As I've mentioned, the chord progressions are beautiful and intelligently arranged, the mellow vocals contribute an almost ethereal quality, as if the lack of power behind them actually makes them stronger in the context, and a handful of the heavier riffs spread throughout the album are just as powerful as those on "Exoplanet". The bass work is a solid thump underneath everything else, and the solo work is especially tasteful. "Intrinsic"'s strength is in its unparalleled attempt at truly progressive deathcore, where so many others will simply add the odd Dream Theater inspired section and call it a day. On the flip side, however, the band's overall unfocused song structuring remains, and with such an ambitious leap in their sound comes a distinct feeling of "not quite there yet". Many of the tracks consist of seemingly random riffs spliced together, and whereas the build-up/layer/peak dynamic may strike some as too traditional, without those moments of utter quiet building into utter beauty, far too many of the album's "epic" moments feel tacked on or half finished.
Lyrics — 7
Jonathan Carpenter remains as skilled a vocalist as his performance on "Exoplanet" would suggest, and his intent to focus on the more of the keyboard have allowed him to make a far more "secure" role in what is otherwise the most replaceable of spots in heavy music. Jon's harsh vocals have also retained their guttural intensity, as well as his dynamically contrasting fragile clean tone, and while he's chosen to focus more on the ambient layering of his keyboard composition on this album, his attention grabbing vocals remain as forceful as ever. His lyrics, however, are pure filler. While he vaguely hits on a few "artsy" motifs, his word work generally meanders around without meaning like the rest of the album. Lines such as "Senseless drones will pretend to be enlightened / The population is easily controlled by withheld information / Foolish enough to proclaim certainty of the answers / Feelings of safety overwhelm" demonstrate an aptitude for the right subjects, but... Well, we've all been here and done this before. Jon touches on the rather standard "progressive deathcore" tropes in his lyrics; the possibility of other life in the universe, dimensional vortexes (vortices?), self-discovery (which is getting to be rather egotistical as a lyrical topic, I must say), and just the standard array of Meshuggah-esque awkward words jumbled together so it sounds cool. At best, they're mildly profound, at worst, they're irrelevant.
Overall Impression — 6
With "Holomovement", the album is off to a fantastic start. The post-rock and progressive metal love shining through in fabulous form, but somewhere around middle it trails off into a completely pulled back clean break, which in of itself is rather nice, that never really goes anywhere. There's a sudden change back into an earlier trem picked riff, before it silences AGAIN, and then the outro chugs itself to a fade. Causality comes and goes with a few tried and trued chromatic riffs, before a big melodic section shows up, which would have been so much more effective if it came from anywhere other than thin air. The first half of Geocentric Confusion, while still standing as my favourite track on the album, consists of one half deathcore style chromatic riffs, one half Cynic worship, before seguing into a gorgeous jazzy acoustic segment, which promptly builds and builds into... nothing. Both "Cortical" and "Dreaming Schematic" (which, by the way, features my winner for most awkwardly coordinated verse riff ever) both feel like they're constructed from the exact same chords. The 97 second penultimate track, "Sollipsis", consists of some of the bands heaviest riffs, and yet it stands as essentially a 97 second breakdown leading into the redundant warbling ambience of "Parallel Trance", and thus is the fate of so much of this album. The tension and release dynamic is dulled by the constant back and forth of the "heavy prog" and the "pretty prog". It not only feels completely out of the blue, but it diminishes its own effect. Nearly all of "Exoplanet" built on repeating themes enough to establish a consistent sense of flow across the tracks. All of the tracks on "Intrinsic" feel like a handful of "the middle of the song" parts glued together, and while the riffs are all perfectly serviceable themselves, they're arranged in what feels like the most awkward arrangement possible. The interesting riffs are all too short, and the average riffs are all too long, and none of them join up in a satisfying way, and while I genuinely do applaud them for trying something new, and wish them nothing but good luck, it strikes me as somewhat incomplete. Mature approach, yet an immature execution. A few people have told me that this album shows a much more "djent" sound, which strikes me as completely redundant to mention since "Exoplanet" was already a pseudo-djent album. Just because they now play single note breakdowns more than palm muted 2 note breakdowns doesn't mean they've "expanded their repertoire" in some mystical way. Some have argued that maybe the point IS the individual layered sections, that each part should not be thought of as build up to something else, but I don't particularly buy that line of thinking, especially as the band showed such a relatively more focused approach all throughout "Exoplanet", and the entire idea of their brand of post rock/progressive deathcore is based around the end result of repeating themes and layering patterns. To me, it seems a step back to be so intent on jamming every half decent riff idea they had together in such an awkward paper mach of music. Now, the one major thorn ("Oh, like the structuring didn't make you vomit rage at us enough?" -Ed) in my side about this record is the drum work. I'm sorry, but I have no other word for it besides boring. It meanders and drags itself along, killing the momentum that half the riffs create, it hardly ever brings itself above variations on breakdown beats, and if I didn't know better I would have honestly assumed it was the guitarist or the bassist recording the drums because no one else was available. Or someone who's only had a few months experience with Guitar Pro trying to write something just slightly above "metronome" level of intensity. I'm a firm believer in drummers avoiding blast beats and generic "metal" patterns, but this is just ridiculous at times. End rant. So there you have. The Contortionist have taken everything they love and put out a kinda decent prog metal album that shows off their amazing potential for growth over the next decade, easily. It's unfocused, it's ambitious, and it sounds like nothing else going around at the moment, but this is not their peak (or at least I certainly hope it isn't), and I can't wait to see where they go from here. I recommend it, if only because the band themselves deserve your attention, even if this album may not in the long run.