Respect Your Elder Gods
Dragons? Vikings? The devil? Come on man, no one writes about that anymore. Power metal is so over. Aside from period pieces like Holy Grail and Mantic Ritual, the days of minotaurs and maidens are long gone, merely added to the list of fondly remembered metal clichés. Heavy metal lyricists seem to have lost interest in good ol’ fashioned murder too – apparently screaming bloody gore doesn’t cut it anymore. Ever since Carcass showed up from across the pond and started using fancy-pants, tongue-twisting, anatomically correct clinical jargon – in intellectual contrast with Cannibal Corpse songs like “Entrails Ripped From a Virgin’s Cunt” – the lyrics of the average death metal band have only grown more and more esoteric and thematically ambitious. As it is with djent, death metal’s petulant, illegitimate daughter, Meshuggah galvanized what is now a predominant trend. When young metal nerds got a hold of lyrics like,“hexagonal bolts to fill my mouth, sharpened to deplete the creator of all violence” back in 1998, it was only a hop, skip and a jump to Decapitated’s existentialist assertion that “the great fractal of existence sinks into itself,” and to Gojira’s plea for us to save the whales. And who could forget Obscura’s subtle stanzas about the formation of the solar system that sounded as if they were straight out of a Lord Byron poem? Metalheads clearly don’t aim so low anymore, and this meteoric rise of high-minded hoopla seems to correlate with the widespread emergence of the slick, mirror-shine production that has become characteristic of modern extreme metal. Indiscriminately equalized, mercilessly compressed and relentlessly ProTool’d, the new style trades the abrasive hiss and atrociously weak bass levels of Possessed’s Seven Churches and early Deicide records for the sound engineering equivalent of a sterilized laboratory.
Yes, American death metal has traveled a long and winding road. At the very end of the left-hand path are Allegaeon, a Colorado group whose 2016 effort, Proponent For Sentience, manages to cram itself with just about every death metal formula ever broached – including a few Middle-Eastern prayer calls and a Rush cover – into a towering hour of unrelenting maximalism. Just to set the tone, the title track (which is, of course, divided into three eight-minute parts, respectively titled The Conception, The Algorithm, and The Extermination) begins with layered, classical arrangements that feature everything from string quartets to horns to Gregorian chanting. This should be enough to clue everyone in to fact that Proponent For Sentience is supposed to be weaving some labyrinthine conceptual rock opera narrative over the course of its songs. Exactly what Allegaeon have chosen to conceptualize is up to the listener to decipher, as is how a relatively small band managed to afford, arrange and record all these swelling orchestras and choirs on a Metal Blade budget. The grandiose, non-metal openings of each section, compared to the tough guy chuggernaut riffs that invariably follow all three, reaffirm what Dimmu Borgir proved in the late ’90s: symphonic metal can’t ever sound like anything but a ridiculous, evil cartoon soundtrack in the hands of anyone besides Ihsahn of Emperor. Despite Allegaeon’s trailblazing philosophy, their latest album is not without its nods to the past. “From Nothing” mixes ripping thrash rhythms with raw-throated shrieks that would make Schuldiner’s corpse grin (although the track is a little heavy on the guttural cookie monster vocal style). The shimmering keyboards that back the mid-paced brooder “Of Mind and Matrix,” liken the track to the work of Allegaeon’s melodic Finnish cousins Omnium Gatherum and – to a lesser extent – Children of Bodom. “Of Mind…” lingers in the mist for a moment before galloping down the hill abreast the very same riff that every metalcore band has ever lifted from At The Gates.
However, with each of Allegaeon’s glorious triumphs comes a comparable misstep. “All Hail Science” strays dangerously close to the “core” side of deathcore, as its group shouts and breakdowns are guaranteed to be music to the gauged ears of any flatbrim-rocking hXc crew. The superfluously titled “Gray Matter Mechanics – Apassionata Ex Machinea” boasts a classical guitar intro a la Metallica’s “Battery.” It later returns to it in a spicy-yet-somber extended flamenco guitar passage. The drastic, mid-song shift might remind listeners of the infamously 0ut-of-nowhere hoedown that cemented Between The Buried and Me’s “Ants of The Sky” as a contemporary, prog metal classic. While the flavor and heat of Allegaeon’s ensuing salsa dance rivals that of aficionados like Rodrigo and Gabriella, the break feels very much like a contrivance – eclectic for eclecticism’s sake.
But is that such a crime? Proponent is over an hour long and feels its length, but it’s packed to the tits with something for metalheads of all tastes. The Colorado group samples every death metal style from Athiest to Zyklon, all while managing to achieve the meticulousness and studio fidelity of groups like Animals as Leaders and Scar Symmetry. As an added treat, the sometimes over-the-top symphonic arrangements lend the album a much-needed dash of musical theater flair in an increasingly drab corner of music.