Sex & Drugs & Death ‘n’ Tech – Beyond Creation’s “Earthborn Evolution” Reviewed

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I honestly don’t listen to enough new music for my assessment to be valid, but even if I did, I suspect I’d be contending the same thing:

Earthborn Evolution, the second full-length from Canada’s Beyond Creation, is my Album of the Year. It outpaces Misery Index‘s masterful The Killing Gods or Hour of Penance‘s fearsome Regicide. Both are great, obviously. But I found both to drag a little by “Side B”; whereas Earthborn Evolution is a compelling (and better-produced) listen all the way through. And it completely blows the shit out of the new Mayhem release, which I can’t even remember the name of right now.

I was wholly unfamiliar with the band until the single “Elusive Reverence” was previewed here on TovH. That day, I stumbled upon an existing-but-too-rare thing: A tech-death song that was downright hook-laden. I actually listened to it three times in a row, something I usually do only for the craftiest pop hits, radio rock numbers or advertising jingles if I find them catchy.

This is going to seem odd, but to me, “Elusive Reverence” sounded like what Opeth might have done once upon a time, if they’d taken their formula in a modern, let’s-compete-in-the-death-metal-arms-race direction rather than retrofitting it out of death metal altogether. Beyond Creation employed some of the same guitar chords, arpeggios and time signatures that Opeth used around the time of My Arms, Your Hearse, and the vocalist was not totally unlike Mikael Prog70s at his growliest. Well, that was my take based on the single, anyway.

Of course, comparisons to Opeth dissipate for me when I listen to the rest of the album; so don’t take that too seriously. Instead, what leaves an impression are two things:

First, sheer mastery of the tech death idiom –  hardly surprising since that idiom is essentially all about “sheer mastery” itself. And in a way, it’s almost gotten to the point where tech-death bands can’t be lauded for their performance expertise anymore – aside from those occasions where they somehow manage to set a new standard in blasting tempo or sweep-picking trickery. (I might add that Beyond Creation set no new standards in either here, but who’s keeping score at such an exalted level of musicianship?) The tech-death record reviewer confronts a quandary: should you really award points for musicianship in a genre where exceptional musicianship is a given? In fact, should you aggressively deduct points if musicianship gets in the way of songwriting or “groove”?

If so, I’ll let Beyond Creation off the hook in that regard. Because the second property of this record leaving an impression is the compositional prowess. “Elusive Reverence”, I think, remains the best song on the album but that’s not remotely to suggest it’s followed by forty minutes of sweeping, blasting riff-salad-plus-noodling filler. It wasn’t a fluke. Actually, the 7-minute finale, “Fundamental Process”, is probably equal to it if you can take a more thematically-sustained outing. The instrumental “Abstrait Dialog”, and the penultimate “Theatrical Delirium”, are both perhaps a little prog-for-their-own-sake, but even they don’t have me reaching for the remote yet. Moreover none of the songs overstay their welcome whatever their length, there’s twists and turns enough to maintain interest, and some moments of real melodic resonance – such as can be found in the dynamic and polymorphous “Neurotical Transmissions,” or even the short and nasty “L’Exhorde.”

But even taking the musicianship for granted, we probably have to acknowledge Beyond Creation’s bass wizard, Dominic Lapointe. I first sat up to take notice of him during the video for the song “Omnipresent Perception” from their debut album, wherein he traded lead solos with the guitarists. Here, his six-string fretless plays damn near a lead role on the third (title) track; it’s the engine that drives the writhing labyrinth. You can pretty much listen to it and imagine that he wrote the bass part first and then they wrote the rest of the arrangement around him, even if that’s not what actually occurred in pre-production. At any rate, Lapointe’s career may well be defined by single-handedly making up for the decades of bass guitar neglect in extreme metal. Playing bass in a death metal band won’t remain the easy option any longer if his legacy has anything to do with it.

If you’ll now just let me nerd out on the fidelity aspects, we come to another quandary: Should the tech-death reviewer add points for a clean – some might say “sterile” – production job? After all, anything less than the sort of production values found on Earthborn Evolution would absolutely compromise the music. Unlike grindcore or much old school death metal, you need to be able to hear the detail with stuff like this. I’ve heard plenty of deathcore records where the modern, beat-replaced, quantized and amp-simulated production values have made them less interesting listens for being more homogenized. I honestly can’t tell the difference between a lot of deathcore bands. But in tech-death, that sort of dismissal doesn’t come as easily to hand; what with the musical stakes being higher.

Well, the mantra I’ve always lived by in heavy metal record appreciation goes as follows: Competent mastering cannot salvage a bad mix. Great mixing is difficult to achieve with a lousy recording. Good recording is pointless for capturing a bad performance. And a good performance will rarely save lacklustre songwriting. By contrast, inspired songwriting and performance will almost always withstand a bad production at any step of the process from setting up the mics to hearing it at home on your awful desktop speakers. Always.

But with these guys, I’m happy to report that’s all moot; because not only have they written great songs and played the fuck out of ’em, their engineers have also wrought a recording and mixing job which gives decent impact and optimal clarity without falling into the usual extreme metal pitfalls. I don’t know whether I’m hearing real guitar amps or fake ones, but the tones are rich enough for me to imagine they’re real. Unlike what’s often the case (yes, I’m looking at you, Archspire), the kick drum doesn’t sound like a bunch of typewriters being tipped into a dumpster. We’ve already alluded to how you can actually hear and follow the bass guitar. You can tell exactly when it’s playing something different to the guitars (which is usually) and when it’s following them. And nothing – not backing vocals, ride cymbal, whatever – is overbearing nor under-represented. As a mixing effort it’s pretty much perfectly balanced. Truth be told, I barely gave the mixing any thought while listening, which is really the strongest indicator they’ve nailed it.

In terms of mastering, the band are quiet enough when they intend to be – flattered by a wholly appropriate preservation of the macro-dynamics; considering that this is a band not averse to dialing down the guitar distortion when they need to (which they often juxtapose against the punishing gravity blasts to surprisingly successful effect). The crisp percussion doesn’t sound blunted off by heavy limiting and there’s no audible clipping; so even on the CD version (which I haven’t yet gotten but which I assume the available streams I’ve heard are derived from) I’d say that all adds up to a mastering win. It might be a DR6 but it sounds a pretty tasteful one to my ears. I can’t comment on the vinyl master coz I’m not rad enough.

Although 2011’s The Aura showed all the potential and capability that any respectable debut would, and certainly had its moments musically; it wasn’t, to my ears, as compelling a listen as this. It had nowhere near the economy or mastery of composition. (Even if it did, admittedly, have more diversity in its songwriting and rhythms.) Those with the perspective of the long-time fan that I’m not might be disappointed to hear the band have moved on from their debut’s more straight-forward brutality. Yet as far as I’m concerned, album number two has put Beyond Creation deservedly into the Gorguts league. The difference with others in that league is: It’s not 1998 anymore and can we, perhaps, hope against hope that the times, in 2014, suit Beyond Creation more than times past suited their predecessors? It might just be decades of personal extreme metal acclimatization clouding my perspective; but dare I say – this is a tech-death act that has developed crossover appeal, almost. By which I DON’T mean that they need to write a few slower, conventionally-composed songs with sung choruses to reach their “market potential”.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Beyond Creation’s formula is sufficiently potent in scope that they may well attain wider exposure (for a tech-death band) just by honing what they currently offer. I know it’s a contentious call and I’ll probably be wrong; but don’t forget that throughout rock history, some of the biggest success stories turned out to be those where “the mainstream” was compelled to cross over to them rather than be compromised with. Nor should we forget that the mainstream is not the all-dismissive, top-down, horizontally-integrated tyranny it once was. We now have a whole generation of metalheads reared to the strains of Meshuggah, the music of whom is in some respects less linear (or accessible) than Beyond Creation’s. And it goes without saying that it’s never been easier to discover and absorb a band like this than it is today. No, I’m not suggesting Beyond Creation can be the next Mastodon. But the next Archenemy or In Flames? Why the fuck not? Better them than, say, Archenemy, or In Flames.

So for those not in the tech-death camp – speaking as somebody who isn’t myself – I urge you to give this a chance. The band is Beyond Creation, the album is Earthborn Evolution, appearing courtesy of Season of Mist. Available somewhere, somehow, on all reputable computers worldwide. Or just go out and buy the fuckin’ thing like I fuckin’ will. Coz I’m rad enough.

Very minimal flushing.

Featured image: Dominic “Forest” Lapointe, still shot from Official Video for Omnipresent Perception, 2012.

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