Record Swap – Spear vs Karhu
In the spirit of the season, we bring you the return of Record Swap. Our intermittent feature where two writers share a record previously unheard by the other, and review the damn thing. Will Spear’s pick be on point? Will the Beargod’s grisly taste bear gifts or GAAAHS?
Karhu’s Assignment: Micawber – Beyond The Reach of Flame
Spear: Micawber is a band that has been near and dear to me for many years now. They were one of the first local metal bands I saw, and they’ve been steadily getting better and tighter over the years. Their Prosthetic debut, Beyond the Reach of Flame, has been in regular rotation for me since it dropped back in May, but I wanted a fellow writer’s opinion on it. Is it as rad as I think, or am I just blinded by nostalgia? Karhu was the first to jump on it, and given the difference in our tastes, he’s either the best person or the worst person to answer this.
Karhu: Micawber’s as logical a choice for this pairing as they come. Death metal on the technical end of the spectrum is notoriously very much Spear’s thing, whereas I find myself enjoying it quite a bit less. Beyond The Reach of Flame makes clear the band is skilled, but rarely turns it into anything flashy, or weedly-deedly, as it were. Instead they like to focus on lots of groove and brutal riffs with a smattering mildly blackened passages and even proggier structures. While there’s not much holding back per se, the only times they really let go of all restraint are the solos, which lends them a great contrast. While mostly sticking to his throaty growl, occasionally the vocalist showcases his higher range, and could stand to do so more often.
The best thing to be said of Beyond The Reach of Flame is, however, it’s mixing. It’s not particularly commendable for it’s dynamics, but the compression never becomes unbearable. The guitars are kept exceptionally meaty and beefy (and porky?), invigorating the vocal performance, while the drums are kept slightly back, and despite sounding quite triggered appear more soft than sharp, though still blunt and heavy. And that’s it. That’s all there is to Beyond The Reach of Flame, not just the nice things, but all the things.
I’ve enjoyed basically every second I’ve spent with Micawber, but I haven’t really ever felt like putting them back on. The only reason I’ve kept playing this album, trying to find something from it which to clutch at, in hopes of finding something that I did not hear before, is that I needed to, for this Record Swap. It’s the perfect three star album – Beyond The Reach of Flame conveys it’s purpose and proves adept at everything it attempts. But nothing sticks, there’s not one memorable riff, not one noteworthy motif, not a second that excites. Repeat for forty minutes, and Micawber risks getting boredom, but they avoid it. Much as I said, every second spent with BTRoF is enjoyable, which makes the verdict all the more painful, but whenever it ends, all it’s left behind in a blank look about face. I guess it’s actually better than the average three star record in that it makes me want to like it more than I do, it just never particularly delivers.
Spear’s Assignment: CMX – Talvikuningas
Karhu: I know Spear at least likes prog metal, so I decided to give him a personal favourite of mine, a prog rock album that had nothing to do with the tech, and not that much with metal either. Talvikuningas is one, hour-long suite based on poet/occultist A. W. Yrjänä’s (also the band’s bassist/vocalist) yet unreleased (thanks to a burglary) sci-fi novel. Outlining the main points of the story, while musically spinning between everything the band had done before and would do later on, as well as something they haven’t touched upon elsewhere.
For as often as I extol the virtues of progressive music on this here blog, I don’t really listen to a lot of bands that go by the simple “prog” label anymore. This is largely due to the fact that the majority of those bands are dad-rock Dream Theater knockoffs that somehow manage to be more tepid and vanilla than their progenitor. When Karhu handed me Talvikuningas, I was skeptical; that cover screams “50-plus-year-old heavy metal washouts,” and the name CMX further conjures images of aging, portly former backyard wrestlers turned rock musicians. Not off to a great start, but I know our bear friend’s taste in music isn’t complete shite, so I tried to go into this with an open mind.
My trust and good faith were immediately betrayed by a ten-and-a-half-minute low- to mid-tempo prog rock odyssey crammed with every genre convention short of a wanky guitar/keyboard duel and flaccid falsetto wailing. I wouldn’t really call it bad- the riffs are decent, and the singer’s tenor crooning is much more palatable than what you typically encounter with this style of music- but god, does it drag. Had it been edited down, I feel like it would have made a perfectly suitable (if unexciting) opener. It didn’t give me much hope for everything going forward.
Then shit gets weird. The second track kicks off with a blistering sinister tremolo riff that wouldn’t sound entirely out of place on an Immortal record, complete with screams. It transitions into a weird swingy thing with a walking bass line that makes it sound like they’ll bust out some Trepalium-style big band nonsense. Instead, they loop back around to the song’s blackened start, and the whole thing is over before you can really wrap your ahead around what the fuck just happened. At this point, I figured all bets were off; there’s no telling what the band will move to next.
Naturally, this means they go straight back to the slow dad rock, which appears to be their default mode. This back-and-forth between unexpected stylistic choices and the safety of their standard sound sets the pattern for the entire album. They’ll treat you to little bits of thrash, D-beat, and even a short funk interjection, but they always fall back on that slow old-school prog sound right afterwards. It’s frustrating, and they tease you like this for the entire god damn hour this thing runs. Is this a concept album or something? It feels like it, as a couple themes seem to pop up multiple times (and it would explain the album’s length), but I feel like more could have been done with those themes to keep this from growing stale.
I’m probably being too harsh on CMX. It’s not like any individual part of this album is poorly executed or anything, and they’re certainly capable musicians with some good ideas; I just wish they explored those ideas further. As it stands, Talvikuningas felt like a slog, but it’s also over ten years old at this point. Maybe the band change things up more on their newer stuff? I can’t say I feel compelled to find out.