"Prog in Metal's clothing": This is the tag that in my opinion best describes the music featured on The Envisage Conundrum, the fine album released about two years ago by Godsticks, a trio from Wales. This is a definition that has its own share of problems, though, since for some time now "Metal" has taken the place that was once proper of "Jazz" and "Classical Music" as a "building block" of the "Prog" palette, so that today one could argue that the tag "Prog-Metal" could be regarded as being just another synonymous for "Prog". A trajectory that one could regard as being parallel to that of King Crimson: from the saxophone and Mellotron (and violin) that are typical of the early days of the group to the "nuevo metal" of such albums as The ConstruKtion Of Light.

A skillful and meticulous use of overdubbing and a highly contrapuntal concept of music - a feature that can already be found at the "drawing board" stage, long before mixing - made understanding those complex knots not terribly difficult. As the producer, also recording and mixing engineer, Joe Gibb appeared as the proverbial "fourth member" of the group, which featured Darran Charles on vocals (who, in his more "stadium-like" moments, reminded me a bit of Aaron Lewis from Staind), guitars, and keyboards (Charles also being the group's main composer); Steve Roberts on drums and keyboards; and Dan Nelson on bass.

The music composed by Charles possesses its own peculiar form of complexity, which is maybe not too apparent on first listening but which clearly appears as one tries to sing those songs' melodic lines, vocal harmonies and guitar counterpoints included. While Nelson's bass work was very good, it was the agile and precise performance by Roberts on drums - all odd time signatures and fine timbres - that worked as the perfect foil for Charles's vocals/guitar combination.

This long intro is meant to clearly convey the disconcert I experienced when I first listened to the group's new album, Emergence. And while the featured musicians are the same as before, there's a new producer, James Loughrey (whose name I've never heard before - my fault, of course), also new musical goals.

Simplifying a bit, I'd say that this is an album that could really be filed under "Metal" - something that adds its own peculiar share of problems, comes the time of critical judgment. And while it's true that quite often "Metal" makes itself an easy target when it comes to caricature and ridicule (it's not my field of expertise, so I forgot the name of the group, but not long ago a friend of mine told me about a concert he attended where the group had the heads of recently killed pigs hanging from hooks on stage, while the singer sang while wearing a pig head as a mask - whether it was a fake or a real one, I can't say). Starting with the long-gone days of hard rock I've always been sorry that these noisy streams are snubbed by almost everyone, since it's proper music that's actually performed we are talking about, presenting many interesting points.

Simplifying once more, I'd say that Emergence replaces the great variety and the contrapuntal conception of The Envisage Conundrum with a strong sense of homogeneity and by focusing on a limited number of elements. So we could say that, while the previous album ran the risk of being "slippery and difficult to get", the new one runs the risk of being "monotonous". This is a question that each listener will have to address at the moment of listening to the album, but that can be dealt with in rational terms.

Charles's compositional language and vocal delivery have not changed a whole lot. But the vocals/guitar pair now work as the focal point of the new songs, with fewer elements - while not absent, counterpoint from vocals and guitar is quite restricted, when compared to the previous album - competing for listeners' attention. Which by itself doesn't necessarily imply monotony. Melodic variety is greater than it sounds on first listening, while Charles - a guitar player whose specialty appears to be the construction of arpeggios and songs, not the virtuoso-like solo - offers quite a few variations to the formula: listen to those bagpipe-sounding passages in his brief solo at the end of Hopeless Situation, and to those "Eastern-Fripp" passages in the closing track Lack Of Scrutiny, both sounding a lot more interesting to me than those "Satriani-inspired" passages one can hear here and there in the album's few guitar solos.

The problem - or, if readers so prefer: the potential source of risk - resides in the role played by the rhythm section, and in what one could call the "ambience" of the album.

Instead of "an elastic counterpoint", here the bass is called to provide "an agile backing", which it does. What's disconcerting is the place where the mix places the drums: miles in the background. There are a few moments - the start of Ruin and Emergence, some passages on Lack Of Scrutiny, where the bass drum comes to the fore - where drums can be heard clearly, which becomes a source of frustration as soon as one notices that drums and cymbals are once again back in the distance. There's an enormous amount of "white noise" from the cymbals, like a "crash" being played (hard!) as a "ride". Funny thing, the liner notes say the drums were recorded in a different studio, something which one imagines should be a source of fine timbres!

I found the "place" where the music is played quite bizarre: it sounds like an enormous, cavernous hangar with lots of echoes and reverberations. Or, if readers so prefer, the first four tracks on the album have the listener on the balcony of a place with bad acoustics. There's an "acoustic" track featuring strings which I suppose is intended to work as an "ear cleaner". Then, after the appropriately obsessive Hopeless Situation listeners will find themselves standing on the ground floor of the aforementioned enormodome, listening to three tracks that sound sonically related to the group's previous album. But those wind instruments that should add variety to Lack Of Scrutiny, like those strings on All That Remains, suffer due to timbral colours that make them sound quite different from the beauty of the cello in Borderstomp - Part 2 (Blind) and Raised Concerns, both tracks appearing on The Envisage Conundrum.

It's at this point that I wear my "Producer Cap" (the one I own has this motto written on the front: "Everybody is entitled to my own opinion") in order to draw my conclusions.

Darran Charles's composing style, his vocal approach, his style on guitar, are by themselves all quite emphatic, so they do not need more elements that can push the whole over the border that leads to one becoming a caricature of her/himself. One of such elements is excess when it comes to homogeneity. Which makes me regard the second part of the album as being - by far - quite superior to the first one.

While taking off my "Producer Cap", I happened to think about a definition a friend of mind recently used while talking about a US group that was supposed to play in the town I live in the following day: "four double-vodka music". When I asked what he meant by that, he so replied: "You don't know about this stuff, you should go and see for yourself. Guys drink four double vodkas, and as soon as the group starts playing, they all jump in the air, shaking their heads. That's the way one listens to that music."

So, maybe the producer's intention when recording Emergence was to give listeners the sound of a cavernous place, plus four double vodkas, all at the price of a CD - which I obviously listened to on my usual studio monitors, while sitting, perfectly sober, keeping my head still.

In closing, I'd like to listen to a remix of this album, with drums to the fore, and drier vocals.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2015

CloudsandClocks.net | Aug. 11, 2015