Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Album Review: The Contortionist-Language

If you're a fan of modern progressive metal in any form, you're probably well aware of The Contortionist. Since the release of their widely-praised debut album Exoplanet in 2010, The Contortionist has become one of the fastest rising bands in the genre thanks to their knack for combining intricate melodies with death metal intensity. Armed with a new vocalist and more subdued sound, The Contortionist's third LP Language marks the start of a new chapter for the Indiana sextet.  

Language sees The Contortionist further expanding on the more progressive sound they established on their 2012 LP Intrinsic. The deathcore elements that ruled Exoplanet are now all but gone from the equation. The Contortionist's transition from a progressive deathcore band to a straight-up progressive band is relatively seamless in large part due to the presence of new vocalist Mike Lessard. Lessard-who is also the frontman for criminally underrated prog metal act Last Chance to Reason- is a pitch-perfect fit for this band. Lessard is a phenomenal vocalist with a range that allows the band to cover more ground musically than ever before. While previous vocalist Jonathan Carpenter was an excellent harsh vocalist, his middling clean vocals prevented the band from thriving when they entered melodic territory. Lessard's ability to sing as well he screams erases any previous vocal limitations this band had and is one of the driving forces behind the success of Language.  

The first half of Language is pretty much prog-metal bliss. The Contortionist is firing on all cylinders out the gate with plenty of energy, emotion and exquisite melodies galore. Droning intro "The Source" is the perfect precursor to the two-part track "Language"-which perfectly embodies everything The Contortionist is about. "Language I" establishes the new, atmosphere-heavy sound with nothing but clean vocals, muted guitar lines and low-key synths throughout while "Language II" reminds the listener that even though this incarnation of The Contortionist is primarily focused on being a progressive band, they can still play heavy material with the best of them. However, "Language I and II" are just a warmup for the brilliance of the two proceeding tracks "Integration" and "Thrive". "Integration" and "Thrive" are two of the absolute best progressive metal tracks to be released in recent memory. The grand scope and complexity of the song structures, beautiful riffing from guitarists Robby Baca and Cameron Maynad, and brief bursts of Exoplanet-esque heaviness make these tracks completely invigorating listens that only grow more striking on repeat plays. 

Ironically, just about everything after "Integration" and "Thrive" backfires. The sixth track, "Primordial Sound", comes through and kills all the momentum Language built up in the first half. With a plodding, robotic vibe running through the duration of the song, The six-and-a-half minute runtime of "Primordial Sound" feels like at least twice that. The next track "Arise" briefly gets things back on track, before the lengthy "Ebb and Flow" and "The Parable" end the album with a whimper. The haunting musical landscapes and guitar harmonies that dominate the first half of the record are replaced by repetitive, lifeless riffing that gets really old really fast. Even the vocals of Lessard suffer a dip in quality from the first half.  While Lessard's technical chops remain impressive, his reliance on repeated lyrics and delivering the vocal lines with zero emotion severely take away from the strength of his vocals. It's extremely perplexing to see an album that starts off as such a triumph descend into a stilted snoozefest when it approaches the finish line.   

Ultimately, Language is one of the most divisive and flat-out strange listens of 2014 so far. It's too great to completely ignore yet far too meandering on the whole to get overly excited about. It's almost like two different bands recorded the two halves of the album. The first five tracks are about as strong as progressive metal can get while the last four sound like low-rent versions of Traced in Air-era Cynic. I'm completely content with the fact that The Contortionist will never put out another record like Exoplanet again, but the fact that they haven't been able to match the quality of that record with their subsequent efforts is agitating. Both this album and Intrinsic have plenty of moments of brilliance that are ultimately squandered by numerous sleep-inducing songs appearing throughout the duration of the album. If they could make a record that's as consistently inspired and efficient as Exoplanet with their new sound/lineup, they would be one of the undisputed torchbearers in progressive metal. Simply put, the first half of Language would've have a brilliant EP, but thanks to a lackluster second half, it's an enjoyable but heavily flawed LP.

3.5/5 Stars
Standout Tracks
3.Language I-II          

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