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"From the coast of gold, across the seven seas
I’m travellin on, far and wide
But now it seems, I’m just a stranger to myself
And all the things I sometimes do, it isn’t me but someone else"
A lot can happen to a musician in six years: the dedicated ones often improve their dexterity (Cynic), while the lazy ones sometimes see their skills slowly depreciate (Metallica); those that keep challenging themselves through their writing usually develop a greater command over structure (Atheist), while others just keep churning out increasingly slicker products from the same old mold with a terribly cheapening result (Death); and as new influences slowly seep into one’s playing style, that style itself tends to shift into exciting—or in some cases, dangerous—territory.
Aghora’s “Formless” is a fairly typical album in this sense, as the music clearly shows that main guitarist Santiago Dobles has been studying up on theory and sharpening his chops quite considerably since the last Aghora record, but unfortunately for him, the loss of legendary bassist Sean Malone and the reduced role of master percussionist Sean Reinert really augment all of Dobles’ flaws as a guitar player/composer, and in light of this, “Formless” provides little of substance besides a shining example of why theoretical knowledge and instrumental prowess (alone) are insufficient; instead, it is the ability to invoke sounds that evoke specific emotions/concepts and then organize those sounds so that they form a coherent thematic statement of import and originality (an ability that this album—even after multiple, close inspections—clearly lacks) which separates the true musical masters from the failures, wannabes, and wankers.
Fresh off the fingers of five sickeningly artificial instrument tones, “Formless’” first strike never fails to smack this reviewer right in the skull the moment the CD starts spinning (and though Neil Kernon has already proven that he needs to stay the fuck away from producing metal albums, Kernon gets let off the hook for this review since “Formless” is primarily produced by Dobles brothers, Santiago and Gustavo). Mercifully, the Dobles’ clean and soloed guitar tones tend to pass by as harmless balls, but unfortunately, this batter’s skull seems unable to escape a beating at the horny hands of the remaining instruments, whose hollowed out tones have as much authenticity and resonance as a corked bat stolen from Sammy Sosa’s batting practice armory.
Furthermore, like an unexpected rain delay, “Formless’” overlong seventy-minute running time truly makes it a challenge to not get up out of one’s seat and storm away in disgust after soaking in the downpour of shit spurred by nu-metal-esque outbursts like “Open Close the Book” (seriously, did someone press a Linkin Park track on the disc by mistake?), or frankly, any time when guitar distortion takes over the album's loudspeaker to announce that the audience is about to be whisked away to the nearest Hot Topic store for an exclusive preview of the upcoming Slipknot album!
Admittedly, these types of over-aggressive, angst-driven guitar riffs were fully noticeable on Aghora’s debut, but in truth, they were not nearly as annoying back then, because the music simply was not as guitar-oriented as it is currently, with the main backing instruments (drums and bass) being relegated to a primarily supportive role. Where before, the Seans (Malone and Reinert) were able to create layers of independent rhythm and harmony, here, the bass and drums are just boring background filler with little aspiration for independence, intrigue, or any semblance of innovation, and a bizarre affinity for the kind of cheap, tinny tone that a pre-teen shopper might expect to get out of a Fisher Price instrument.
The above faults might be acceptable if the album’s leading instruments (guitar and vocals) had enough musical substance of their own to cover up a rhythm section that’s as colorful and contoured as a $10 Wal-Mart rug, but sadly, “Formless’” guitar work is about as interesting as a package of Michaels homemade jewelry, and furthermore, the vocal performance is a far-fucking-cry from what Danishta Rivero treated these ears to on Aghora’s debut, as new vocalist Diana Serra shares the same weak, overproduced, whiny-bitch singing style/tone that one would expect to find on-sale in a Wal-Mart CD rack from whatever the fuck flavor-of-the-month “female metal” band is currently swimming in cash from the sperm-stained wallets and patched-out purses that tend to represent the majority of today’s record-buying youth consumers.
Because this consumer is still coming off the stupendous spiritual highs of the previous Aghora album, "Formless'" biggest disgrace is perhaps the fact that there is only ONE good riff (which starts at 0:44 on “Atmas Heave”) on this entire fucking album, and not only is it is far too reminiscent of something from the ‘90/‘91 Cynic demos, but it even gets played the fuck out by being recycled four or five times through the course of two separate songs (technically, its second appearance in the instrumental “Deadbag” is a minor variation on the first riff, but the two parts are so similar that their affect is almost identical). Only adding to this discouragement is the fact that the rest of “Formless’” guitar work falls neatly into two shapes: first, the “I know how to follow scales and key signatures but couldn’t write an interesting or original riff/solo if someone slapped an industrial-strength cracker around my nuts and screamed, ‘WRITE OR DIE!’” style that tends to fill up albums by Dream Theater, Symphony X, and their many clones; second, the type of choppy, mosh-happy mallcore riffs that could no doubt convert the typical mallgoth/scene kid into a full-fledged Aghora fan if given a little airplay on MTV2’s Headbangers’ Ball or a touring spot alongside metal stalwarts like Lacuna Coil, Arch Enemy, Nightwish, et al.
If there is any consolation to be found in this shameless, fecalpheliac production, it is that “Formless” does seem to show that Aghora—at least, in its current incarnation—are mostly just honest failures (though Santiago Dobles does tend to weave through Wankerville whenever he’s speeding along in one of his sparkly guitar solos). But realistically, in music—as in life—all that really matters is the presence of merit, however abundant/lacking it may be, and in that regard, “Formless” is virtually devoid of any substance that might satisfy the thirsts of the demanding listener (aside from its attractive artwork and packaging); that the band members clearly put a colossal effort into all aspects of this release only convinces this customer to avoid purchasing the next Aghora disc, even if its conception takes another six years.
This album has been a long time in the making, and whether out of nostalgia, compassion, or simple lack of willpower, I had originally given it a rating/review that now, after more time spent with the music contained therein, seems undeserved.
The most horrible thing that befell this band since the release of their debut has unquestionably been the loss of Sean Malone. If there was ever a band to be used as a reference in the question of "how important is a bass player?", Aghora is it. Malone's departure has drained the life out of this band and distilled their sound into a typical, bareboned display of "progressive" metal.
Expectedly, the band's focus seems to have shifted entirely. With Alan Goldstein being unable to maintain a sufficiently prominent bass presence, the album has effectively become the Santiago Dobles show. He's a mighty guitar player for sure - he shreds, sweeps, thrashes, and harmonizes his way through these songs with a great display of skill - but all of it comes off as inconsequential because there's rarely anything to be found behind it. The guitars overpower everything in the mix, and no longer do the other band members seem to have any desire to step up and contribute in anything but the most predictable of ways. As a result, the "heavy" portions of a given song generally consist of a typical thrash riff backed by trite double bass runs that sound completely sterile and indiscernible from the thrash riffs and double bass runs that dominate other songs throughout the album. The most blatant examples of this can be found in songs like "Atma's Heave", "Open Close the Book", "Dual Alchemy", "Dime", and "Mahayana". "Atma's Heave" sounds like a really cool song the first time you hear, and it is... but as you make your way through the album (time and time again), you can't help but question how often a band can expect to rehash the same idea and expect their audience to not notice. The spacier and dreamier aspects of Aghora's music have also been reigned in to an extent and watered down in lieu of a more thoroughly metallic presentation. I attribute this completely to the loss of Malone and the reduced role of drummer Sean Reinert - the two of them are nigh unmatched in filling an otherwise typical song with pulsing dynamics and that mystical feeling of something "more" going on in the music than just the music itself. Sean Reinert is able to carry that pathos on some of the tracks he plays on, but one player alone cannot be enough.
That being said, many of the instrumental passages are a step up on account of sheer showmanship. The guitar solos are wonderful, and many of the melodies and harmonies sound amazing, with Dobles showing off a wide range of influences in the school of guitar. Though again, this turns into more of a downfall because there is a lack of balance. Goldstein follows the guitars almost note for note, only occasionally breaking for some slap or fretless interludes (both of which are nice, but rare), and Giann Rubio drums in a very regimented, mechanical style that lacks variety and fails to mesh with Goldstein's bass playing in any notable manner. In the end, you're left with Santiago Dobles trying to keep your attention with guitar heroics, and it doesn't always work.
So what's good?
Sean Reinert is still here - thank your god of choice - drumming on 6 out of 13 tracks. In my eyes, he is the sole factor that keeps this album from degenerating into a soulless husk of self-absorbed metal. His style is limber and organic, serving to infuse life into an otherwise dull atmosphere; his sense of synergy and dynamics keeps the music from grating on the ears; and his cymbal work is as elegant and fluid as ever, providing a free-flowing sense of progression. The drum kits themselves are also something to note - Reinert's sounds warm, full and lush; while Rubio's is more mechanized, if you will... his snare almost sounds triggered when compared to Reinert's - you wouldn't be far off if you said that the kits are reflections of the players who utilize them.
Unfortunately, even Sean Reinert isn't always able to save the music on this disc. Some of the tracks he plays on, such as "Open Close the Book" and "Dual Alchemy", come out so boring and pointless that they may as well have used a drum machine. On the other hand, he absolutely makes my two favorite songs on here, "1316" and "Fade" - the former sounding something like a long lost Cynic track, and the latter coming the closest to resembling the majestic beauty of the first Aghora album.
In Rubio's favor, he isn't all bad. His performance on the 12+ minute title track is nice, and it's right behind "1316" and "Fade" as far as the songs on this album that don't completely suck.
The vocals... meh. Diana Serra isn't any better or worse than Danishta Rivero. She's different, and I'd say it's ultimately going to come down to personal preference. The vocals here don't extend as far as they did on Aghora's S/T, and there's nothing here to rival the wonderful vocal harmonies found on songs like "Kali Yuga" and "Existence"... Diana is more straightforward and immediately appealing, which I suppose will appeal to many people who aren't into high-reaching vocal extension. I saw a line drawn to Marcela Bovio (Elfonia, Stream of Passion, Ayreon), and I think I agree - pretty, soothing, and pleasant... but not much that strikes out and really grabs you.
Overall, my impression of this album has only gotten worse with time. The more I listened, the more I felt an urge stirring deep within to come back here and edit my review to something more appropriate - and here I am. "Atma's Heave", "1316", "Fade", and "Formless" are all clear winners as far as individual songs go, but the album as a whole sort of falls flat.
After almost seven years, they could've put a bit more thought into it.