without Internet Explorer,
in 1280 x 960 resolution
In the closing months of 2003, the collective fanbase of Cryptopsy essentially fell to its knees weeping with joy. With all the glory of a conquering hero, Lord Worm was returning to the fold, and for a brief moment, doves sang out, dwarves danced in the streets, and all seemed right in the world. This really isn't even hyperbole; the level of insane hype at that time over his return was catastrophic, and the question that was on everyone's lips was 'None So Vile Part Two?' Despite the assurances from the band that such a return to the old style would not be occurring any time soon, the greater community still seemed full of wide-eyed hope at the proposition of more genre-defining brutal death metal.
Granted, things did start to get a little weird in the nearly two years preceding the release of 'Once Was Not', the long-awaited fifth Cryptopsy full length. A nearly unfathomable five years has passed since 'And Then You'll Beg' and the departure of the widely derided Mike DiSalvo and the very brief stay of Martin Lacroix, and the return of whom is essentially God to the Cryptopsy-worshipping community was an event like no other. Details started to emerge about the album, and some skepticism arose over it: concept album? 'Angelskingarden' and 'Carrionshine'? Lord Worm stating that he was unable to do the ultra-low growls of old, but that there would be a minute-long scream and more intelligible lyrics? While it didn't entirely dampen the rabid anticipation, it certainly put a magnifying glass to the inner workings of the Cryptopsy camp.
Written by the band essentially without a vocalist (and soon to lack a lead guitarist; Jon Levasseur announced his departure in January of 2005, much to the disappointment of fans), the Worm was brought in seemingly on a whim, and upon his acceptance of the offer (which was uncomfortably monetarily oriented, in my opinion) he for all intents and purposes had a CD thrown on his lap and told to write the lyrics and vocal lines for this fully assembled album. A daunting task, to be sure; particularly when coming back to a band such as Cryptopsy, which, in his time away, had exploded to the top of the death metal pile. Worm himself stated that he knew very little about how successful the band had become until Mounier filled him in on the details.
And after the agonizingly long wait, after studio updates and podcast interviews and promo tracks (the uproar around 'The Pestilence That Walketh In Darkness (Psalm 91 : 5-8)' was incredible), the album had arrived on the doorsteps of numerous dedicated fans. The anticipation, the waiting, the pining and theorizing had all come to a head in the few days before its release, and then, when it all seemed to be too much to handle, It arrived. OWN, as it was colloquially referred to (often stated that its acronym determined its quality), was now ready for consumption by the masses. And what was the mob's response to this product of five years time?
Well, it was pretty much a resounding "...What?"
If the objective of 'Once Was Not' was to assure Cryptopsy fans of the steadiness of the band in the face of massive lineup changes, Cryptopsy dropped the ball right to the center of the earth. What was it that surprised people? The Spanish acoustic intro? The high-pitched vocals? The bone-dry production? The sound effects, the spoken word portions, the gravity blasts, or the ten thousand other elements that sent 'Once Was Not' a lightyear out of the normal spectrum of death metal and into territory that some fans embraced, some rejected, and all were utterly perplexed by. 'None So Vile Part 2' this was not. Not by a long shot.
'Experimental' is the operative word here, mind-bendingly so. There had been glimpses of weirdness before, particularly on 'Whisper Supremacy' and 'And Then You'll Beg', with their acoustic passages and didgeridoo solos, but never before had they seemed to be the emphasis of the entire record. But here it was, packed to the brim with twists and turns that worked rather debatably given the fan. While markedly less punishingly technical than the last two albums, 'Once Was Not' manages to be just as much of a headache-inducing listen as those two, only this time all the pain is derived from the constant influx of musical ideas per song.
Five seconds in to 'Luminum' will dash your hopes for traditional brutal death; the Spanish acoustic guitar seems to have a quality of 'atmosphere'; an atmosphere of what, we're not really sure, but it possesses that sense of undefinable 'atmosphere' that stems from acoustic passages and overbearing keyboards. And then it rips into 'In The Kingdom Where Everything Dies, The Sky Is Mortal', which makes sense for a little while, and then, what the hell? That strobed-out screech is Lord Worm? Where's the guttural ingurgitations of 'None So Vile'? Well, they're totally absent on this release; in fact, for the first time in Cryptopsy's history, the vocals are not only reasonable to ignore, but easy to ignore. Listening closely results in Lord Worm having turned into, well, just another death metal vocalist; surely a tragedy of someone of his stature. But the rest of the band is good, right?
...Sort of. The music is similarly jumpy in nature, but instead of between technical passages, the hops are taking place between entirely different styles of music or metal: the jazz opening of 'Keeping The Cadaver Dogs Busy', for instance, isn't clever so much as eye-roll inducing, and possesses an unpleasant air of pretense that makes the listening experience less than enjoyable. There are gems here: 'Adeste Infidelis', 'Curse Of The Great', and other such tracks, which depend less upon the 'experimental' elements and more on songwriting tend to be much more satisfactory than 'Angelskingarden''s endless array of new movements, each of which dances around without really going anywhere in particular.
The production really doesn't help things. Probably the worst that Cryptopsy's had, it possesses no soul or atmosphere, despite what desperate attempts from the band want you to think. It's a clear example of the engineer just setting everything at one hundred percent and walking away: all the instruments are clear and balanced, but the guitar tone is hopelessly weak and colorless, and the drums are the driest since 'Altars Of Madness' creaked its way into our collective hearts. The higher pitch of Lord Worm's delivery exacerbates such an issue dramatically, resulting in an album with none of the punch of previous Cryptopsy releases. Combine this with the spotty songwriting and it makes the album a pretty painful thing to listen through, yet not much due to the fault of the band themselves.
Technical performances are all top notch, of course. Granted, this is par for the course for a Cryptopsy album; the thing that's most increased is the drumming. Mounier's talent has extended even further than before, particularly in speed and employment of the gravity blast (which is actually used rather tastefully). Unfortunately, with the aberrant production, even his performance is a difficult listen. I know that it seems like I'm denigrating the album terribly; I'm not. After one peels back the layers of terrible production and experimentalism, there's a core of engaging songwriting present like on all Cryptopsy releases. But damn if it's not difficult to get to.
This is too bad, because there are some excellent songs on here. 'The Pestilence That Walketh In Darkness (Psalm 91 : 5-8)', despite its overly melodic sensibilities, is actually extremely well written and powerful. 'Endless Cemetary' is probably the most similar to older Cryptopsy, and is a very pleasing listen. The duo of 'Adeste Infidelis' and 'Curse Of The Great' are incredibly strong and use their experimental elements well and unobtrusively. Often it feels like the album is getting way too ahead of itself and is leaving songwriting behind at times; tracks like these take it back a notch and bring the traditional Cryptopsy brand of death metal back, and it's a welcome trip.
'Once Was Not' could, in some ways, be classified as a failed experiment. Luckily for Cryptopsy, a failed experiment for them is a fine album for anyone else. Give it a try; the possibility of actually liking it is rather iffy, but the attempt is what makes the album.