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Very good, but lacking definition - 83%

Noktorn, October 19th, 2006

If it's not one thing, it's another. After the (relative) demise of nu metal in the early 00's, a new genre was developed, partially as an artistic expression of its own, and partially to create a new enemy for the metal scene it pit itself against. Of course, this genre was metalcore, whose fusion of hardcore and various flavors of metal created a simplified and easily opposable genre that could be made a scapegoat for the perceived decline of music by both sides of the fence. 'Tis always a wonder how the most hated things are frequently those that last the longest. Darwin's theories never functioned appropriately for obscure cultural trivia such as this. Either way, the metal scene hunkered down for another period of indeterminate length for such a genre's mass popularity to blow over.

Slightly after the popularization of metalcore was, logically, further experimentation with its various components. The most popular of these experiments (apart from the more or less traditional metalcore sound typified by artists such as Lamb Of God and Killswitch Engage) was undoubtedly the fusion of death metal and metalcore, now frequently known as deathcore. This particular stylistic differentiation too split into essentially two varieties: that of bands fusing Gothenburg-style melodic death metal with metalcore (for instance, The Black Dahlia Murder), or those those that combined the more brutal variety of death metal with metalcore, such as Animosity. The former developed into the standard of metalcore over time as the Gothenburg riffing and melodic sense appealed to a wider audience, while the latter occupied a sort of no-man's land, too extreme for the masses, but too attached to the stigma of metalcore for most extreme metallers.

About the same time that metalcore had really started to take off (not merely in development as a musical genre, but in critical and commercial success as well) Despised Icon arrived on the metal scene. Forming in 2002 and releasing their debut LP the same year, the band achieved modest but present commercial and critical success with their release. The high-valued beast that would later release the much more successful and popular 'The Healing Process' was not yet present, and was instead diligently plugging away on Galy Records. On this LP, we see Despised Icon in the crudest form they'd ever been; though that form is actually far more refined than numerous bands many years their senior. Perhaps commendation of the band's timing is in order: one of the earlier bands to experiment and succeed with a full deathcore style, and certainly the one who popularized it the most amongst its followers.

Despite being one of the originators of this specific style, Despised Icon doesn't have a particularly archtypical sound. In fact, without knowledge of their later works, the metalcore elements on this release wouldn't be quite as apparent as they seem to be in hindsight. Instead, we have tightly wound, percussive death metal with metalcore influence mostly apparent in structure as opposed to obvious aesthetic qualities. The music is rather neatly divided between furious, claustrophobic blasting passages reminiscent of Morbid Angel in composition (though not in melodic style) and slower hardcore/metalcore passages where the dual vocalists employed by Despised Icon are used to full effect. The music is reasonably technical, with guitar and drumwork that frequently changes not merely in note values but in rhythmic concepts and playing styles.

Dual vocals on this album are handled extremely well. Handled by Steve Marois and the now-departed Marie-Hélène Landry, the former concentrates on guttural brutal death metal vocals with the occasional scream, while the latter covers a wide range of growls and shrieks. Marois is certainly very skilled and competent at his style, but Landry is most definitely given more space to shine within the context of this music. Landry is certainly one of the best female unclean vocalists that metal has seen, being both more brutal and guttural than her predominantly male peers as well as displaying an unusually high technical skill. Particularly of note is her ability to swing from high to low pitches on a dime (not unlike George 'Corpsegrinder' Fisher of Cannibal Corpse), and even more impressively being able to pass through the entire range of notes when doing as such. The rapidly changing shape of the music on 'Consumed By Your Poison' seems to fit Landry's style more than Marois', who is somewhat left out of his element. When the two work together, however, such as on 'Clef De Voûte', both vocalists are used expertly, adding an entirely new rhythmic dimension to the music on this LP.

Other instrumentation is somewhat less awe-inspiring, but certainly no less capable. The strings are quite varied in rhythmic and melodic styles, though the riffs don't seem to really stick in one's mind after a listen. They seem to provide more propulsion and texture to bounce off the vocals rather than taking the forefront themselves. As mentioned before, they possess a relatively high degree of melodic skill, which accentuates the constantly changing and transforming nature of the music on this album. Drumming (on this album handled by Alexandre Erian, who would later take over vocals after the departure of Marie-Hélène Landry) works in a similar fashion, though it seems more mechanical on this album than on later releases after Alex's move to vocals. Many of the elements of percussion that would be accentuated on later releases are present here, albeit in a simpler and more primitive form, such as the experimentation with cymbals and sudden shifts in tempo and style, not unlike the stringed instruments. Overall, all the instrumentation on this album is handled capably, if not in an incredibly unique fashion.

Also worth mention is 'Consumed By Your Poison' on a lyrical front, with a rather interesting form of metalcore-inspired lyrics inserted into the framework of those that would appear on, say, a grindcore CD. While 'The Healing Process' would shift its focus to more abstract issues of personal empowerment within a shackling society, 'Consumed By Your Poison' concentrates more on direct cultural criticism that, interestingly enough, benefits highly from what appears to be a feminine as well as masculine critique of such issues. And yet, they are not in the ways one would think; Landry handles all the French lyrics on the album, while Marois handles those in English. Marois attacks contemporary Western culture's emphasis on shallow ideals, while Landry is more preoccupied with extended metaphors describing one's victimized role in society (reflecting more the later lyrical themes of the band). Such a dynamic sets an intriguing tone, with alternating attacks on the lives of most people today ramming home the central point that all is not as it should be.

The album boasts two central flaws: a lack of differentiation between tracks, and a very short running time. Clocking in at less than a half hour in length, 'Consumed By Your Poison' ends very quickly, despite how good it is. However, this may be a good thing considering most of the tracks sound very similar to each other, and certain ones seem to be there merely to pad out the length. In particular, the two tracks that appear to aspire to be grindcore ('Dead King' and 'Despise The Icons') appear to be genuine afterthoughts that were written in a couple hours when eight tracks clocking in at twenty-five minutes seemed a little too short for comfort to the band. This lack of differentiation is really what handicaps an otherwise fantastic album; the philosophical points of the LP fall short when one can't tell the difference between one and the other, preventing a genuine bridge from forming between meaning and music.

If you purchase the 2006 re-release of this album, you will have an additional two bonus tracks, those being re-recordings of the first two tracks of the album, 'Compel To Copulate' and 'Poissonnariat' with the 'The Healing Process' lineup. Hearing the tracks in the new format is rather interesting: they possess a more organic, less strict feel, with looser guitar and drumwork. The incorporation of the vocals of Erian also alter the tracks, making them somewhat more pit-friendly with the incorporation of his hardcore vocal style. The two tracks, while probably not worth picking up a second copy of the album for, are an enjoyable inclusion to the release, making it a preferable choice over the original if just for novelty alone.

The debut release of Despised Icon, while flawed, is certainly a worthwhile addition to one's metal collection. Interesting for both musical and philosophical reasons, it is a jack of all trades, incorporating elements of historical, musical, and social significance. The open-minded metaller should give it a go, as well as those who haven't heard this style pulled off correctly. A very worthwhile album that sheds light on things to come.