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Gaining respect in the past few years, Intronaut stands out as the prime progressive sludge band these days. It's not that Mastodon has gone a more proggy route or that Isis has disbanded, it's that they've emerged from their primordial waves of sound and filled a niche that is entirely their own, and by their progression since this album and the last, it seems that they may be staying here comfortably for a long time.
Valley of Smoke stands out in the sludge genre by being a bit more prog-oriented than, say, the repetitive post-metal roots of Isis or Pelican. Rather, instead of repetition, they relish in lots of atmospheric windy soft sections, and during the heavy sections they are in a state of constant change, shifting time signatures and shouting your standard sludge vocals to give some interesting punctuation to other sections. The time changes are never ostentatious technicality though. They serve to give a very amorphous sound to the entire album, giving another layer to the already noisy genre we call sludge.
While this album is totally about the atmosphere, the rhythm section in the group is probably the highlight. Joe Lester's bass has a really fat, jazzy tone that winds around the guitar melodies and chords really well. Meanwhile, Danny Walker does similar things with his percussion, and while it is quite obvious he is skilled at his craft, he performs very tightly and fits the music so well you may not notice the skill required to play those parts. Together, the two pull together the songs, and are the backbone of everything, giving the two other guitars a great foundation for both their reverbing soft guitars or dissonant noisy riffs.
One of the best examples of this tight rhythm section is in the intro to "Core Relations", which is set behind some soft echoing guitars, while the drums and guitar play off each other in a slow, but syncopated and complex manner. They join together so well that they build the haunting atmosphere simply by repetition, before the guitars start to fade in with the growled vocals and distorted riffs. This is probably the highlight of the album, the peak in terms of emotion and sheer songwriting talent.
Probably the other peak would be "Miasma", which is one of the tracks that gives off the most tension in the album. The verses go back and forth between shouted vocals and an emotional sung line, both in the shouted 'caveman' style so frequent in sludge music. This builds an angry and terse mood, and when the atmosphere drops in, the solemn guitar seems to acknowledge these emotions and release the tension, until it all builds into a heavy explosion of noise towards the end.
Valley of Smoke is definitely one of the stronger albums of 2010, being one where technical musicianship can go hand in hand with creating exactly the kind of atmosphere meant for sludge. It's such a cliche saying a band is really technical but the technicality works for the album, but in this case their musicality and ear for what works in a good atmospheric sludge song makes their level of musicianship shown absolutely perfect for sludge. The band knows exactly what to do to build more tension at the time, whether it's a quick shift in rhythm or an odd note choice or even simply droning on a minor scale riff. This band makes it work, and Valley of Smoke is an excellent example of their talent.
Originally posted on metalmusicarchives.com
Wow, am I the first to review this a year after its release? Stranger things have been known to happen I guess...
Anyway, this is the third full-length release by the Los Angeles prog/post-metal band Intronaut and follow-up to 2008's excellent Prehistoricisms. I'm not going to try to fully describe the band's sound here, but instead I'll compare Valley of Smoke to the aforementioned previous record. On the surface it has quite a few similarities with its predecessor, but that by no means is an indication that the band is running out of ideas. In fact, there a quite a few progressions this time around, which makes this an improvement in nearly every way.
The first track Elegy starts things off hard 'n' heavy, with an catchy yet crushing post-metal riff (Kind of like The Literal Black Cloud on Prehistoricisms). However, after a few minutes something new comes up. The clean guitar passages are often accompanied by clean vocals as well, a feature absent from Intronaut's music until now. While some may find them a bit jarring or annoying, it is my opinion that they contribute to the mellower atmosphere quite well. The clean vocals show up in just about every song, and in one song even (Core Relations) replace harsh vocals entirely. Fans of brutality should not despair, however, since there are still plenty of harsh screams throughout the album.
Another (slightly less obvious) improvement comes in the songwriting department. The songs feel more cohesive here, always to the point and without any "why did they just do that" bits. Some may find parts a bit meander-y at times (Above and the title track, perhaps), but I don't believe that to be the case. The band does throw quite a few curveballs in the mix to keep things interesting, and many of the tracks contain hidden little gems that aren't obvious at first, keeping the record interesting for multiple listens. Although I wouldn't call it a grower per se, there are many things waiting to be discovered here.
Standout songs (for me, anyway) would have to be Elegy, Miasma, and Sunderance. Each has an excellent blend of heavy riffage and clean excursions which take you on an awesome journey. The title track is also great, with its double-tracked drums and bass.
All this to say, Intronaut have made a mighty impressive progressive/post-metal album, and one of my very favorite records of 2010. Every element is done exceedingly well, the guitars, the drums (Danny Walker is a god!), the bass (Joe Lester is a god!), etc. It's still one of my favorite albums, and has something new every time I listen to it. If Intronaut can keep up this streak, they'll be giants pretty soon. Buy it!