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A Significant Improvement. - 80%

Perplexed_Sjel, May 20th, 2009

This was unexpected. ‘Proving Ground’ turned out to prove very little and in doing so, came across as mediocre. My time listening to Penance has been strange, to say the least. They’re a band who don’t seem to know what style suits them and because of that, they’ve sounded aimless, directionless and mediocre for a long time. This record, ‘Alpha & Omega’ is a new chapter in the bands illustrious career. When I initially discovered the band, with the record ‘Parallel Corners’, I was impressed. They had a style that reminded me a lot of the British movement in heavy metal, which swayed slightly towards doom and of certain American bands who pioneered a sound that would later influence sub-genres like southern metal and stoner music, which this band partially falls into also. Penance are difficult to pin down. Their strong connections to doom are less penetrable than the subtle influences that force this record towards the path to experimentation. Penance like to confuse and often spoil their listener when they’re on top form, which has only been once in my time spent listening to them. ‘Parallel Corners’ took a distinctively different path to this, ‘Alpha & Omega’.

How? Well, Penance were much more capable back then of bringing the listener down by using moody textures and tones that brought back memories of some of the most emotive doom bands in the scene. Their style fixated around controlling the emotions of the listener with songs like ‘Reflections’, which went a long way to solidifying the emotional sound that Penance had. ‘Alpha & Omega’ however, is nothing like that. This isn’t emotional in the sense that it will beat and wear you down with tremendous ploys that allow negative emotions to overwhelm us, infecting our blood stream with a sense of melancholy. I’m not sure whether to believe this is a negative or not. I certainly wouldn’t call it a positive that Penance have neglected some of their early roots, though it certainly is a positive that they’ve turned their backs on what essentially made up their worst record, ‘The Road Less Travelled’. Ironically enough, it is just that. A record I don’t want to take me on any sort of journey, especially a long one. Its mediocrity stank the place out like a dead animal, rotting in faeces.

Harsh? Maybe so, but given the fact that I had heard ‘Parallel Corners’ first, I was under the impression Penance were a “mainstay” type of band, who kept the same sort of sound throughout their career. Perhaps its my fault for being presumptuous and not allowing the band to play with different sounds. After all, it was the debut. Then again, regardless of that information, I still believe that record was particularly disappointing and wonder how any new comer could force themselves to appreciate to the same sort of levels that they might appreciate the more enforcing ‘Parallel Corners’ and its newly adopted emotional accessibility. In regards to ‘Alpha & Omega’, as stated, this record doesn’t highlight the best elements of the aforementioned classic. This piece was created in 2001, in comparison to the epic ‘Parallel Corners’ which was released in 1994, almost an entire decade after. Given small facts like these, although trivial, they are important in the make-up of an opinion.

I wasn’t expecting this to follow along the same lines that ‘Parallel Corners’ did. In actual fact, I was expecting it to be hugely disappointing with far too many mediocre passages that would hide any redeeming factors well, like make-up applied to a woman’s scarred face, I believe Penance were going to be incapable of achieving the heights they did back in 1994 with their emotional effort. However, this isn’t exactly the case and I am left pleasantly surprised but still rather irked by the career of Penance which has now offered me two decent full-lengths, and two poor full-lengths. A 50% return rate is not good. However, I shall not dwell on the fact that Penance are overall, still a massive let down because this record, believe it or not, is actually a decent prospect and, once again, leaves me feeling positive about the next opus. I have a feeling I may be setting myself up for another fall, but that’s not the issue here. The issue is that, although they’ve altered slightly again, they have managed to come together to relive the glory days that saw some success, which is in contrast to the mid-era records that contained minimal joy.

Funnily enough, it’s the sombre piece that makes me most happiest in reflection. This effort, most of all, is more infused than any other record Penance have contributed to their discography. Or, at least, up until this point. The vocals, and even the instrumentation, is much more upbeat and stone-inspired than ever before. Despite this, there are occasions, like the opening song, that reminds me of influential doom and heavy hybrid bands that shaped the scene -- bands like Trouble, for example. This sound is very similar to that of Trouble on classics like the amazing self-titled record. Obviously, Penance will seemingly never reach the heights that that record did, but it’s a significant improvement upon the previous effort, which was a shambles. That familiar style of distant vocals alongside the foreground instrumentation is “cool” more so than anything. It reminds me of sunny summer days, the breeze in our hair, a nice cold beer and good company with which to converse with. Every one who’s anyone appreciates those classic days, spent by a glorious lake with overlooking an amazing view of rolling hills and colourful scenery. This bands visionary music inspires a lot of images in my mind, one’s of a infectiously happy kind. The career of this band turns from strange to stranger.

The best record in their collection, up until this point, is the heart wrenching piece that uses sombre vocals and heavy bass to underline the sadness in the voice of the vocalist. The second best, ‘Alpha & Omega’, is the upbeat and jovial piece that uses endless solos, heavy distorted bass with a real catchy vibe and jazz-inspired soundscapes that have each of us tapping our feet to the beat of the precise percussion. I’m happy to say that this overwhelming happy record, despite what the lyrics might say (the repetition of the lyrics, “love dies” comes instantly to mind), is contaminating and infectious from beginning to end. Evidently, the band have made the right decision in replacing a number of musicians down the years and keeping the backbone essentially the same, which will delight long standing fans of this band. The song writing and musicianship, with these changes, has improved tenfold since the early days and definitely hints at something special over the softly coated horizon. With this new Trouble inspired sound, and small hints of Electric Wizard and the like in the stoner sections -- “Cold” is a good example of this, given the intoxicating bass that brings on hallucinations that only drugs could provide, with swirling colourful patterns and inanimate objects coming to life to celebrate this record by dancing around my swelling head) -- this record is much more pleasing on the ear. More of the same, please.