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This is a difficult album. Difficult to play, and often difficult to listen to; with such a complex album it would be easy to get bogged down in the details, so in perhaps ironic contrast to the material I am reviewing I will make this concise and get to the point with uncharacteristic brevity. Having read a bit of what the band members have said and enjoying the familiarity with metal that I do, it's fairly clear what Spiral Architect's general intentions were (besides pretentious); namely, to take progressive rock- and jazz fusion-influenced metal to its logical conclusion in terms of virtuosic and compositional complexity, with all the bizarre time signatures, noodly guitar parts, and schizophrenic structures you'd expect. Major influences range from Psychotic Waltz in their more technical moments to Mahavishnu Orchestra at their heaviest. A Sceptic's Universe is relentlessly technical, only giving respite during a few key moments with softer sections or more traditional metal grooves. The compositions are long and "progressive" in nearly every sense of the word, rarely repeating themselves at all, much less stooping to anything as uncouth as a "verse" or "chorus". And, in case there was any doubt, let me put this to rest right now: these guys are incredibly skilled, easily some of the best metal has to offer. The singer especially is at times an absolute dead ringer for Buddy Lackey, at others reminds me of a less nasal John Arch, who are of course two of my all-time favorite singers. The question of course is that with all this complexity and skill, do they come up with some good music? The answer, as with most things, is both yes and no.
A number of metaphors spring to mind when attempting to summarize the album. A giant tower, perhaps the "Spiral Tower" from the Psychotic Waltz song that Black Sabbath's Spiral Architect built; monolithic, infinitely complex, but at places so large and heavy it threatens to collapse under its own weight. A psychedelic experience so fast and intense that you are bewildered and must struggle to make any sense out of what you've seen, and are only partially successful. A collection of verbose short stories written in your second language, only some of which end up being worth the large effort required to read and understand their florid prose.
The last example especially characterizes well why this album can be very frustrating; on some songs it can sound like just a series of unrelated technical exercises, and you just want to yell at the band "GET TO THE POINT!" But there isn't always one there. "Conjuring Collapse" is the only song that is completely pointless, but at the same time only a few are completely free from at least a moment or two of that frustration. However, when the train of thought holds true it can be immensely satisfying, resulting in masterpieces even. The winding, writhing "Insect" springs to mind, especially reminiscent of Psychotic Waltz's debut, if A Social Grace had been updated with the miniaturization and added complexity one would expect after a decade of development. The spacy "Cloud Constructor" on the other hand sounds like a similar treament given to Into the Everflow. Of course as with many modern replacements, some of the character of their predecessors is lost; the emotional impact of Psychotic Waltz is not present in full force, but perhaps I would sing a different tune if A Sceptic's Universe were nearly as consistent as A Social Grace.