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That's quite a big claim, but I do firmly believe this album has the substance to back that claim up. In my honest opinion this is as good a contender as any for the best metal album of the last few years, if not the whole decade. Its powerful, bizarre and yet infectiously catchy with great songwriting. It represents quite a change from their debut album "The Scream That Tore the Sky". That album was more blatantly death/black metal in nature, as avant-garde as some of it was. This album, while still firmly on the extreme end of the spectrum, introduces a far more "heavy metal" feel to many the riffs and melodies. What I mean by that is that many of the riffs are very powerful and catchy, with a sense of uplifting attitude that reminds me almost of something like Iron Maiden or At The Heart of Winter era Immortal, in the old school sense of metal being this empowering thing that invigorates the listener. The previous reviewer's use of the term "blackened heavy metal" is very apt I think. Put that alongside some equally great, more introspective moments, give it a shot of brutality in the vocal department and you have one undeniably brilliant listening experience.
There's a considerable change in the sound aesthetic from the debut also. This album is a lot more murky sounding, although everything can be heard just fine, its overall more soft on the treble end of things. It has a strange kind of hollow, airy sound that still manages to be pounding when the drums are going full blast. The drummer is clearly very good and has a nice variety of beats up his sleeve, both subtle and aggressive. The guitars, as I have mentioned, are awesome and there is no shortage of highly memorable riffs. There are some fantastic softer moments as well, the opening section of "Chase For The Serpentsong" immediately comes to mind. The bass playing is both audible, and interesting to listen to, something which (as a bass player myself) I will be very quick to praise. The bass really has a driving presence in these songs, which is excellent. The vocalist presents a good blend between black and death metal styles that fits the music perfectly. I cannot fault any aspect of the performances of these guys. The lyrics are quite esoteric and strangely written but I do like them.
This band features people who are/ have been a part of groups such as Mournful Congregation and Portal (in fact the production of this album reminds me a bit of Portal's "Outre"), both bands I am quite into, but I have to say StarGazer is my favourite of the three. This album is perfect proof that they're a great band that more people should be paying attention to, metal is truly still alive and kicking thanks to bands like this who diversify and add interesting new elements while still having a firm grasp of where this music came from. I'll be highly anticipating whatever they come out with next.
Australia has proven to be an innovative source for metal in recent years, likely due to its extreme isolation prior to the age of the Internet. And when you consider that bandwidth wasn't really adequate for easy trade of music until about 2004, it's been isolated for a long time. Suddenly, it became exposed to a much broader spectrum of metal all at once, leading to the creation of some interesting sounds that have little regard for the normal "rules" of genre boundaries.
StarGazer is one of those genre-smashing bands. Sharing two members with avant-garde death metallers Portal, they actually bear little in common with that band aside from being extreme metal innovators.
Because they don't follow the rules, they're labeled avant-garde, but there's nothing avant-garde about the music in an objective sense. To describe their style as succinctly as possible, I would call it blackened heavy metal. Many of the riffs could have been pulled from Judas Priest or Iron Maiden (or even some of the better parts of Van Halen--see "The Morbid Slither, the Sinner Slough"). But they take those riffs and combine them with slower death growls (as you might find in funeral doom), black metal rasps, tremolo picking, and blast beats, while keeping some of the pinch harmonics and "raunchy" guitar embellishments of traditional heavy metal. There are even a few parts that you would probably call death metal or doom metal (see "Passing Stone - into the Greater Sun" for examples of both).
The resemblance to Maiden is even stronger when you consider the fantastic bass playing. It is fully audible throughout, and rarely tracks the guitar. There are some sections where the bass takes the lead, as on the solo in "Pypes of Psychosomatis".
The pace changes often to keep things interesting, leaning more toward the fast, and as with Portal there are brief tempo shifts and fast/slow/fast riffs. The riffs are memorable, and they create complete songs full of anticipation and release, and it's truly unlike anything else out there.
The Verdict: It's as if the sudden exposure to two decades of extreme metal gave them a completely different outlook. Most of the world sees black metal as a thing that grew from thrash, but StarGazer has taken the things that make black metal black and applied them to pure heavy metal, to make a unique and interesting beast.
originally written for http://fullmetalattorney.blogspot.com/
First things first: A band so bold as to share their name with one of the greatest songs in heavy metal’s vast pantheon to feature the unimpeachable lungs of steel of Ronnie James Dio had better have some fucking chops to back up such chutzpah. On this count, however, Australia’s purveyors of twisted progressive death metal StarGazer come out smelling of roses. 'A Great Work Of Ages / A Work Of Great Ages' is a seething, lurching, yet surprisingly sprightly beast of a musical journey that assaults the unsuspecting passers-by with dauntingly technical instrumentation that nevertheless resolves into a measured, artfully-meted out accounting of chaos. The cover art displays crustacean shells, out of which emerge Doré-esque dragons. The focal point of the image is another of these shells, which may also be a staircase spiraling into the slow decay of madness, or a doorway found only at the bottom of the ocean. They ask if you will follow, these mortals, but in their beckoning you swear you hear a fractured echo – it’s your own voice, too. You are Odysseus, journeying to the underworld, borne on these waves not just out but also down. Down, from whence no Ithacan return is assured.
The most artful of aesthetics, however, don’t mean shit unless the music puts one in the same mind. Thankfully, the endeavor is a success, in that the cover art mirrors the looping, sinusoidal death metal shamanism to such great effect that recurrent image to this listener was that of the titular house in Mark Danielewski’s 'House of Leaves'. This is the novel which features, arguably, as its main character a house in which the interior dimensions are found to exceed the exterior dimensions, leading the home’s owners on a nightmarish exploration of the unfathomable and constantly mutating depths of a physically impossible space; this house, a brilliant narrative device (despite Danielewski’s myriad of other distracting typeset games) that reads like the polyglot ecstasy and narrative disregard of 'Finnegan’s Wake' made demented architectural flesh. The overall flavor of the album is musty and dense, a performance at a museum by candlelight. Your ears can already hear its soundings by imagining the dementedly labyrinthine occult death metal of Portal (unsurprising, given the previous overlap in membership with StarGazer) being stricken with the same progressive inspiration that produced so many of our bona fide early tech/death masterpieces, from Pestilence and Cynic to 'Human' and 'Individual Thought Patterns'-era Death to early Gorguts and, particularly, Atheist circa 'Unquestionable Presence'.
The album doesn’t sound particularly heavy, although the songwriting itself is obviously quite full and weighty. The smoothness of the sound is primarily due the production, which is exceedingly rounded-off, revealing no jagged edges of sound or texture. Though the sounds are quite distinct, you might yet think about how nimble and airy Obscura’s 'Cosmogenesis' sounded by way of comparison with the sonic impact of this record. Music this technical generally needs to be given the production space to flex its manifold tentacles, and although the sound here is somewhat muddy – especially in the guitar tone – each instrument nevertheless carves out an auditory niche, even during the most chaotic of sections. Occasionally the interaction of the dense picking style and the generally busy drumming creates an awkward shuffling effect, which veers here to the side of intentionally off-putting and avant-garde, and there to the side of muddying the occult-thrashed waters. The guitars churn and snort their way through unsettling passages of elaborate and serpentine riff-figures, stitched together then ripped apart and reassembled with consummate ease. Special mention, of course, must necessarily go to the tremendous bass playing throughout this album, which is fittingly given a gloriously prominent spot in the mix. The gorgeousness is particularly evident on “Pypes of Psychosomatis,” which eventually leads the rest of the band into a fist-clenched galloping section. Vocals are, so far as one will notice them, a low, hoarse, wind-tunnel affair. The moody introductory section of “Hue-Man-King” is a nice change of pace, and the later sections of the song feature some of the highest-impact vocalizing of the entire album, with a nice echo effect on the grizzled snarling. (It’s still nothing to Vomitor’s recent paean to all that is OTT, “Neutron HAMMER-AMMER-ammer-ammer…”, but that’s rather beside the point.) The last track features a bit of chanting in the vocal department.
The unorthodox-sounding movements of these dense compositions do demonstrate some regularity and reason over repeated listens. “Refractice Convex Continuum,” for example, succeeds by having one of the more recognizable song structures, with an excellent repeated melodic theme that recurs in slightly different rhythmic forms – now truncated, now stretched and contorted. The opening of “Chase for the Serpentsong” carries the listener into a subtle trance, like a slow-motion samba played on tabla drums. The last track of the album just kind of fizzles out, with its clean guitar strumming that is likely meant to seem profound and valedictory, but seems more like an afterthought. Still, this is one of the only real missteps to these ears. Throughout 'A Great Work Of Ages...', the lyrics aim at portentous, Lovecraftian menace, but end up coming off as more or less ludicrously daft, which, frankly, is fine by me. A masterclass in avant-garde extreme metal rarely gets the textual support for which one might nevertheless yearn. This is from ex-members of Portal, which is not exactly a band notable for its cogent philosophical missives (viz., “Seepia accord thee / Stygian obsequious antipodes / Drear they larder, paradoor thy quay,” from “Black Houses”). Fuck it. When I hear something as jawdropping as the chiming, ringing arpeggios about midway through “The Morbid Slither…” which are then doubled and echoed by the bass, I’m willing to ignore lyrics that translate Max Weber into Sanskrit.
All things told, this would be a fantastic album to throw on while you lose yourself inside the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine writer of short stories that were equally enthralled by gauchos as they were by labyrinths physical and figural. There are standout moments, of course, as I’ve tried to highlight, but this isn’t really an album that one listens to for those standout moments. This is an album for simply following along in wonder – gazing out at the stars, if you will – as the band moves you from one moment to the next, until the next moment is the last moment and your brain still keens for the NEXT next moment. Imagine navigating the maze of a library in Umberto Eco’s famed novel 'The Name of the Rose' as it burns down around your shoulders. This profound disorientation is a thread that runs all the way through StarGazer’s excellent sophomore album, and yet, just as the labyrinthine library, one never shakes the feeling that there is a secret order to the superficial madness, and that if one could only grasp it, no matter how partially, there might be found yet a way home. To Enlightenment. To Ithaca. To wherever it is you first began.
Overall rating: 85%. 'We built a tower of stone / With our flesh and bone.'
(Note: Originally published at http://spinaltapdance.wordpress.com/)