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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/)