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A Promising But Flawed Rebirth - 75%

T_HORROR, September 11th, 2018
Written based on this version: 2017, Digital, Peaceville Records

After ten years of silence, AKERCOCKE storms back onto the scene with renewed focus. The core duo of David Gray (drums) and Jason Mendonça remain -- and their chemistry is as strong as ever -- which makes "Renaissance in Extremis" feel immediately and obviously like an AKERCOCKE album. In tow are original guitarist Paul Scanlon, touring/live keyboard stalwart Sam Loynes, and new bassist Nathanael Underwood.

Despite the core musical approach being intact, some noticeable changes have occurred. The lyrical content no longer deals with sex and satanism but instead life experiences and sort of an uplifting attack on negativity. This shift in overall thematic approach is mirrored in AKERCOCKE's physical appearance (no more tailored suits and naked women) but more importantly in how some of the musical elements are structured.

For one, the guitar is not nearly as distorted as past releases. There's a little more breathing room and a bit of clarity now -- which does better to expose some of the less straightforward upper-register chord progressions at the expense of losing some aggression during the thrashier riffs. David Gray has also, for seemingly the first time in over a decade, put away the Little Tikes My First Plastic-Ass Triggered Drum Kit and has a MUCH more natural tone on all of the drums (though the kicks are still triggered -- which is acceptable given the sheer speed of some of the double kick runs). I cannot overstate how much less annoying the drums sound now, which is great as David Gray has always been a truly exceptional drummer and continues to push the envelope stylistically (not necessarily speed-wise) on this release. Overall, the end result is the album actually sounds like a REAL band playing their instruments together, which can't really be said about some of their over-produced, over-manufactured tones on previous albums like Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone. The added amount of dynamicity exposes natural nuance not seen in the past few albums, even if a couple thrash and death riffs on this album lose a bit of punch.

The improvement in sound quality is matched with some of the band's best songwriting of their career -- at least at the start of the album. The moody, gothic cleaner sections are more potent and cathartic than ever and are sandwiched satisfyingly within the sheer amount of catchy, smooth riff progressions that run the gamut of extreme metal flavors. Jason Mendonça contributes those immediately apparent and unmistakable AKERCOCKE tones -- not sure exactly what chord shapes they are -- while Paul Scanlon adds some great, blistering solos and furious riffing on top of some very solid basslines. The compositions are certainly progressive, and contain a good amount of technical showmanship (especially on drums), without ever getting wanky or overly-indulgent.

This is at least overwhelmingly true for the first fifteen minutes of the album, but the consistency starts to falter as the album proceeds into its latter half. At first, it seems as though AKERCOCKE's newly hewn wisdom will finally allow them to avoid some of their notorious, painful songwriting mistakes found throughout their back catalog. But disappointingly, a noticeable shift occurs over the running time of the album -- there is more time given to odd sonic experimentation, strange vocal deliveries, quirky song structures, and verbose song titles -- not that any of these elements are objectively poor decisions. However, in practice, they are not particularly successful and the more interesting compositional flairs are overshadowed by some of the hideous and even hilarious musical decisions that are increasingly made in the second half of the album.

This not exactly fair commentary for the songwriting though, as the real culprits turning some of the more curious compositional choices into groan-inducing passages are the upfront vocal deliveries by Jason. These are the ultimate downfall of the album and the major overwhelming detractor of the musical experience, which is otherwise packed full of great instrumentation. The contrast between the impeccable musicianship and the quasi-inept vocal delivery is astounding and fairly bizarre given a band of this talent and caliber. The vocals could be described as "honest" -- which is true enough and somewhat fits the approach of the album -- but truthfully it borders more on "amateur."

The harsh vocals are fine enough -- there are a few passages with that great death metal snarl and black metal rasping that was cultivated throughout the band's history, alongside some decent shouts. But once melody is thrown into the mix, the musical experience enters a realm of crudeness and awkwardness. To provide an example, multiple listening sessions with various friends have all had the same outcome: great enjoyment at the start, transitioning to eventually being asked to stop the album somewhere around the fifth song. The most obvious element to blame is the increased indulgence in laughable clean vocals and "semi-melodic" harsh yelling which falls horribly flat. Take "First to Leave the Funeral" as an example: the initial "semi-melodic" yelling passage is fine enough (quirky, even) but a return to that style around 2:45 is far, far more terrible. The album then spends the rest of its time trying to dig itself out of that pit -- but often just digs itself deeper. This vocal style provides the worst of both worlds -- melodic enough to be jarringly off-key at times, but not harsh enough where the lack of projection is acceptable. This delivery rears its ugly head throughout the album, and the few successes fall to the wayside thanks to the frequent attempts that just make a mockery of the great underlaying instrumentation.

In addition to those semi-clean vocals, there are plenty of genuine clean vocal passages throughout the album, which should come as no surprise to AKERCOCKE fans. But what the hell happened over the hiatus? Jason's delivery is weaker and feebler than albums past. While this adds a tiny bit of charm (the aforementioned "honesty") to some of the moodier gothic sections, for the most part it just reeks of somebody who sucks at singing and can't project their voice. Instead of this style being sprinkled about the album, there are entire songs that focus almost entirely on clean vocal passages ("One Chapter Ends...") and the end result is you have to listen to some amateur vocalist sing poorly (with an annoying warble) for minutes at a time on top of some high-caliber musicianship. It's just ugly, and while some listeners find it acceptable, one can't help but feel the frequent half-assed attempts at singing do the band's instrumental mastery a MAJOR disservice.

As we get to the end of the album, AKERCOCKE really starts throwing a plethora of questionable ideas at the wall. This is best culminated in the closer "A Particularly Cold September." The song goes as follows: a decent enough ambient clean guitar section for a couple minutes, a bit of somber spoken word, then...saxophone? Is that a trumpet after it? Weird, but not terrible. Next, try not to laugh at the band's stupidest progression ever written, with a ridiculous and amateur vocal delivery followed up by some keyboards and some tempo changes. The song then proceeds to go nowhere (finally dipping into a bland distorted guitar passage after over four minutes) -- which kind of invalidates the point of having such a long ambient intro -- then, towards the last half of the song, we get a bit of a reprise of the earlier chord progressions (including that truly awful vocal passage), and another break featuring some...timpani...and finally a classic prog outro with three solid minutes of Satriani-lite guitar shredding -- perhaps the only truly enjoyable moment of the song.

It's amusing how large the contrast is between that last song and the first song on the album, which is why this is a bit difficult to rate. The first song, along with the next two, are incredibly solid, interesting, and well-performed on top of excellent flow in the riff writing department, while avoiding most of the vocal pitfalls. This is where one can see great promise for AKERCOCKE in the future. These songs are worth revisiting for additional listens, while the rest of the album falls increasingly flat. The band still has a major problem with indulging themselves in poor compositional choices, which has plagued every single album in their discography -- but it's clear the elements are all in place to truly deliver a consistently focused, well-performed release in the future. "Renaissance in Extremis" is not it.