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Offbeat, mechanical, surreal - 93%

Jophelerx, December 7th, 2017

The early-mid 90s were quite the time for the emergence and exploration of the progressive metal genre, as bands began to mature and deviate from the Queensryche or Fates Warning archetype en masse; 1990 saw Psychotic Waltz release their seminal debut full-length, A Social Grace, as well as Secrecy's Art in Motion. Voivod continued to achieve greater and greater success, with 1989's Nothingface perhaps reaching the height of it, and Dream Theater began to experience real commercial success with the release of their second album, Awake, in 1992. It's no wonder, then, that it was around this time that multiple variations on one or more of these more popular styles came soon after. Annon Vin's 1996 full-length A New Gate is one of the strangest among these, merging the cold, mechanical atmosphere of Voivod with the surreal soundscapes of Psychotic Waltz and adding an unusual employment of vocal harmonies that was perhaps their most singularly defining characteristic, sounding nothing like the intricate yet majestic arrangements of John Arch-era Fates Warning, while still remaining dense and complex. However, these elements don't sound disparate at all; rather, they form a cohesive matrix of simultaneously nightmarish, spacey, dystopic, and warmly absurd. A New Gate rivals even 90s Holocaust in its ability to paradoxically combine seemingly opposing elements into something counterintuitively greater, and while Annon Vin don't possess quite the ambition and pure inspiration of 90s Holocaust, they make up for it with sheer originality and ingenuity.

Of the descriptors I could give concerning this album, one I've already mentioned-- surreal-- would probably be the first to come to mind. Let me explain; I've already mentioned that it employs vocal harmony in a very unusual way, but when I mention the term "barbershop quartet," then "very unusual" will likely seem an understatement to many of those reading this. Yet that really is (or seems to be, at least, to my ear) the primary influence driving most of the vocal lines and harmonies; only the second metal album I've heard to use such a technique, the first being Deep Switch's equally strange Nine Inches of God. However, whereas Nine Inches utilized a number of different unusual vocal methods, A New Gate sticks pretty much exclusively with the barbershop quartet style, which, if anything, provides a layer of consistency and makes an already highly inaccessible album slightly less so. Of course, as you might be thinking, something that sounds somewhere between Voivod and Psychotic Waltz is about the worst thing to which you could add fucking barbershop quartet vocals on paper; and on paper, I'd agree. In practice, though, this German trio somehow manage to make it sound brilliant - and that, in and of itself, is perhaps the greatest thing I can say in their favor. These gentlemen are true wizards when it comes to combining elements so different that they should amount to aural agony. They even include some jazzy elements without any more problem than the vocal ones, and I can count the number of jazzy metal bands that don't sound like the soul of all that is good being horrifically brutalized on my left hand. This is a true skill.

I really can't describe in any more detail how they accomplish this; I'm really not sure of it myself. If I didn't experience it with my own ears, I would continue to deny the possibility of such a feat. Yet somehow something wonderful emerges. It is primarily this juxtaposition between warm, nearly absurd vocals that establishes the surreal atmosphere - the best way I can think of to explain this any better is that it's sort of like an aural representation of David Lynch's Twin Peaks. Throw together visually striking psychological horror and utterly unintelligible clues with the most trite and banal of soap operas, and somehow you end up with something great. Only Lynch could make such a television show happen, just as only Annon Vin can make this album work. It has all the dystopian sci-fi elements of Voivod, the confused, existential, introspective meandering of Psychotic Waltz, and above it all, the most surprising of narrators, as though, perhaps, relating something so horrifying and unthinkable that one's mind has to relate it in the most childlike and comforting way possible-- a barbershop quartet-- or shatter entirely. The lyrical content seems to largely support this hypothetical backdrop, though aside from "Black White Red, Not Rotten Yet," that content is pretty vague and could, theoretically, accommodate a number of different interpretations. Either way, there's no questioning that it would take something near the brink of insanity to produce the album I've been describing to you, whether it was intended metaphorically or simply came naturally out of this specific combination of musicians.

Only the last track, "Mr. Roboto," does not follow this musical pattern, as it is a cover of the relatively well-known Styx track. Lyrically, it fits the album relatively well, and the strong focus on vocals in the song provides a more conventional vehicle for vocalists' Tom Brenneis and Uwe Ruppei's style. Given that it's placed at the end of the album, it gives the listener a chance to think about and absorb all of the strangeness with which they've been bombarded for the previous 35 minutes, and in this context it works fairly well, like a cigarette after sex. Anywhere else in the album, it would completely ruin the flow, but being the wizards that I've mentioned they are, these fellows knew where to put it and how to end the album in the best way they could. A New Gate is, truly, a masterpiece, but one that's so far off the beaten path that most will have difficulty appreciating it, and one which will likely turn off many fans due to the vocals alone, despite my personal feelings that they work most brilliantly. However, for the connoisseur of progressive metal or of strange music in general, this should provide an interesting experience, at the very least, and perhaps in some cases one which transcends most others.