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Those Weird Bagpipes, Man - 86%

Thumbman, December 19th, 2018

Smallman really came out of nowhere with their self-titled debut. They took the dark proggy rock of Tool and married it with sludge and for good measure gave it a distinctly Bulgarian flavour with these weird-ass bagpipes. Labyrinth of the Present continues down the path they started. The song writing this time is a bit less immediate and atmosphere often takes precedent over the big sludge riffs of the debut.

The template is similar to the debut. Tool’s influence still looms large, the riffs are still ostensibly sludge and you’ve still got wandering psychedelic passages and the Eastern-European bagpipes. The riffs are largely Tool riffs with a sludge metal edge. They’re good, but aren’t really the main focus. The atmospheric facet of their sound is at the forefront, with lots of meandering trippy prog-laden passages. The bass often takes center stage, and its riffs sometimes outpace what the guitar comes up with, as we can see in “Oceans”. Speaking of “Oceans”, it has the best song writing on the album and is where Cvetan’s belted vibrato vocals shine the brightest.

Smallman’s inclusion of two longer atmospheric pieces could have put a major damper on the album, but they pull it off swimmingly. “The Life of the Yellow Leaf” is a great melancholic slow burner, where the bagpipes sound exotic and mournful – a world away from the Scottish bagpipes most listeners would be more familiar with. The bass here is so cool and it reminds me of what Justin Chancellor does so well. The tones that emanate from the bass are insane and they effectively take on the role the keyboards usually would. The album’s closing track, aptly named “Odyssey”, draws heavily on more traditional folk music. The drumming in the rock songs incorporate the sort of tribal-imbued tom patterns you’d expect from Tool, but here they quite literally break out the tribal drums. I’ll admit I have no idea what I’m talking about on this front, but I’m assuming this is inspired by traditional Bulgarian folk music. Otherworldly chants and shouts twist their way over a mystic and immersive soundscape, and it’s honestly unlike anything I’ve ever heard before.

Labyrinth of the Present doesn’t quite match their incredible debut, but it is a very welcome addition to the Smallman discography. While I preferred their more immediate song writing and heavier riffs, they navigate more atmospheric song structures quite deftly. The purely atmospheric songs really make the album. Overall, if you liked the debut, I can’t really so you not getting something out of this.