Today’s metal scene is so overrun by bands it’s not funny. I don’t say that lightly, either – truly, if you live in a large city or in a metal-friendly location in Europe, there are spots where you can hardly throw a stone down the street without hitting a metal player in the head, probably without realizing it. The Internet (now 20 years young) has seen both a rebirth of the genre, and now what can only be termed a “glut”. Thousands of bands have come out of the woodwork over the last 15 years or so, in part due to the expansion of the metal genre as a whole due to nu-metal and hardcore/metal infusion bands. The growth has also been the continuing expansion of more traditional styles of metal, from the revival of the 80’s glam-rock scene to a thrash metal revival in the last 3-4 years, and both black and death metal taking on a new life of their own.
One other scene that has expanded greatly is the progressive metal scene. This is evident in both the large number of bands participating in the style, but also due to the growth of what “progressive” actually means in terms of metal. Not only is it bands who are instrumentally proficient like Dream Theater, or write creative song structures and utilize more complex lyrical directions (Queensryche, Fates Warning, King’s X), but also to include bands who take those things and add their own spin, their own stamp, and often hybridize their music stylistically, often to great effect. Halcyon Way, hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, fits into the latter category by adapting some of the tenets of the typical “progressive” metal field, but also throwing a little extra flavor in for good measure.
“Building the Towers” is the band’s 2nd full-length album, and it’s a considerable step up from their debut, “A Manifesto For Domination” in many ways. Firstly, the riffing is heavier and more commanding overall, brimming with thick chunky goodness. Second, the songs have a bit more variety in structure, adding to the album’s listenability factor versus the debut. Third, the solo work here is a bit more stand-out, with some fun stuff going on in places and just more to love. Also, the vocals on the album are a bit tighter overall, and the addition of some death growls by bassist Kris Maltenieks is a nice touch I hope the band continues to explore. Overall, the additional elements the band has added have worked well.
So in more detail, guitar-wise this album is fun. Jon Bodan and Zane are definitely flexing their six-string muscles, as there is a lot of cool riffing going on throughout the album. As mentioned before, there is also some great solo work here that nicely rides that line between overly flashy and overly simplistic. It’s a near-perfect balance of technical display and melodic sensibility. Bass guitar by Kris settles in here nicely, though it’s not overly audible. Often the casualty in metal production, bass is either relegated to providing the extra “thump” on the record from a production standpoint, or is just largely inaudible. Thankfully here Kris’ playing isn’t altogether suppressed and is at least audible in points, as well as giving the music that extra weight it needs. Drum work by Ernie is excellent, with double bass work, groovy rhythms, interesting bits and fills where necessary, and overall a really tight performance.
Vocally, Steve Braun picks up not where Sean left off, but in some ways at another level. Where Sean had a lot of grit in his voice and had some level of range, Steve comes in with a less gritty, more smooth vocal sound, as well as a bit smaller range, settling into an upper baritone, lower to mid-range tenor. Sean had a lot of expression and inflection in his voice, which made up for his minor range shortcomings on the band’s debut. Steve is an obviously more seasoned vocalist, to be sure, so his presentation is more professional, from the well-done harmonized vocal layering to the smooth-as-butter sound he achieves in many songs. Steve’s sense of dynamics comes into play a few times on the record when quieter, more plaintive moments crop up here and there, which shows his range as a singer as well. The addition of Pamela Moore in spots (famous for her contributions to Queensryche’s “Operation: Mindcrime” album) is a good choice, as her emotional and understated performance fits in nicely where included. Lyrically, this album is great. As you may have read, it’s a concept album about society in general and how our society today has an entitlement mentality and how American in particular is moving away from the core values and principles it was founded upon. The album also deals with the sort of “Tower of Babel” being constructed through the various means used to both control and unite the populace. It’s a cool concept, and one that I personally can identify with at some level. It’s also well-executed from somewhat of a semi-personal perspective. The concept isn’t dealt with directly for the most part, but shades of that can be gleaned from the lyrics when you read through them.
So with all this goodness, what’s not to like? Some folks may be turned off by Steve Braun’s slightly nasally vocal delivery. It’s not an issue for me, personally, but any nasal component can be off-putting for some. I will say that Steve in-no-way veers toward Michael Bolton territory, just that there’s a touch of the that element that comes through. I also feel as though Steve is holding back just a bit. The band is now hitting their stride, and while his performance is tight, if not excellent, I still get the sense that he’s not utilizing his full abilities as a vocalist, as if there’s more he could do or he has greater range than what this record demonstrates. I like Steve’s voice and I think he’s a fine addition to the band. I just miss some of Sean’s highly expressive delivery, as well as the high-pitched stuff he did in spots (like in the intro to the title track of the previous album). If Steve isn’t capable of that stuff, it’s not an issue – I mainly want Steve to open up as much as possible and give us a sense of his full potential. The other thing I should mention is that Halcyon Way’s broader direction with greater emphasis on riffing, increased use of solo work, and the inclusion of some gruffer vocals may remind listeners of Steve Braun’s previous band Ashent quite a bit. Some might say too much. I’m not bothered by it, because I think Halcyon Way does enough to stand out from Ashent that neither band sounds like a clone of the other. It’s just something for the band to have in the back of their collective mind as they write new material and record another record. I’d encourage them to continue to push the envelope of their sound and keep seeking new horizons. I get the impression that this band may expand its pallet further on future releases.
For now, I’d say that this release is a definite highlight, and a major beacon of light on the metal landscape of 2010. With the forthcoming EP from Halcyon Way, and Jon having (hopefully) overcome Lymphoma, I see nothing but blue skies for these five gents from ATL. Continued development of their style, songwriting, and performance, and they’ll make an even bigger impact on the scene than they have thus far. I could see them touring with a name like Dream Theater, given the right connections. I mean, DT took out Redemption (Ray Alder!) and Into Eternity on the same tour. Halcyon Way fits in somewhere between those two bands, so it’s possible right? We can dream. Highly recommended.