Saturday, August 18, 2012
Kekal - 8
"Oh, how the mighty have fallen." This is a common expression, and one that in metal music circles (or perhaps niche music circles in general) gets used a lot. Some might speculate that it is used too much. Fans of some bands or musical styles have little tolerance for change, even though artistry is all about growth and change within the context of one's art. Having said that, I understand the penchant for fans to decry a new album from an old favorite, especially when the band in question sounds little like the band of old. Anyone even remotely familiar with rock music will know all about Metallica's "sellout" accusations, and many other groups who pioneered a specific sound or genre are often lambasted when they put out a by-the-numbers album years later that lacks the vitality of their early material. Fans tend to forget, however, that at 40+ years of age, you can't really recapture the exuberance of youth or even replicate it. The best you can hope for is for your art to continue to be vital and interesting.
In the case of Kekal, many fans were upset when they shifted in 2002 from the black metal sound they had on their 1st 2 releases to a much more experimental and "avant-garde" sound with their album "The Painful Experience". They continued that trend with 2003's "1000 Thoughts of Violence" and the 2005 release "Acidity". By that point, very little evidence of the earlier black metal sound remained. 2007 brought "The Habit of Fire", and then 2008 saw the release of what most thought would be the last Kekal album, "Audible Minority". The release itself was fraught with contractual and other issues, which led to the cancellation of the planned special edition digipak, and the eventual dissolution of the band. This was unfortunate, because although "Audible Minority" was not the group's best effort, it was a bold move forward away from the more metallic sounds of earlier records, and into a far more electronic-based sound that was interesting and layered. I was a bit taken aback the first couple times I listened through "Audible Minority" at first, but found it to be a logical and worthy follow-up to the brilliant "The Habit of Fire" release.
So after "breaking up" in a sense, the Kekal camp went dark for a couple years. 2010 saw information coming to light about a possible new Kekal project, though they weren't a "band" in the classic sense. Now, Kekal was calling itself an "entity", merely a group of people collaborating and making music together in some fashion. Sounds fairly pretentious to me, as many "bands" are truly just collaborations, often overseas and via email, etc. Still, I was excited to hear that the Kekal name and sound would live on. However, I was hoping that with some downtime and introspection, they would come roaring out of the chute again with an album that would knock my socks off, or at least give me a lot of listening enjoyment like the rest of their discography has. Sadly, it's not all I was hoping for.
I have no problem with Kekal's continued move into eletronic music territory because they still base a fair bit of the sound in the guitar world, and the layering they use is part of what Kekal has become over the last 10 years, so I'll get that out on the table now. What has always drawn me to Kekal, since I discovered them post-black metal, is their ability to layer the various elements together to form an interesting and cohesive sound. Over the last several albums, Kekal has continue to evolve and morph their sound in interesting ways, but with "8", I just don't feel like they're progressing. Many of the electronic elements feel like re-treads of 1990's industrial music, but not in a particularly exciting way. I don't have the same joy in listening to these elements as they're presented here that I did when I first heard Nine Inch Nails or Circle of Dust. Instead, the electronics come across as very rote. There are some good ideas present, and there is creative use of electronics here and there, as well as some bits that remind me of video game company Taito's "house" band ZUNTATA (in a good way). Unfortunately, these flashes of brilliance and real interest are not the dominant pieces. Instead, the CD contains a lot of filler also-ran electro beats and drone-like industrial noise elements that go nowhere. Rather than building and layering, which is a cornerstone of the techno/EBM and industrial styles, this stuff often sort of meanders aimlessly, never really climaxing into any sort of useful culmination of elements or effective movement. This is disappointing, because I know Jeff and company are better than this.
The part that makes this particularly frustrating is that the good songs on here are some of Kekal's standout tracks, such as opener "Track One", the interesting "A Linear Passage" with it's 80's Transformers-esque "Soundwave" voice, and the album's de-facto single "Tabula Rasa", which is quite possibly one of the most brilliant things Kekal has ever released. But promising tracks like "Gestalt Principles of Matter Perception" start great and have real flow to them, but then half-way through drift off into the meandering electronics I mentioned earlier, never truly "going anywhere" but ending unceremoniously and without any real or logical conclusion. It could be said that Kekal is trying something new and pushing the envelope, but why push the artistic envelope if the song leaves the listener unsatisfied? The instrumental-only segments also tend to drone on without purpose, again, failing to truly captivate or go anywhere musically. That's not to say the album fails completely, because there is good material here. But I feel as though there's not enough strong material to overlook the songs that just don't hold up upon repeated listens. The distinct sense of atmosphere isn't as strong here either, so with as electronics-focused as this album is, also brings down the overall feel of the release. "End Unit of the Universe" only serves to highlight this, as it closes the album out with nearly 9 minutes of mostly directionless white noise and distortion.
Anyone into Kekal also knows that Jeff's clean vocals are an acquired taste, but they work perfectly with the sort of "uneasy", almost Voivod-esque weirdness that abounds in their material. To be fair, Jeff doesn't sound any better or worse here than on any previous Kekal release, but when the material is less exciting, the flaws in his vocal sound and style are more apparent, and there is nothing left to mask his limitations as a vocalist. That said, he still gives a good overall performance, injecting enough emotion into the material to (at times) help overcome the limitations of the music he's singing along with. There are moments (like in the aforementioned "Tabula Rasa") where Jeff really sounds great in context with the material, but overall, his limitations as a vocalist are more plainly shown here, which makes the weaker material all the more evident.
I have to say that as much as I was anticipating this release, I feel letdown by the end product. If they had streamlined this into an EP instead, or perhaps waited and refined the songs a bit more, it could have been a stronger album. I almost wish that they had picked the 4 or 5 really strong tracks here and maybe waited and added "Futuride" from the follow-up EP, and that would have been a strong 6-song release to announce Kekal's return to recording. I would have been quite satisfied with that, because it would have presented a much more cohesive release with a better overall sense of direction than what the album ultimately became. It's a shame, really, because Kekal is, and has been, a near-continuous fountain of creativity and interest. This album partially sinks under the weight of its own ambition, because they're unable to generate enough interest with the tracks as they're presented to truly sustain the listener through the entire process. At least, that was my experience. I must also note that I held off in writing this review for a LONG time, listening to the CD quite a lot and ensuring there was ample time for the material to "sink in" before I just dismissed it outright. While my initial disappointment has been slightly abated by subsequent spins, this still isn't up to the standards Kekal have set for themselves. I am confident that Jeff and company can move past this and create something more musically interesting and fulfilling, because this is truly the only misstep in an otherwise blindingly brilliant catalog. I can only recommend this to the Kekal faithful, or to those who appreciate electronic music so much so as to overlook some rather glaring flaws in its construction.