Tuesday, June 25, 2013
For bands, artistic growth can often be like walking a tightrope. If you have developed a distinctive soundscape or style, modifying that sound too much can often mean alienating fans. Not modifying it enough means stagnating artistically, or sounding as though you're trying to replicate a successful formula, usually with diminishing returns. The most balanced approach is to develop nuances and variations within the style to expand its range, while keeping the core of the style present so as to retain a commonality from album to album. This common thread serves as a link between releases, while allowing the artist to continue to develop and grow, and for the overall sound to change in some fashion from one record to the next. Monolith has the dubious position of following up their excellent debut, but are they up to the task? I'd say emphatically yes! There are elements of the band's sound that seem to have changed to meet the requirements of the new material, but the core of what makes Monolith what they are is still present. The band still plays a tight combination of symphonically informed melodic death metal, metalcore and "extreme metal", combining a growled vocal and melodic/sung vocal approach, they still have a chunky guitar sound with catchy riffs, and still have the songwriting chops to pull it off.
The biggest change on display here is in the cleanly sung vocals. No longer are they handled by guitarist and songwriter Colin Parrish - now all vocals are handled exclusively by vocalist Mike Gallant. Gone are the highly processed clean vocals, and in its place are a similar vocal approach that at first, doesn't sound that much different than what Colin brought to the table, but with more range and emotion present due to the vocals not being so "effected" in nature. Also noticeable is that there is a bit less emphasis on the split between the symphonic elements, and those that are overtly "keyboard sounding". The other thing I noted relatively quickly was that the level of aggression in the riffing and sound seemed a bit subdued as compared with the debut, in part because the songwriting here is slightly more varied in some aspects, using more build-up and melodic intro passages, or because the riffs aren't quite as staccato as those on the debut. As I said, however, it's still quite recognizable as Monolith, for anyone who is familiar with the debut.
Colin Parrish's guitar still crunches nicely here as it did on the debut, with a good combination of heaviness and clarity. The guitar sound is a touch less dense this time around, but the underlying bass provides enough weight to compensate. Colin employs more solo work this time around, so I'm guessing the change in tone was necessary for a bit of clarity's sake. Speaking of solo work, I'm glad to see Colin branching out in this direction more, as I highlighted that as something I'd like more when I wrote the review for their debut. I also like that he does more than just a few short bits here and there, but he cuts loose a time or two and it comes off well. Bass by Mike Gallant is quality, with a nice combination of thumping and galloping, providing both the necessary extra emphasis to the music, but doing enough to not just sound like a piece of the backdrop. Colin Nafziger once again brings tasteful drumming to the table, employing double-bass when it makes sense, and going for a more groove-oriented or mid-paced take when the song calls for it. There are some nice flourishes here and there that aren't flashy or too overt, but just little cymbal bits, fills or transitions that are just nice.
Vocally, Mike is in good form. His growls continue to be powerful, yet understandable, with that mid-range tonality that works well with their sound. Mike's clean vocals are an interesting counterpoint to the growled vocals, and often come off understated and muted compared to the growls. I also like the group-shouted vocals in "Endurance", as I think they accent the song appropriately. Lyrically, the band is a bit more obtuse this time around, using somewhat less obvious themes of Christianity, and mixing in some mythology and history, as well as songs that have faith at the core, but where the lyrics take a more subtle approach. I like the slightly more personal approach, and I applaud the band for stepping out of the obvious topics and into some interesting lyrical material. The way the lyrics are written versus the phrasing that Mike uses at times is also used to interesting effect, as things aren't always sung (or growled) the way you'd expect them to be when reading them off the page, so that makes for a nice change. I also like the whispered vocal during one brief spot in "Desolation", which is a nice touch.
The thing about the debut that I miss is that it was a bit heavier overall, but honestly, the two records aren't all that different in terms of the balance between crunch and melodicism. Mike's clean vocals change the sound enough to be noticeable, but not so much that it distracts or detracts from the experience. There is use of more extended intros on tracks like "Onslaught" and "Desolation", as well as the use of a "faux vocal" in "Initiation" that give additional flavor to the album where the debut was a bit more straight-forward. "Voyager" is a worthy follow-up to the debut, and improves upon its predecessor enough to say the band is growing, even if some of the impact of the debut is lost in the additional elements present. Still, I think this is the appropriate direction for the band to go, and where I think their sound was most likely to have evolved to after the debut. As before, I'd like to see Mr. Parrish continue to hone his guitar skill and give us more solo work, and would love to see the band expand the range of material so there are even greater contrasts between heavier, faster & more frenzied spots, and those of a more mid-tempo, melodic, "hooky" nature. As it stands, an excellent follow-up, and because it's free to download, fans of the band and of the style have zero excuse not to check it out. Highly recommended.
This album can be downloaded in its entirety directly from the band's website:
Some bands, as they age, show signs of slowing down. Not necessarily in terms strictly of speed, either in how fast they play, or how fast albums come out, but in terms of the quality & vitality of their material. Other bands just get better with age, continuing to hone their core sound while massaging it and adding elements as they release a new album. Prong, while thought to be lost after 1996's "Rude Awakening", came back to mixed reception in 2002, and then went on an extended break again after Tommy Victor joined the Danzig ranks for touring. 2007's "Power of the Damager" was a ray of light, offering hope that Tommy hadn't abandoned his audience, and it was a fiery assault worthy of the Prong name. 2012 saw the band return after another 5-year break, to some fanfare. Some hailed it as the best thing they'd done since their magnum opus, 1994's "Cleansing". Does it hit that mark? Almost.
I will qualify that statement by saying that if you're not a fan of anything Prong has released since 1996, you'd do well to check out both this album and its predecessor for quality Prong material. If you have and you're still not digging it, you couldn't call yourself much more than a casual fan of their material. While I agree that "Cleansing" remains their most consistently captivating and quality effort, they've reached highs with their 2 most recent albums, from differing angles. "Power of the Damager" is a powerful (excuse the pun) record with a lot of grit, energy, passion, and Tommy's signature riffing. "Carved Into Stone" follows that aural assault up with a slightly more studied approach that is no less entertaining, just a bit more subdued and restrained.
Where "Power of the Damager" went for the jugular more often than not, "Carved Into Stone" prefers a more melodic approach. There are definitely moments of ferocity, like the muscular opener "Eternal Heat", "Keep On Living In Pain", "List of Grievances" or the punchy "Subtract". The bulk of the record, however, veers toward the more mid-paced, melodic territory of the material on "Rude Awakening". Before the haters cry foul, let me say that while I don't think "Rude Awakening" is a bad record by any stretch, I recognize that it's not Prong's best work. But on the whole, that album was all about mid-paced, groovy, melodic songs versus a more diverse approach. This same approach is used here, but to greater effect, as the set of songs is stronger overall. Where "Rude Awakening" had a number of songs that ran into one another without a lot of individual identity, "Carved Into Stone" corrects those mistakes with better melodies, more memorable songs, and improved pacing.
Tommy's signature guitar crunch is in tow here, and the production values highlight that by giving the guitar a very "up front" kind of position in the mix. The guitar tone here is a bit different than that of "Damager" and has a touch less bite overall, but is a little meatier at the same time. As always, Tommy's guitar riffing takes center stage, and he sounds great here. Something that we get to hear Tommy do far more on this record than he's done before is solo - a number of the songs have guitar solos. These aren't all just short blasts, or the "follow the vocal melody" variety either, as there are a couple extended solos. Hearing this on the record was at first a bit jarring, and felt a bit "tacked on" or out of place, but after having spun the record numerous times, it makes sense and comes off more naturally than at first listen. In addition, assuming I even have to say it, Tommy's pinch harmonics sound as awesome as ever. Vocally, Tommy sounds good, though he is admittedly less energetic than on "Damager", which had a lot of interesting vocal things going on. But he sings melodically and gets the job done.
Ministry's Tony Campos does an admirable job on the bass, providing the necessary counterpoint for Tommy's riffing without being overly flashy or doing anything that takes away from the core of the Prong sound, which is the groove and crunch of Tommy's guitar. Bass sits nicely in the mix as well, being audible and able to be heard as its own instrument, yet providing that necessary thump and thickness to the proceedings. Drum work by Alexei Rodriguez is a highlight. He replicates a lot of the groove-based approach that previous drummers have done where appropriate, but he adds a lot of double-bass in places where some previous skinsmen would have just continue to groove on. It's a nice change of pace, and gives the album a bit more personality in that area than some previous albums have had. Drums are also placed well in the mix, not overpowering either bass or drums, but sitting quite nicely beside them.
I made mention of the songs here being strong, and they are. "Eternal Heat" is a great opener, filled with energy and great riffing. "Keep On Living In Pain" follows that up to complete a one-two punch of powerful material, complete with groovy chorus and strong riff. "Revenge...Best Served Cold" is the best "single" the band has released since "Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck", even slightly beating out the awesome "Controller" from "Rude Awakening". "Put Myself To Sleep" is a song that marries both the energy and melodicism that Prong is known for. "List Of Grievances" keeps the record interesting by picking up the pace and giving the listener a kick in the ears, as well as pulling out one of the longer, more killer solos Tommy played on the record. The title track then slows things down for a heavy dose of groove, but keeps things melodic with a hooky chorus. "Subtract" also picks up the pace again and provides another strong dose of energy. The album has no lack of quality songwriting, that's for sure. Lyrically, Tommy treads the usual murky waters of disenfranchisement, human failing, paranoia, and general distaste for the state of affairs of the world. So, as usual, there's nothing new here, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
With all this positivity, where's the downside? I love this record, and have listened to it countless times, but I can't shake the feeling that Tommy is so close to achieving a "personal best" and is just barely missing the mark. I loved "Power of the Damager" as well, but felt that the album's set of songs wasn't as strong as they could be. This has a better grouping of material, but lacks the punch, aggression, and urgency of its predecessor. As I mentioned before, Tommy's vocals on this album are a bit "safe" for him. He sounds great, but with all he did on "Damager", one wonders if he didn't like the results, or just felt that the material here, being of a more melodic nature, didn't benefit from those flourishes, and I'd agree. I guess I just feel that if Tommy took the best elements of "Damager" (i.e. the aggression, energy, passion, and a more varied vocal approach), and combined those with the best elements on display here (overt melodicism, strong memorable songs, quality production/mix, pacing), he'd be at that apex where he might be able to match or even exceed "Cleansing". The other potential hiccup is the production - Prong has sounded good on every post-"Cleansing" album, don't get me wrong. But "Cleansing" had something in that Terry Date production that gave it that extra push. That record has this really "dense" sound that gives it an air of heaviness that other Prong efforts haven't quite had. The foreboding tone of the record lent itself so well to the material that it was the perfect storm of creative songwriting, performance, and production.
Overall, I feel like both "Damager" and this outing have explored separate sides of the same Prong coin, and while I dig the predecessor's urgency and aggression, this record has the edge because of its songwriting and the quality of the whole package. If Tommy can come off this album and follow it up with something equally strong, yet bring in a bit more variety in the vocal department and more contrasts between the melodic and the aggressive, and hone the production to give the whole thing that extra ounce of power, he just might pull it off. In the meantime, "Carved Into Stone" is an album I will continue to listen to and enjoy, knowing that at the very least, Tommy isn't resting on his laurels and continues to write and record great stuff. Just don't take another 5 years to give us a follow-up this time, mkay? Highly recommended.
**A word on the vinyl release! I own both the retail digipak CD issue, and the 2xLP edition. The vinyl itself sounds great, and while not probably 180g, is at least reasonably weighty enough to feel good when you're setting it on the turntable. The brown marble platters are a nice touch. My only gripes are that there are no lyrics on either inner sleeve (lazy design choice), and that there's no indication ANYWHERE on the records, packaging, inner or outer sleeves that these platters spin at 45 RPM instead of the requisite 33 1/3 RPM that most LPs opt for. 45 RPM was the right choice for a double LP, I just wish somewhere it had indicated that. On the plus side, the vinyl edition comes with a bonus track, a cover of Rammstein's "Feuer Frei!" track. It's a good cover, sufficiently sounding like Prong but being recognizable as a cover of the original. It's curious that Prong chose to cover the track, because Rammstein could probably have been accused of being influenced by Prong, so I guess it comes full circle. It sounds like a song that Tommy could have written, and the performance speaks to that. Also, the vinyl version comes with the full album (minus bonus track) on CD in a paper sleeve! So if you're a vinyl enthusiast who likes getting the digital download with purchase, this is even better. It's a shame that this is the only place outside of iTunes to get the cover track, but ultimately the album itself is the main draw.