Monday, December 23, 2013
Extol - Extol (2013)
Music is always evolving. Music is ever changing. Music doesn't sit still and rest on its laurels, because music is a constantly moving target, with a new generation of musicians coming up and making waves, writing music and distilling their influences in new and interesting ways. Not everyone understands this, however, and some people decry a musician (or collective thereof) for changing styles, sounds, aesthetic or production values, or even minor elements that aren't to the liking of said fan or critic. Music is, however, art, and whether or not the changes that take place are ultimately positive should not be gauged by how much fans buy a new record, but whether an artist or band sees the shift as artistically successful.
Extol is a band that has seen its fair share of complaining fans due to a shift in style or approach. Some fans didn't like the slight shift from "Burial" to "Undeceived" from a somewhat melodic black metal focus to a more progressive death metal one, even though the stylistic differences between the albums are relatively few. A bigger shift occurred from that record to "Synergy", a conscious move toward a highly technical thrash metal style with harsh vocals that mirrored the band Believer, one that Extol had long been known to be fans of. Even greater change came when guitarist Ole Børud left the band in 2004 and the sound changed again to a post-hardcore influenced alternative metal sort of vibe that, though still dark and brooding, was too much a change in sound for many fans to swallow. Less than 2 years after the album's failure to catch fire and the fan backlash surrounding the change in styles, the group went on indefinite hiatus, and the possibility of Extol regrouping became more slight with each passing year.
A glimmer of hope was offered when a teaser for a documentary about Extol (subtitled "of light and shade") appeared online, and fans began to speculate whether this was a hint that Extol was reuniting or that it was indeed just a documentary. The latter turned out to be the case, but little did most fans know that the band had actually reformed (sans a couple members) and had begun writing new music. Vocalist Peter Espevol, Drummer David Husvik and Guitarist Ole Børud were writing music together once again, and once word got out that a new album was in the works, Extol fans wondered if the album would be a continuation of the dark & broody post-hardcore rock/metal of "The Blueprint Dives", a return to the earlier technical melodic death metal of early albums, or perhaps somewhere in the middle, like what Ole and others did with the Mantric project. Thankfully, the answer is none of those, and instead, we get the eponymous "Extol" album to answer the question definitely on its own merits.
I would say that, musically, this is still Melodic Death Metal in form and scope, though it sort of rides the line between what I would call melodic death metal and what I would instead constitute as either extreme progressive metal, or some hybrid of progressive and death metal styles. There are fast double-bass sections, heavy and driving guitars, death growl vocals, and plenty of up-tempo rhythms to bang your head to, but there are more layers to this new album that make it difficult to pin down by simply calling it "melodic death metal", because that tag doesn't do the sound of this album justice. The heaviness factor is there, but the sound is so melodic, and at times so "clean" sounding that it's almost a misnomer to call it death metal at all. It reminds me of Monolith's 2 albums (especially "Voyager") or the lone In Grief album "Deserted Soul" because it successfully marries a very modern, heavy death metal sound with progressive structures and other elements in such a way that it's hardly death metal at all, yet there's no denying how heavy the record is. The interplay between heavier elements and sparser bits is part of what makes the album so exciting.
In terms of instrumentation, there's no mistaking the guitar presence of Ole Børud at the helm again, and this is a good thing. His highly melodic playing is very recognizable, and with his departure after "Synergy", it was obvious on "The Blueprint Dives" that he was absent, both due to the tone of the material, as well as the guitar sound. While the guitars on "Extol" may not be quite as brutal as the 1st 2 albums, they come pretty close, having that sound that blends the thick and meaty tone with the clarity and precision that Extol's sound had become known for. Ole's solos are also here in some quantity, and they're as melodic and tuneful as ever. Bass guitar is also present in the mix and audible as much as it can be alongside the guitar, though it's pretty deep and "boomy", in that it is less recognizable as an individual element as it is backdrop. Since Ole plays both, it makes sense that he'd want the guitar at the forefront and bass in behind a bit, and it works well here. There are times when the bass guitar does have a bit more tuneful presentation, like in some of the more nimble passages where there are more notes being played, but often during faster sections, the bass is relegated to the back. Drumming by David Husvik is excellent as always, incorporating necessary dynamics, and keeping the tempo where it needs to be to propel the music forward. The drum sound here is especially good, with very clear, yet powerful drum hits and a reasonably strong snare drum sound that isn't too high pitched but remains "punchy".
Vocally, the album has 3 different styles. Primarily, you have Peter Espevoll's mid-range growl which occasionally creeps up toward the higher pitched shriek he employed early on, and sometimes it will dip a bit lower into a more low end growl, but never so high or low that it sounds like someone else. Ole Børud continues to provide the clean vocals as he did on the band's 1st 2 albums, and here it's a bit different approach. He layers the vocals here multiple times, and there's a bit of a "sheen" over top of them that gives them a very modern, processed feel. Not so much where they sound auto-tuned, but just more produced than before. This has been a complaint from some fans about the new album, but honestly, I think it sounds great, and I'm just glad to have Ole back in fine form. The 3rd, less often used vocal is more of a Kurt Bachman-esque throaty yell (ala Believer), which shows up in a couple tracks and is used to great effect. Overall, the vocals on the album are well done and definitely sound like the Extol most fans are familiar with.
The thing that makes this record so listenable is just how it's all so pristine and produced. For those that like their death metal "dirty" and "filthy" sounding, they'll need to look elsewhere, because this is nothing of the sort. Instead, like a lot of modern death metal, this has a nice polish and shine to it, to the point where the heaviness is slightly diminished, but not so much as to make the album sound "wimpy". Rather, it allows the full spectrum of elements to be heard clearly, so between the heavy guitar, thumping bass, crisp drums, layered vocals, and keyboards sprinkled about, everything is clear and present. Nothing hides in the mix, which makes the whole thing sound really big and full. The melodies are also very memorable in comparison to a lot of other bands that play a melodic death metal style. If you're going to sacrifice grit, grime, and overall heaviness for the polished sound, make sure it's memorable, and these guys do just that. Apart from the overly simplified melody of the instrumental track "Dawn of Redemption", this album has no shortage of sharp melodicism.
I don't really have any complaints of the album, other than I understand why some don't care for Ole's "super clean" processed vocal approach, and it would have been nice if the sound of the album could have been just a teensy bit heavier to match the heaviness factor of the 1st 2 records. Save for those minor wish list items, this is quite possibly Extol's finest hour. I've spun this album countless times over the last several weeks, and if I had a CD player in my car at this point, it'd still be in heavy rotation there as well. This is one of those albums that will continue to play in my head for days after I've listened to it, and that's a sign of a well written album and batch of songs. So while it may not be as heavy or blistering as either "Burial" or "Undeceived", I find myself going back to this album even more often than the previous works, and that's coming from a guy that has purchased much of their material as new releases. This is a triumphant return for Extol, and I look forward to hearing what they do next, assuming this regrouping is more than just a one-off album. Let's hope so, because this is far too good not to expound upon with future material. Highly recommended.