Delving between sofa cushions, peering into cupboards, kicking over rocks — we music scribes are always searching for the next band that that can bring joy into our pitiful existence. Doing so involves wading through the primordial soup of unknown metal acts, straining to spy a wolf among the bleating of listless mutton. This often plays out as a feedback loop that begins with the hope of discovering something special, followed by despair when our expectations are dashed and, finally, hope again when we give in to the gambler’s fallacy and convince ourselves that the next promo will be the one. I’ll admit my heart rate quickened when I spied the self-titled debut release from America’s Affliktor floating in the promo pool. Billed as a technical and evolved take on blackened thrash, Affliktor is the latest project by respected musician Toby Knapp (of Onward, Godless Rising, Waxen and Where Evil Follows fame) so, naturally, I had to sate my curiosity on exactly what a gilded underground shred-fest entailed. Is it enough to break the vicious cycle of giddiness and misery?
Rather than languishing towards the end of the review I’m going to break with tradition and put the album’s production front-and-centre as its impact is felt in every note. Affliktor is a very fine album, overflowing with surgical shredding and tempestuous solos but much of this goodwill is undone by a milquetoast recording that bleaches the music of character. The drums are too prominent in the mix, the rhythm section is thin and brittle and the lead guitar — the star of the show — gets buried with alarming regularity. The dynamic range is ample but a wide dynamic range can’t make up for a lacklustre production.
The resultant fallout from a flat, anemic sound is a detachment that necessitated countless spins of the record for its worth to shine through. I’m glad I persisted, however, because there’re some scintillating moments on Affliktor and it would be a shame to dismiss the album without giving it its time in court. “Storms of Demogorgon” lists hither-and-tither with a very lead-focused sound, putting riffs on the back seat for some looping solos that impress both technically and sonically. The emphasis on musicianship places the music closer to Black Future-era Vektor than the slovenly output of blackened thrash acts like Abigail. With its mid-tempo chords and copious double-kick, “Born to the Breeder” leans into death metal territory with a distinct Morbid Angel tone but still maintains incisive riffs, hot licks and a chorus that’s catchy enough to chant out loud.
It’s a mark of prestige that at no point did I entertain the notion that the album was the work of a single individual rather than a group of musicians toiling in tandem. This is not a mark against one-man-bands but an observation that one can often see the seams where the sole composer has stitched the various threads together. Not here, Knapp’s musical interdigitation is flawless. Sitting somewhere between Nocturno Culto and Mille Petrozza, the vocals are serviceable but unremarkable, a fact only highlighted by the overachieving nature of the rest of the music. Despite his prodigious talents, Knapp displays admirable restraint and places songwriting above showmanship, careful to not overburden the tracks with preening displays of ego. Not something you can say about other luminaries.
Aside from a few pointed examples, the quality of the music released thus far in 2017 has been underwhelming. Every tepid album I consume only leaves me unfulfilled and hoping that the next one will sate my hunger. That Affliktor was almost summarily dismissed out of hand due to the weak production is a point of vexation because I grew to enjoy my time with the album and developed a large measure of respect for its maker. Divorced from the tyranny of the recording medium, I feel that the music here would be better suited to a live environment, the head-banging swagger of “Burn the Earth” and the Annihilator jauntiness of “Nothing Shall Arise” being prime examples. Knapp has mentioned he is toying with the idea of forming a live line-up so perhaps the opportunity to hear the music unfettered is not too far away. For now, the record is held back from greatness by its insipid fabrication. The production didn’t stop me from liking Affliktor but it certainly stopped me from loving it. For now, the cycle of joy and desolation remains unbroken.