The Gothenburg brand of melodic death may be in its twilight years of relevance, but man, when a band truly nails the sound and style, it’s as glorious as watching stars explode overhead and guzzling craft beers as you get balls deep in a Roman orgy. Though the bands that truly “get it” at such a level are fewer and fewer, Colorado’s Allegaeon proved they were one of them with their outstanding Fragments of Form and Function debut. That album merged slick song writing and enormous technical ability and pretty much beat the listener senseless with sheer talent. If you missed the debut, the best way to describe them is Dark Tranquility with WAY more musical chops. I predicted good things in their future, and Formshifter, their sophomore release, is indeed very good, sometimes great. It feels bigger and more expansive than it’s predecessor, has a bit more black metal influence creeping in, and a bit of that Fear Factory mech-assault as well. It also allows them more space in which to show off their considerable abilities. Sadly, for all the stupefying technical brilliance, Formshifter manages to fall just short of their debut.
Lead off track “Behold (God I Am)” pulls out all the stops and wastes no time showing the skills of all involved. It runs all over the places and feels a bit chaotic, but it makes a big impression and puts the Allegaeon stamp down hard. The soloing, leads and drumming are all insane! Things really take off with “Tartessos: The Hidden Xenocryst,” which has an utterly irresistible lead riff and a surprisingly hooky, memorable attack, quite similar to their main influence, Dark Tranquility. This one just smokes from start to finish and that corkscrewing lead is a thing of beauty. “Iconic Waves” incorporates tasteful Spanish flamenco plucking in the midst of heavy thrash and it works wonders (though the nearly three-minute wind down of sedate flamenco pluckery feels gratuitous and unnecessary). Elsewhere, “Twelve” let’s the guitars run free with scads of flash and dazzle, and “Secrets of the Sequence” hurls enough neo-classical gymnastics to make Yngwie duck and cover (check out the segment starting at 3:45).
Alas poor Yorick, all is not steak and shrimp. “The Azrael Trigger” and “Formshifter” feel flat and generic, despite some ridiculously impressive guitar-work, and “From the Stars Came Death” only escapes the same fate due to a very Dark Tranquility-esque chorus. On a whole, the songs themselves are not as consistent as on Fragments and the writing feels less crisp and tight.
Another big issue for me is the production. While Fragments had a decently raw, deathy sound, Formshifter is very modern, glitzy and polished. Everything sounds huge and loud, but also mechanical and super sterile. The drums sound processed to death and fake as hell. It also makes the band sound closer to metalcore than they are, which is never a good thing. Adding to the downside, the front half of the album is significantly better than the back-end.
Negatives aside, guitar wizards Greg Burgess and Ryan Glisen take their already jaw dropping abilities to the next level. They’re so good, it’s only a matter of time before Dave Mustaine tries to poach them for his ever-expanding Museum of Guitar Monsters I Used to Work With. These guys play their hearts out and showcase every trick in the Guitar Hero Playbook and I can’t say enough about how much I enjoy their stuff. Despite how overdone the melo-death style has become, their playing makes it feel fresh, exciting and new again. Nearly keeping pace with the dizzying fretwork is session drummer JP Andrade. This guy is a beast and he churns out a savage performance, eclipsing that of former kit man Jordan Belfast (who was impressive in his own right).
While they all let it hang out musically, they ensure things never devolve into pointless wank-o-thons of wretched excess (a trick Dream Theater forgot long ago). As on the debut, the pyrotechnics are in service of the songs, which never feel like mere vessels for self-indulgent showboatery (except for the three-minute Spanish guitar lesson).
In a nutshell, Formshifter is all about the trade offs. You get way more technical brilliance at the expense of song craft and production values. Regardless of my criticisms, fan of tech-metal or well done melo-death should hear this. It’s worth it just to experience the high level of playing and to bask in the fretboard godliness. These guys have skillz (yep, I did the backwards z, zue me).