Post-metal had something of a heyday in the last decade, with seemingly everyone on the Internet gushing over Isis’ Panopticon, Neurosis’ Given to the Rising, and whatever Cult of Luna and Pelican were up to. While there’s still quality post-metal coming out today (The Ocean’s Pelagial in 2013, Beak’s debut last year), I think it’s safe to say the genre is no longer as in vogue as it once was. Finnish sextet Callisto seem to have foreseen this shift years back. After 2004’s True Nature Unfolds and 2006’s Noir – two albums generally regarded as enjoyable, if somewhat derivative – they removed nearly all traces of metal with 2009’s Providence, essentially producing an album composed entirely of their softer moments. Was it any good? Not really, but it was certainly different. Six years later, Callisto are back again with Secret Youth, a self-described “progressive noise rock” record from a band “always eager to experiment.” Can a second-tier post-metal band succeed with a new sonic palette?
Let me first state a disclaimer: Secret Youth is hardly a metal record at all, and those holding out hope that Callisto would rise from their second-tier status and produce a modern post-metal masterpiece are in for a disappointment. Instead, the prog influence is clear from the onset, with the prominent rolling bassline and spindly rock guitars of “Pale Pretender,” the twinkly, shimmering notes and brilliantly simple mid-song background synth in follow-up “Backbone,” and the obligatory effects-ridden ambient instrumental “The Dead Layer.” The vocals remain firmly rooted in a croon, sounding like a nasally Mikael Akerfeldt singing halfhearted Mastodon melodies, with the few sludgy yells in parts of “Backbone” and “Ghostwritten” feeling tossed-in to prove the band haven’t entirely forsaken their old fans. Other songs get a little different: the shoegazey delay-drenched “Breasts of Mothers” (yummy?) and “Lost Prayer” provide some decent icy soundscapes, while late-album highlight “Grey Light” – with its groovy bass, snappy rhythm, and clean post-punk guitar lines – could pass for a Sisters of Mercy song if it were performed with gothic vocals and a drum machine. The rhythm is definitely simple enough.
This brings me to a very big “but…,” and it’s quite damning. Simply put, Secret Youth is incredibly boring. With the exception of a few dull hooks in “Grey Light” and “Acts,” the singer warbles along at the same monotonous tempo and tone for the entire album, seemingly deciding arbitrarily whether to sing a higher or lower note next. He doesn’t complement the music – but really, there isn’t much to complement anyway. The drums do little more than keep time, while the guitarists are stuck playing the same hardly-distorted, insipid, pseudo-dreamy lines for nearly the entire 54 minutes. Examples? Just see anything I didn’t list in the previous paragraph. For superficial atmospheric background music it’s fine – but listening to this, I have trouble detecting any moments that Callisto actually intended for the listener to consider a climax.
The bassist is the only one who deserves credit here, and fortunately the production accentuates him the most. Unfortunately, the vocalist also gets a hearty share of the spotlight. While everything else usually sounds passable, at times the synth and guitar seem mushed together slightly in the background – perhaps that’s where Callisto claim their “noise” influence comes from. Additionally, the overall mix is just too flat to be particularly interesting. This begs for an expansive and huge sound, rather than tossing a few elements in the forefront and crumbling everything else behind them.
I tried to enjoy Secret Youth for what it was, and when that failed, I tried to ignore the vocals and pretend it was something I could put alongside God is an Astronaut in a post-rock playlist. I keep returning to the same conclusion: Secret Youth suffers from Heritage syndrome, an attempt at prog rock by a band that was clearly better doing something else. A few scattered moments pique my interest, but at heart, this feels uninspired and uninteresting. It’s surprising to see Callisto describe this as having a “youthful, experimental” spirit, because that’s exactly what’s missing. If this is what they’re motivated to do, fine. But I certainly won’t be listening.