Remember Guitar Hero? Yes, I’m aware it’s 2015, but reach back into the memory vaults for just a second. Somewhere on the screen there’s a crowd pleasure meter that dynamically reacted to how well your performance is going. If you were good, it would stay in green. If you were really bad, it would stay in red, teetering on the edge of total audience disengagement. Being mediocre kept you squarely in yellow. Venuzuelan-turned-American duo Cave of Swimmers send the pleasure needle ricocheting through each of these color-coded sections, making their sophomore release Reflection, bar none, the most frustrating thing I’ve reviewed in my tenure at AMG.
Cave of Swimmers bring a lot to the table influence-wise, and to avoid a name-dropping extravaganza it’s expedient to say they’re a mixture of Black Sabbath and early Rush with plenty of Candlemass styled doom mixed in. Vocals are exclusively clean and of the four songs here none are under five minutes long, leaving their more progressive tendencies plenty of temporal room. While they play with familiar sounds, Reflection thankfully isn’t another installment of Cloning the Classics nor an exercise in tiresome trend-hopping. What makes this such a frustrating listen then? A distinct lack of, and clear need for, an editor.
There’s no better example than opener “The Prince of the Power of the Air.” The ominous clean guitar opening that you know is going to give way to a chunky riff is present, accounted for, and damn good, starting us in the green. The verse is one line repeated eight times in a row and the chorus consisting solely of the title of the song and “oh yeah” repeated four times shoots the needle squarely into the red zone, and I was near my wit’s end when both were repeated with only a minor variation halfway through the next eight repetitions of the verse. But just as I wanted to shut it off, a solo section that apes “Whole Lotta Love” comes in and saves the entire thing with GE’s excellent 70s style shredding. The following bit where the duo attempts to merge Black Sabbath and Yes’ “Roundabout” with an NWOBHM flavored lead further livens up the proceedings, but it drags a bit too much and lands us eventually in the yellow. The chorus has long since worn out its welcome when it returns, but the song ends on a high note with the chunky riff that brought the song in with a bang doubled in speed to end with a bang as well.
What doesn’t work is “The Skull.” It begins well enough, but hamstrings itself with more unwanted repetition and a vocal performance that’s flat out bad in the quiet sections. It’s the latter aspect that does the most damage, as GE’s voice is much too warble-y in its Ozzy/Serj hybridization to sustain long notes effectively or convey any subtlety, making some sections legitimately annoying. “Still Running” wisely employs a mostly choppy vocal cadence that’s very Ozzy-ish in phrasing and intonation, serving the song well for the most part. This improvement only goes so far however, and the song suffers from both supererogatory repetition and a couple of dodgy wails.
Reflection proved tough to score, as my opinion of it during each listen wouldn’t stop changing. What I initially liked would sometimes be beaten into banality with the hammer of needless repetition, such as the initially good main riff of “The Skull.” Production is loud but pleasing, allowing Toro’s busy drums plenty of room to breathe and GE’s guitar and bass to mingle with each other smoothly without either getting lost in the mix. I will say that Cave of Swimmers is worth checking out, as they do some interesting things with their influences and don’t sound too much like anyone else in the current scene. I can’t recommend Reflection on a whole because it is somewhat tough to get through at points, but there’s quality scattered throughout. It’s up to you if you want to dig around a bit to find it.