Iceland’s Momentum is a bizarre beast. Aside from having a name and logo more suitable for a caffeine-packed energy drink than a metal band, they’ve undergone quite a few changes in style since their debut demo. Starting out as a black metal group called Afsprengi Satans, they released the wonderfully named Death to Christianity under the Momentum moniker in 2004, followed up by the remarkably unique and entertaining death metal EP The Requiem in 2006. A further EP followed, and by the time 2010’s full-length Fixation, at Rest emerged, Momentum had morphed still further away from their black metal roots. Hints of blackened bleakness remained, but Fixation, at Rest was essentially a post-metal record, full of Isis and Neurosis-isms alongside doom and death metal influences. Momentum are clearly not afraid of experimentation, and so far they’ve been achieving rather good results.
Given this history, it came as little surprise that The Freak Is Alive presents another stylistic shift. This time, though, the change is subtler: the death and black metal influences are played down, while melodic doom has largely taken over from post-metal. Their progressive edge is pleasingly still present, though. Momentum work in some unusual time signatures and odd phrase lengths without ever sounding awkward – you don’t necessarily know they’re doing it unless you’re paying attention (the ending of “Between Two Worlds” is particularly good in this regard with its repeated 7-7-7-9 pattern, or the deceptive 6/4 opening and 4/4 – 9/8 verse of “Gauntlet”). This temporal patterning is reminiscent of Tool, and the excellent title track extends this comparison to the melodies, sounding halfway between Ænima and Katatonia’s Viva Emptiness.
Alongside latter-day Katatonia, the closest comparison to The Freak Is Alive is November’s Doom. The record’s pace – ranging from slow crawl to determined walk – alongside the layered guitars, mournful harmonies and transitions between quiet and heavy passages bring to mind The Pale Haunt Departure in particular. However, it’s the low, chanted vocals that seal the November’s Doom link, sounding remarkably like Paul Kuhr. Momentum have incorporated clean vocals alongside growls previously, but they are used much more frequently on The Freak Is Alive. While this adds another dimension to their sound, the vocal melodies are usually dreary, often consisting of repeated single or two-note patterns. This works most effectively when the instrumental accompaniment is more melodically intricate, as on the title track or “A Beast is Near,” but can become tedious – see “Between Two Worlds,” “Familiar Unknown” or “Undercover Imagination.” The delivery also lacks conviction and variety, further compounding the monotony.
The November’s Doom comparison extends to the production. The guitar tone is very similar to that on To Welcome the Fade: somewhat wishy-washy and lacking crunch, but suiting the general atmosphere. Momentum make use of some unusual instruments to add diversity to the sound – the occasional sitar, piano and violin creating textural variety. Occasionally these extra elements get lost in the density of the mix and you have to really listen to pick up on some of the piano overtones, but they’re a nice touch and could perhaps have been made a little more of. The wonderfully punchy drums help keep things from becoming too static during the slower sections, while the warm bass provides a solid foundation for the other instruments to swarm over.
On my first few listens I was rather unconvinced by The Freak Is Alive – it’s less immediately engaging than their prior efforts, and I was too focused on these differences rather than The Freak’s own peculiar charms. Very much a grower, The Freak Is Alive is full of quirky ideas and intricacies that only reveal themselves after repeated listens. I still have some qualms about the vocals, but Momentum have done a very good job of creating that rarest of things: a subtle metal album. Long live The Freak.