If you’ve never heard of Monsterworks before, welcome to the club. Originally expecting Black Swan Annihilation to be the debut album from a group of spritely young upstarts, I was pretty amazed to find this London-based quartet is actually one of the most productive bands since Suidakra. I admit my laziness and lack of dedication prevented me from listening to all 12 of the band’s preceding full-lengths, but judging from a cursory sample of their work, the writings of fellow critics, and even the group’s own admission, I think it’s safe to say Swan isn’t a huge departure from their other recent output. With lofty album titles like Existential Codex and The God Album, Monsterworks’ blend of death, progressive, heavy, and post-metal continues in fine form with Black Swan Annihilation’s sciency, apocalyptic themes (for those ignorant basement-dwellers like myself, a black swan event is an unpredicted occurrence that causes major cataclysmic effects – thanks Wikipedia).
Opener “Immortalist” focuses on the heavier side of this genre smoothie, beginning with crisp, post-y leads that faintly recall Callisto or even Fallujah’s newest, before moving into a melodic, bobbing riff and a series of shuffling mechanical chords, breaking for a dreamy, proggy solo halfway through its four-and-a-half minute runtime. Vocalist Jon sticks to a growl and a raspy, high-register shout throughout the track, but later cuts get more adventurous. Follow-up “To Have Done What Must Be” begins like the soft side of Opeth, with cooing bass and gentle clean picking over Jon’s light crooning, before a series of forceful chugs and slithering, reverb-soaked leads give way to more proggy solos and a conclusion of harmonized sing-shouting. The two-and-a-half minute “Unbridled Force of Nature” is the oddest of the bunch, beginning with Gutter Instinct-style caveman death metal before uplifting tremolos float away to oblivion.
While Jon proves himself a dynamic vocalist with his death growls and serviceable singing, it’s the guitar-work of him and lead guitarist Marcus that really shines. Songs like “Immortalist,” “Black Swan Annihilation,” and closer “Archivo Omnia” feature simple, potent melodies that provide a welcome dash of accessibility and raw energy amidst all the genre morphing. “Vanishing Point” works its Mesopotamian fretwork over reverberating growls, with skyrocketing leads shooting forth in the climax like sidewinder missiles gone haywire. Aforementioned “Swan,” however, is the centerpiece of the guitar theatrics, its nine-minute runtime combining an Isisy intro, rumbling buildups, hefty terracing chords, swirling melodies, peppy drumbeats, an awesome air-siren scream, and an outro of featherweight, watery clean picking. Some of the record’s solos even recall Porcupine Tree, while the Morningside acoustic twinkling of “Unbeheld” and the dirgy doom riffs of aforementioned “Archivo” further cement Marcus’ and Jon’s versatility.
However, while the performances are enjoyable and I like the group’s relatively fresh sound, I’m not totally bonkers for Swan, and it took me a few listens to realize why. Monsterworks are pulling an interesting balancing act: these songs aren’t direct or punchy enough to be particularly memorable or accessible, but nor are they complex or atmospheric enough to be particularly cerebral or progressive. The end result is a cool, pretense-free record made by a group of guys who clearly love what they do, but not something that will have me downloading everything they’ve released since their 1996 formation. Try as I might to enjoy it more, in the end maybe this just isn’t for me.
On the plus side, at 38 minutes, the length is just right, and the modern, roomy production gives the songs just the depth and vibrancy they need for Swan’s interesting mix of styles. Sure, a slightly more distinct bass tone would be nice – but in all, the band’s deft ability to leapfrog between hammering death metal, climatic post metal, and wavering prog showcases not just their songwriting chops, but also their earnestness. This is the type of group who responds to the question ‘What kind of metal do you play?’ by shrugging and saying ‘We just play metal, I guess.’ Supported by dynamic drumming, inspired performances, and intriguing lyrics, Swan shows that sometimes, just playing the music you love is all you need for a solid album.
DR: 11 | Format Reviewed: 256 kbps mp3
Label: Eat Lead and Die Music
Website: monsterworks.bandcamp.com | supermetal.net | facebook.com/monsterworks
Releases Worldwide: June 24th, 2016