Popular music has had a shadow looming over it for years: talent shows, where thousands of contenders come to have their hopes and dreams shattered, burned and the ashes spread to the winds. Apparently the practice has also come to unpopular music; in 2011, Century Media crowned proggers Oddland the winners of the Suomi Metal Star contest. Those last three words make me gag, but at least Oddland got a record deal out of it, with Dan “The Man” Swanö as their mix and mastering bonus. Their debut, The Treachery of Senses, received great reviews and not without reason: it contained an instantly recognizable mixture of djent-influenced rhythms with a smooth vocal delivery and excellent, mature songwriting. Such a debut is hard to follow up on, and for their new album, Oddland‘s mission was just to overcome the dreaded sophomore slump.
Like the debut, Origin is driven by pounding, syncopathic rhythm sections with audible influences from djent. The freight train of Meshuggah chugging is interspersed with quieter passages and occasionally supported by highly technical guitar noodling. The musicians are extremely competent, weaving intricate melodies not entirely unlike Gojira. In stark contrast is the smooth and somewhat grungy voice of Ojanen, whose vocal style could be compared to the likes of Chris Cornell as well as Pain of Salvation‘s Daniël Gildenlöw. The end result sounds like Leprous on steroids, in a good way. On the other hand, the synths from the debut are conspicuously absent on most tracks and used sparingly on the rest. Combined with the denser production the music generally feels more claustrophobic. The aggressive low-end rhythm section takes precedence on Origin, pummeling with jarring, oppressive blasts. It’s a darker approach, and a stark and immediate take on the technically complex material.
Sadly, the debut’s melodic angle was simply a lot more interesting than The Dark Chug Returns. The production is one of the biggest problems. Both albums were mastered at a similar dynamic range, but no one knows how to make a loud master sound good like Dan Swanö. Both he and the label have been replaced, and the resulting production sounds louder and more compressed. The shift in focus away from melody has left the album with fewer hooks to hang on to and the latter half has too little variety remain interesting. Most of the best songs are the ones that change things up: the engaging layered vocals on the chorus of “Will”, the morose “Thanatos” which relies less on chugging, and the emotionally resonant “Penumbra” ending with a scintillating guitar lead that shows off what happens when Oddland nails the balance between aggressive and melodic. But none of the following 5 songs stand out, with the negative exception of “Hidden” if only because it’s the least focused of the lot.
All this is disappointing, but not necessarily catastrophic. The downsides could be offset by spectacular vocals, but while Ojanen has a rich and pleasant voice, he can’t produce the required depth to be the emotional anchor. Worse, his style of successive long notes interferes with the instrumental tempo, dragging down the songs and increasing the feeling of sameness across the tracks. Combine this, the overly technical instrumentation, the lack of real variety and the dense production and you’re left with an album that sounds superficially interesting but feels cold and distant, like a hot psychiatrist with an all business attitude.
I keep wishing I could give Origin a better score. The band is crazy talented, something they have already demonstrated with Treachery of Senses. They play their instruments well, and the overall sound, disregarding the production, is spectacular, but the truly good moments are too far between to make up for the long stretches of dull technicality. In the end, Origin has left me feeling disillusioned, and I can only make the saddest conclusion: this is an album of great elements mired in uninspired songs.