After three years plagued by seemingly perpetual setbacks, The Schoenberg Automaton‘s second full-length Apus has finally made the journey from a studio in Australia to my speakers in Chicago. The Brisbane-cum-Vancouver-based technical death metal outfit caught my eye with their first EP and took off in 2013 with Vela, which built on their progressive and extreme roots, expanding their unique and abstract sound quite successfully. Yet early-release tracks from Apus had me worried that the band had abandoned just what made their previous releases so interesting and vital. Had the sophomore slump stymied their songs?
“Swarm” says otherwise. Hot off the heels of “Year Zero,” the song’s midsection is replete with tricky stop-start riffing and angular leads, but the band really bring the heat at 2:40, when the song plunges into an intense melodic bridge that’s easily the highlight of the first few tracks. The Schoenberg Automaton make a habit out of such excellent but unexpected passages, and their uneven distribution across Apus keeps the album rolling along even across thirteen songs and over fifty minutes. But that length of time is a tall order for a relatively young death metal band to sustain, and though songs like “Swarm” and “Of Omnipotence” bring ideas to the plate that are new even for a band this adventurous, the material across Apus is spotty.
The aforementioned “Of Omnipotence” covers a lot of ground with its fractured breakdowns and often unexpected chord progressions, but its middle section is a bit lackluster, and the ideas behind some of its riffs – along with many others on the album – don’t feel extremely well executed, and alien pieces are often fit onto a scaffold that could have used a bit more consideration. The follow up to “Of Omnipotence” fairs quite well, however, and “Prince Monopolist” is a great display of technical deathcore with an ear for atonality and obscurity. Patchy though these songs can be, there’s a lot to like moment-to-moment and the band keep their focus on songs rather than technical prowess.
But the technical prowess is certainly there, showing itself in lightning-fast licks and angular phrases. These aren’t typical tech-death riffs, and their angularity – both rhythmic and harmonic – brings to mind both The Dillinger Escape Plan and Vildjharta1. Riffs might bake these mathy cakes, but they’re sold by a killer performance by vocalist Jake Gerstle, whose growls, gurgles, and howls are both unique and varied enough to remain impactful even late into the album, especially on the closer, “Fear.” While the song reaches almost eight minutes, and follows an album that could have used some shortening up already, “Fear” sees The Schoenberg Automaton pulling out all the stops and features gang vocals, drum patterns that Billy Rymer would nod his head to, and a harmonized guitar solo to boot. Yet it still feels like the band have lost the tiniest bit of their identity.
Apus is a good album with some great moments, but it’s missing the focused atonality of past songs like “The Woodhouse Sakati Syndrome” and the character of “Areciebo.” The Schoenberg Automaton are a band with a lot of ideas, but their execution here is wanting; I’d love to see the band engage more with their namesake and try out more serially structured riffs and introductions rather than the chromatic chugging and tremolo that they often fall into here. The death metal scene is begging for a band that can craft experimental and dissonant songs without invoking the big G, and with fine tuning, The Schoenberg Automaton could make a huge impact the next time around.