How do you feel about keyboards? Do you like ’em gloomy and atmospheric? Synthy and cheesy? Perhaps the classic piano flavor does it for you. Whatever your tastes, X.Kernel have got you covered. Their debut Face the Truth follows eight long years of melodic rumination and, if the album art can be believed, enough Phoenix Wright to cause nightmares. Given my last encounter with a band brought to you by the letter “X,” I’m more cautious than normal, but maybe the truth will set X.Kernel free.
“Exhausted” makes clear from the start that the Ukrainians have more keys than a locksmith. Far heavier on the “melodic” than the “death,” they rely on heavy pseudo-gothic tones to mix Gothenburg influences old and new, ranging from In Flames to Arch Enemy to Soilwork. Face the Truth plops Alina Borodkina and her magical 88 front and center in a fashion reminiscent of Kalmah, though the Finns’ tones were never so ostentatious in their black-and-white delivery. On the string side, Nikita Larionov’s axe-work would make Jesper Strömblad proud. “Kingdom of Pain” keeps the In Flames riffing, but morphs the keys to a cleaner tone. A synth underbelly has a minor say, but the occasional pairing of heat and mourning exude whiffs of Before the Dawn. On its face, it’s an enticing offering for fans of the genre, if they can overcome the pervasive sense of familiarity.
The pre-sunrise feeling continues on “In the Void,” as Max Sklyar puts on a gothic voice that sounds like a just as cheesy but somewhat less terrible Oliver Bandmann (Aeternitas). His baritone deliveries on “In the Void,” “No Fate,” and “Dream of Sun” could be stronger, but their measured use bolsters otherwise generic growls. However mediocre, they represent a shot of character the band is sorely missing. The problem with Face the Truth – past the keyboard production – comes from how easily everything is lost in the shuffle. The keyboard melodies never land in the way necessary to anchor the album. “Exhausted” offers maybe the strongest key melody on the record; returns only diminish from there. Worse yet are the ones that would be catchy, at least relatively, but for their obnoxious tones. At their worst, the lukewarm direction and development of “Dying Gods” and “No Fate” leave me stifling a yawn. The guitars draws straight lines to bands I enjoy, but shine sparingly with the keyboards chauffeuring them constantly. The cleaner tone of “Kingdom of Pain” eases this pain a bit, but the respite is short-lived. At first, “Stay Alive” houses all the ferocity expected from a mid-album pace shift, but as the omnifuckingpresent keys bleed in, my enthusiasm slips away.
I can’t help but shake my head, because I should be eating this stuff up. “The Last War” proves that this formula can succeed under balanced implementation. X.Kernel still utilizes those noodly tones, but rather than gobbling up the entire track, they stand alongside the guitars. The song still forces a wince —Sklyar brings the cheese Borodkina left behind — but it’s a nice change of pace. Dual solos from Borodkina and Larionov take a neo-classical bent to cap a track I wish the rest of the album could have emulated. The keys are effective without being a massive affront to my ears. “The Last War” also sees drummer Dmitriy Kruglik finally thump his way through the busy production of an album where Oles Malezhik’s brief-but-regular bass fills somehow stand out more than the bloody percussion. While the production falters, at least Borodkina and Larionov have their heads in the right place. They want their melodeath to be catchy and memorable. I admire the attempt, but they succeed only on the latter and for the wrong reasons.
On paper, Face the Truth is primo Wvrm bait, but those insipid keytones do me in. Perhaps X.Kernel have it in them to right the ship. As my fiancee likes to say about every fixer-upper house I don’t want any part of, the band has good bones. The melodeath scene could definitely use another key-central band, especially given Kalmah‘s extended absence. With more polish and less infuriating production decisions, they could fill a wide-open niche. I just hope it doesn’t take another eight years to get to there.