Written By: Nameless_n00b_01
I know that any music which could accurately be described with words like “restrained,” “subtle” or (hurk) “romantic” is fighting an uphill battle to get even a cursory listen from the AMG demographic. I, too, love metal because generally, it’s not those things. Metal is intense, overwrought and perpetually pissed the fuck off or wallowing in the deepest trenches of despair—no half-measures. But before you write off Ambassador because they don’t really play traditional metal, hear me out. They ended up winning me over and I figure the same might happen to you.
Ambassador are five-piece hailing from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Belly of the Whale is their debut LP, their only prior release being a two-song EP from back in 2016. They play slick, mellow alternative rock infused with a light smattering of progressive elements for good measure. With their emphasis on two-part vocal harmonies, heavy use of arpeggiated minor seventh guitar parts and a clean, reverb-heavy production their sound draws the closest comparison to bands like Deftones, A Perfect Circle or latter-day Katatonia. While many prog-metal bands go for an Opethian approach that juxtaposes heavy passages with lighter fare, Ambassador eschews heavy sections altogether, choosing to create dynamics through songwriting as opposed to volume.
The decision employ a less dramatic approach to prog can initially make Ambassador’s music seem a little dull, but closer listening reveals the nuances on display here. Opener “Empress” demonstrates this sleight-of-hand songwriting the band excels at. Hearing the chunky power chords and barreling drums that introduce the track I was expecting some bombastic arena metal to follow. Instead, the guitars ditch the power chords for the verses in favor of spread voicings and staccato dual-note harmonies to complement those powerful drums. Then, for the choruses, typically the climax of a song, Ambassador instead play at their quietest. The guitarists tap out call-and-response melodies over a sparse drum beat, letting those reverb-drenched lines ring out amid the empty space. At first, it was disappointing for the band to keep slowing down rather than turning it up, but when the final verse comes in and the band fills in all that negative space from before with groovy harmonized Baroness-style licks something clicked. Keeping things sparse when most metal bands would have crowded the arrangements allows for that outro to hit extra hard. That economic approach to songwriting is evident throughout most of the tracks here, and it’s one of the band’s strongest attributes. In doing so they manage to avoid much of the excess associated with prog.
Together with that, however, comes Ambassador’s deep-set pop sensibilities. If you find conventional song structure and pop hooks to be a bit tough to stomach you might find this aspect of their music unpalatable. However, the band are talented enough to set up expectations and subvert them in ways that make for a satisfying narrative experience. “Return/Castaway” starts off as a straight-up fucking love ballad, veering dangerously close to becoming a mid-2000s Hoobastank single. Then the mood changes as the vocals become pained and drawn out and the riffs swell and swell, sounding like an enormous tidal wave cresting and finally crashing down in the form of a skipping, bluesy triplet-time solo at the end. It’s one of the most satisfying moments on the record after such an inauspicious start. “Sea of Galilee” is another solid pick, employing a catchy and smooth delayed guitar line and seemingly adding a beat or two to certain measures to keep the listener on their toes. The vocalist has Chino Moreno-like knack for long, drawn-out melodic phrases that glide over the music in sometimes surprising ways. He makes the best of his admittedly limited range, though a smoother timbre might have been better-suited to the music.
Belly of the Whale is a grower. Ambassador won’t get the kids moshing, but the detailed compositions make for an album that’s fun to analyze. What it lacks in immediacy it makes up for in nuance, and the more I listen to this album the more I enjoy it. I do hope the band explores heavier sounds on future records, and a more dynamic production could aid them to that end. It would also have been great to see more songs that ditch conventional song structure. Still, this is a solid album for those not opposed to some decidedly un-metal but smartly-written alternative rock.