Every now and then you run into something that seems to have been made specifically for you. It’s like someone reached into your head, downloaded a copy of your soul, extracted exactly the sort of things you enjoy, and made something that panders to the template it found. Apotheus’ promo described a progressive melodeath band with a sci-fi concept album about interstellar colonization. Periods for emphasis, but Sign. Me. The. Fuck. Up. Prog, you may have gathered, tops my favored genre list. Melodeath is something I got more picky about through the years, but always enjoyed since my first metal forays, and I like to think of it as the genre I really grew up on, metal-wise. And I love a good concept tying an album together, while sci-fi is my #1 literary genre. In short, The Far Star was off to a good start before I’d even started.
And on the surface, it appears to make good on its promise. In the broadest strokes, Apotheus takes after Amorphis, trading in the folk vibe for spacey touches of electronics. The vocals are split between a dry growl and a passionate clean baritone, and the tracks themselves are similarly balanced between lighter melodic material and heavy riffs, though never approaching actual death metal territory. The amount of variety and dynamics across the album is excellent, using textures ranging from Pink Floydian reverberation (the intro to “Under a New Cloudy Sky” has some very “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” moments) to Arcturus cosmic bombast.
Yet with all this going in its favor, Apotheus just can’t seem to drag The Far Star over the threshold into the realm of good albums, and for a long time I could not formulate why. Its flaws are subtle but terminal, yet every attempt I made at putting them to text sounded petty and overly nit-picky. Trying to accumulate the small transgressions just seems an exercise in futility. Their compositions are solid, yet they grow stale very quickly. The electronics add extra layering, but they don’t feel well-integrated, more like an overlay than an integral part of the music. Yes, these shortcomings have some significance, but they’re ultimately not what turned me off about The Far Star. So what is?
The definitive issue is twofold: passion on the one side, and organic songwriting the other. Despite playing around with the overall structure of the songs, the transitions and individual measures of the tracks are stiff and rigid. The songs feel trapped within themselves, an unyielding framework that must be followed to the letter. It’s almost as if the musicians are hired guns that are forced to play with guns trained on them, the sheet music laid out in front of them with “THIS BAR FOUR TIMES” next to every line. Such stiff performances practically preclude much emotional engagement, and indeed, there is a severe shortage of that on The Far Star.
If I may be allowed to speculate in an aside, I don’t think Apotheus are not emotionally engaged with their music. There’s clearly a lot of heart in this project, and a lot of talent. But I think of this album as a prime example of death by overachievement. It feels strongly like an album so dear to the band they dared not play a wrong note or attempt a flourish that may go out of place. Everything that could be construed as a mistake was meticulously shaved off, and the result is an album that sparkles and shines on the outside but is hollow on the inside.
It’s really a sad outcome, because even beyond my own biases for the subject and genres, there is a lot of good material on The Far Star, and the production is quite stellar albeit a tad thin. Every now and then you see what could be a stellar album peeking out for just a moment, like a vocal flourish on “The Pull of Plexus.” Hopefully the full extent of that album will come out next time Apotheus enter the studio, because I have high hopes for this band. They can perform with the best of them, they have shown to be capable of writing a good hook or two. The one thing they need to learn is that there is such a thing as overpolishing an album.