With the release of Labyrinth Constellation in 2014, New York’s Artificial Brain won themselves an immediate following of fans and critics alike, myself included. With a shudder and a scream, Labyrinth Constellation pulled me by the throat out into a borderless realm of cavernous sci-fi horror as bizarre as it was enticing. The album managed to feel vast without losing the down-to-earth grit of death metal, and even among other Gorguts-influenced groups, Artificial Brain had created a unique sound and a fantastic debut. Following that up will be difficult. For many death metal fans, Infrared Horizon is the most anticipated album of the year, and despite its standalone quality, it’s impossible not to judge it against the brilliance of their debut. So how does the sophomore effort stack up?
When “Synthesized Instinct” breaks atmosphere, flaring up like a decommissioned satellite, it’s clear not much has changed in the band’s tonal palette. Atonal chimes of guitar and bass peel away like so many bits of solar panel and reflective casing as the song races downwards, buckling under the pressure of its own disintegration. “Synthesized Instinct” retains the knotty riffing and broad scope of Labyrinth Constellation, but it’s very clearly blackened in respect to the previous album. If I had to guess (and I kind of don’t), I’d say guitarist/principal songwriter Dan Gargiulo has been listening to a lot of black metal, and in addition to the Dodecahedron and Blut Aus Nord, I’d wager misþyrming has been on his radar as of the writing of this album. Whereas Labyrinth Constellation packed in Demilich-esque brutal death riffs, Infrared Horizon is noticeably slimmer on the riff front, and more of the songs are fueled by speedy tremolo-picked guitar parts that are noticeably less complex.
That’s not to say a little more black metal here and there is necessarily a bad thing, and despite being a bit easier to follow overall, some of the guitar parts on Infrared Horizon are real head-turners. “Anchored to the Inlaid Arc” proceeds at a significant portion of light-speed, and its palm-muted black metal riffing is the fastest I’ve ever heard. I’d not be surprised to see a little smoke rising off of the strings when this gets played live. But in between songs like “Synthesized Instinct” and “Anchored to the Inlaid Arc” are ones that don’t quite stack up. “Mist Like Mercury” feels directionless and ends in a fade-out; “Infrared Horizon” leans far too hard on a simple rhythmic figure; “Ash Eclipse” doesn’t feel very different from the rest of the album and proves to be a very weak ending. Labyrinth Constellation felt like looking out the window of a spacecraft as it flies between new and bizarre worlds; there was a sense of constant motion and wonder that Infrared Horizon simply doesn’t capture.
As before, the album sounds fantastic, and you can pick out every single note no matter how fast any band member is playing – but good luck trying to replicate it yourself. Vocalist/human bellows Will Smith uses his upper range a fair bit more on this album than before, but his higher screams and rasps don’t have the near the gravitas or power of his guttural gurgles, and especially on the title track get a bit irritating after a while. Also of note are the couple of studio tricks that the band uses to spice up songs — most notably the down-sampled bits in “Estranged from Orbit” and “Mist Like Mercury.” While these are exciting moments that certainly beg for attention, they’re at best a novelty and at worst a gimmick to add flair to a song that really needs some.
Infrared Horizon makes for a very different listening experience compared to Labyrinth Constellation, and it’s difficult to compare the two directly. The twisted guitar work, guttural burbles, and overall density of the album could only come from Artificial Brain, but this is a different side of the band; a more bare and blackened personality that was less prominent the last time around. Though their sound is unmistakeable, this album is a very different listening experience. For some it might be apples and oranges; brutal and blackened can’t compare. Readers will know which side of that divide Kronos sits on.