Dear readers, what are your favorite ’90s progressive or technical death metal albums? Perhaps it’s Cynic‘s legendary Focus, Death‘s Human, Edge of Sanity‘s Crimson, or is it Pestilence and their classic Consuming Impulse opus? Or maybe Atheist‘s brilliant Unquestionable Presence album floats your boat. Or digging deeper, a more left-field choice: Martyr‘s underrated Hopeless Hopes. New York’s Contrarian pay homage to the classic ’90s progressive and technical death scene through their retro and impressively authentic throwback style of spazzed out prog death on their third LP, Their Worm Never Dies. These dudes know how to play and uniformly the musicianship is impressive, the complex structures and intricate interplay embellished with jazzy-inflections and classic death shredding. But can Contrarian muster the song-writing skills to truly make their presence felt?
Firstly, Contrarian nail the classic aesthetic remarkably well. Twisty mutations and aggressive execution keep the music squarely in the death metal category, spliced with a slightly blackened edge in the atmospheric and vocal departments. It’s worth noting Contrarian boast the immense talents of drummer/vocalist George Kollias (Nile, Burnt City) in their ranks and his drumming, in particular, is a standout, though his harsh vocals are solid as well. Lyrically, although the story is impossible to follow clearly without a lyric sheet in hand, is developed around a fantasy concept, involving a man, a dragon, and the curse of the Evil Eye. A nerdy side interest bringing a unified context to the album.
Progressive death can easily fall into a pattern of bloated song-writing and over-indulgence. Contrarian aren’t immune to these factors and sometimes it feels like the band is cramming too many notes and ideas into certain songs and segments. Thankfully, they cut the album down to a fairly lean 37 minutes, comprising seven weighty compositions, garnering varying levels of listener engagement. “Vaskania (The Evil Eye)” kicks the album into high gear from the outset, a knotty composition of substance, solid riffs and well crafted dynamic shifts. Similarly, mid-album cut “The Petition” is a wicked blend of complexity, striking melodies, and headbangable riffs, stricken with emotive soul. They set a high standard in which the remaining songs struggle to reach, bar from some less consistent patches of stellar songwriting and noteworthy morsels amidst the blatant Death worship. Memorability becomes a niggling problem, hampering the album’s various strengths and casting doubt over longer-term replay value. So while each song offers solid entertainment, the degree of catchiness and quality is inconsistent.
The musicianship of the four accomplished individuals sets a high standard, from the intricate interplay and sparkling shredding between the dueling guitarists, ranging from cold-hearted aggression to delicately finessed melodies and straight-up death riffs, to the impressive chemistry shared between the band. Rhythmically, Contrarian are served by an excellent backbone comprised of the highly skilled and powerful drumming of Kollias and noodly, ever-present bass work of Ed Paulsen. The vocal work from Kollias gets the job done well, his beastly blackened growls and hoarse delivery providing a fitting match to Contrarian‘s old school prog death approach. Speaking of old school, the production values smack of ’90s nostalgia, a little rough and no-frills, but dynamically mastered and crisp and clear enough to pick out the music’s subtle nuances and excellent performances.1
Despite its obvious strengths, I’ve been highly conflicted during my time with Their Worm Never Dies. The song-writing is somewhat mixed, flipping from truly captivating passages into fairly forgettable moments and song-writing that veers dangerously close to derivative nostalgia territory. Nevertheless, there’s much to enjoy despite its flaws, and clearly, Contrarian have worked tirelessly to craft the album and its overarching concept. Classy retro prog death, Their Worm Never Dies can’t quite engage by interest to garner greater enthusiasm, but it’s a solid album worth investigation.