The much-maligned genre of djent seems to be undergoing a change as of late. It’s becoming more diffuse, more rarely a goal unto itself and more often part of the progressive metal vocabulary. This is a good thing because distilled djent commonly boils down to an exercise in making technical prowess sound as dull as possible. As an ingredient, rather than a meal, it can be used to contrast intense guitar sweeping, as a deliberately unsteady base or a breather passage. Voyager and Caligula’s Horse sprinkled delicate drips of djent on their albums last year, earning my #3 and #1 at year’s end, so I cannot personally deny the effectiveness of this approach. Now The Dead Centuries seek similar ambitions on Race Against Time, but without the pesky nuisance of a vocalist to distract them.
Now credited as two guitarists and a drummer, The Dead Centuries once began life with a female vocalist and a bassist in their ranks. Where most bands would seek replacements as band members left, here the remaining trio shrugged off the loss and carried on. No bassist is mentioned, so the twanging slap-bass can only be chalked up to anonymous contributors. The remaining cast sets themselves apart by technical prowess. The dual guitar assaults are sharp and complex, featuring a fuzzy, overdriven rhythm guitar and squealing leads that fly up and down the scales. The influence of djent, acknowledged by the band in their admiration of Periphery, mostly shows in the rhythm section; the guitar contains plenty of the familiar truncated and syncopated palm-muted riffing, the bass and drums providing a deliberately shifting foundation.
The most difficult part of instrumental songwriting is retaining the interest of the listener, and The Dead Centuries prove themselves able in this regard. Using tight guitar hooks and impressive performances, the songs flow remarkably well. “Gotham” gallops straight into one of these catchy leads, and “Overdrive” turns it up to 11 after a short intro. The retro album cover is chosen well: despite the modern flair, Race Against Time is most reminiscent of soundtracks to SNES era racing games, the kind of sprite-based 2.5D coin wasters you’d find in an arcade behind a crappy plastic steering wheel. It has an exhilarating quality, guitars flailing with wild abandon over a rapidly rolling and thundering rhythm section. It’s difficult to sustain full attention for an entire album, but it’s excellent background music when you need to get shit done.
Though there aren’t many instrumental modern prog bands, the biggest oddity here isn’t the songwriting, but rather the production. Race Against Time experiments with the amount of stereo on each of the tracks. The rhythm guitar particularly sometimes flits from a demure almost-mono to an overwhelming surround-sound assault, and more than once the lead guitar dances from ear to ear. It’s less pronounced on the drums and the bass, but the effect is bewildering, though not unpleasant. When the rhythm guitar goes into full overdrive, it does crowd out the other instruments, which is a shame since I especially like the fat bass sound. Overall, the experiment is a minor success with plenty of room for growth. Playing with stereo perception doesn’t seem as common as it used to be, and I’m all for the return of the craft.
Instrumental Periphery-loving prog doesn’t sound like something that would rate high on my watch, but The Dead Centuries have proven me wrong. They have a knack for weaving energetic leads and syncopated rhythms into addictive nuggets, blending tight hooks with blistering solos and a rollicking undertow. There’s a lot of retro personality here, and even though there’s not quite enough here to keep Race Against Time on repeat, there’s no reason not to use this as an alternate soundtrack the next time you pop Top Gear or F-Zero into your SNES emulator.
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Websites: thedeadcenturies.bandcamp.com | thedeadcenturies.net | facebook.com/thedeadcenturies
Releases Worldwide: January 26th, 2018