Progressive metal isn’t really my thing. Like yeah, I’ve heard Porcupine Tree‘s Deadwing, appreciated some Haken songs, and at least have heard of Dream Theater, while Leprous and Tool make appearances on my playlist. With its (albeit impressive) focus on sprawling song structures and meandering songwriting, it’s just never tickled me pink in a way that’s really stuck. Serbian five-piece Dead Frog, who I can only assume repeatedly lost at Frogger, offers their own contribution, channeling in equal measure the progressive metal giants, the alternative rock of Linkin Park, the classic heavy metal feel of Iron Maiden.
Their Sliptrick Records debut Burning Bridges channels Tool at its best in an assortment of instrumental wizardry, complex rhythms, fun as hell shredding guitar solos, sprawling passages, and an alternative grunge-tinged vocal approach with harmonies galore. The final product, while it can be a fun listen, is somewhat hindered by its youth and tragically derailed by a blaringly uneven vocal performance.
Virtually every song has a saving grace in its instrumental technicality and taste, channeling Pantera and Pink Floyd in its groove and classic throwback attitude. Tracks like “Asleep,” “Redemption,” and “Hopeless” feature complex head-bobbing licks with flashy leads and impressive technical prowess, while bass is clearly heard rumbling along with thunderous undertones and juicy fills. Sprawling tracks “The Secret’s Key,” “66th,” and “When Your Shadow Begins to Cry” showcase patience in songwriting and a good use of repetition, tastefully cherry-picking punchy riffs and contemplative passages to hypnotic results. Solos from tracks like “Hopeless” and “Redemption” feature a classic heavy metal feel, complete with whammy bar and finger tapping, injecting a huge dose of fun into the sonic palette. The clearest highlight, “Deeper Than I Should,” features the best of all worlds, bringing Meshuggah-esque polyrhythmic riffs, shreddin’ solos, well-written somber passages, and the best vocals of the album.
Unfortunately, for every impressive riff and sweet songwriting trick, there are innumerable damning vocal lines that are (a) too loud in the mix, and (b) awkwardly off-key. This component is the most obvious attempt to pay homage to the late Chester Bennington, but only if the famed Linkin Park frontman didn’t know how to hold a note. Progressive metal is not often renowned for vocal performances, but, because this is not no-wave post-punk, Dead Frog‘s legitimacy is at stake. At best, they are tolerable, and at worst, painful: for instance, closer “When Your Shadow Starts to Cry” features a guitar solo that overlaps and takes over the vocal melody but vocals are painfully off-tune. Singles “Trying to Break Me” and “Can’t Rely on the Truth” offer solid riffs, but are completely derailed and invalidated by an over-reliance on poor vocals. On a minor note, passages in “Redemption” and “Deeper Than I Should” end up feeling somewhat repetitive, and as a whole, the best riffs of Burning Bridges still remain in the shadow of Tool and Leprous.
Ultimately, Dead Frog feels like that garage band down the street with endless potential and a bad singer. While its instrumental performance is a gift that keeps on giving, Burning Bridges‘ vocal attack is the gift you’ll want to return immediately. Sitting at a sprawling hour and ten minute runtime, it holds remarkable coherence and impressive technical prowess for such a young group, but is ultimately let down by the vocal figurehead of its sound. I find myself headbanging and cringing at the same time during Burning Bridges, so I’m not exactly sure where that leaves us. This game of Frogger secures a hit, but we know how that works on the progressive metal freeway–roadkill.