Music, like any craft, is different for those who practice and create it and those who only consume it. The learned are better able to distinguish between what is crafty and what is easy, gaining a perspective that appreciates elegant complexity more than a casual listener would. I am not a musician, nor a professional critic, but I like to think (or delude myself) that I have gathered enough listening and analyzing experience to at least meet the pros halfway. Maybe that’s part of why I like Foreword so much: Disperse meets at the halfway point, as well.
I should give a warning beforehand: if your heart is black as coal and your music invariably must reflect the unfathomable darkness within, Disperse might not be for you. Rather, from the first notes, the album recalls the bright-eyed optimism of Addicted! era Devin Townsend, along with some of its pop-rock sensibilities. This is major key music, alternating between gleefully triumphant when it goes big and childlike wonder when it goes small. Some of the quiet tracks can barely be called metal at all. Small radio-friendly touches dot most of the songs: opener “Stay” employs some brief children’s choir moments in the background, several tracks like “Bubbles” and “Sleeping Ivy” contain little, electronicized vocalizations and “Tether” employs familiar mono-vocal effects here and there. Happy Metal Guy would be dancing for joy over the joie de vivre on display here [If it wasn’t for the unfortunate…incident. – Steel Druhm].
If it was only another instance of straightforward neon pop-metal this might have been fun but unremarkable, shallow as pop-rock tends to be. But this is where Foreword bursts out of the clouds, as it infuses playful, bouncy jazz songwriting into its 11 tracks. Cynic reveals itself as big influence here, but it’s lighter and less dense than that. There’s always something going on that’s not straightforward, and oftentimes it’s the drums, bouncing irreverently on the tips of its toes, often jumping off the beat and occasionally foregoing everyday patterns entirely. Even when the music quiets down and a gentle peace is attained, you can feel a rebelliousness lurking just beneath the surface, peeking up now and then to make sure you’re paying attention.
Meanwhile the guitar switches between booming wails and rapid, fluid tapping that caught more than a whiff of Steve Vai. It ricochets off the ceiling, pounds overwhelmingly and morphs to a quiet echoing tone alike with great agility. The bass is not ignored either and though less flashy it keeps up with the technical wizardry of the other players, providing a mischievous bottom end. The vocals are less outright impressive, but they serve the important function of anchoring the rest of the music and providing some emotional backbone. Rafał Biernacki uses a slightly breathy style that feels close and personal, which pulls the music together and prevents it from flying off the rails. He never goes into an all-out belt but can punch up the more powerful sections without discernible effort.
Now, I’ll admit it’s not a truly perfect album. “Sleeping Ivy” drifts a little too lazily in its first half, although the payoff is good, and some of the electronic flourishes feel unnecessary. “Does it Matter How Far” is overlong and its placement after “Sleeping Ivy” saps the second half of energy, making Foreword feel a bit front-loaded. I don’t consider these major complaints, unlike the only true demerit: while the production is clear overall and the mix vibrant, the heavier sections do suffer from Devinitis. In an effort to make an overwhelming wall of sound, the dynamics drop considerably, and though the amount of variety in the songs means there’s no danger of fatigue to be found, the sound quality suffers, especially on “Bubbles.”
But even the misguided production choices pale before the quality of the songwriting dispersed here. My main issue with technical prowess is often its overuse. Oftentimes, the more skilled the individual performers are, the more clinical and distant the music becomes. If I have incredibly complex music but it doesn’t make me feel a thing, what’s the point? Disperse manage to be wizards on their instruments but stay tethered by structurally sound songwriting. By keeping some familiarity in the skeleton of the tracks, they guide you along while filling the meat with playful jabs and effects and continually surprising interplay. On the path from shallow to impenetrable, they meet me at the halfway point.
Foreword makes me instantly happy when I hear it. It doesn’t carefully tread the line between poppy jazz and prog metal: it throws open the shades and dances across it in the sunlight, letting its feet land wherever they want to without a care who’s watching. Is it metal? A better question is: does it matter? Foreword doesn’t think so, and neither should you.