Dystopia A.D. – Rise of the Merciless Review

Preconceptions are fun, aren’t they? When I tell you Dystopia A.D. is a 2-man unsigned band from Jersey, or Joisey as it’s colloquially known, you’re already forming a picture in your head. If you’re like me, you’re probably expecting some sort of politically charged thrash, possibly of a crossover or core-related variety. Dystopia is, after all, a word that inherently defines a result of particular forms of governance, and Jersey is known primarily for blue collar thrash, Overkill of course its flag carrier. Combine that with the unsigned 2-man band and the picture seems complete. Except it’s utterly, utterly wrong, as Dystopia A.D. play progressive death metal, and do a damn fine job of it.

It’s truly remarkable what Chris Whitby and Aki Shishido have done here. Rise may only run for 26 minutes (Metal Archives list it as an EP, the band’s Facebook calls it a full album) but the breadth of music on display is staggering. There’s blackened assaults (“Plaguebringers”), MENA scales (“Nomad”), morose gothic doom interludes (“Sisyphean Existence”), at least 4 distinct vocal styles all done by Whitby, and a host of fantastic guitar work from Whitby and Shishido, with the latter recording from his deployment in Afghanistan1. The drums have gone uncredited, and are likely done by machine, but the fact that I’m not certain should speak to the skill of their application, as they never feel overly robotic or rigid.

You’d think such a range on such a short album would incur a cost on cohesion, but it never does. The songwriting is superb, flowing seamlessly from stanza to stanza in a progressive manner. Though verse-chorus structures are largely eschewed, re-use of certain melodies or rhythmic touches bind the tracks together, while the above-mentioned array of stylistic variations ensure that the short running time is packed with highlights, at turns reminiscent of Opeth, Edge of Sanity, Aeternam and Genus Ordinis Dei. The only significant downturn comes along in the title track. For one, while Whitby has an excellent Swanö-ish growl and a solid core scream, his straight cleans don’t quite convince, and they are employed the most on this track. Worse, the acoustic bridge is a barely distorted copy of Opeth’s “Harvest” right down to the vocal cadence, and though it’s a short section and might be coincidence or homage, it rips me right out of the flow every time.

Still, it does little to curb the quality of the music on display here. In fact, what’s the most frustrating thing about Rise of the Merciless is that there’s not more of it. As I mentioned before, there is some back-and-forth on whether or not this album counts as an EP, which is an ever nebulous definition. But either way, the band’s expansive sense of progression and the seemingly bottomless well of inspiration these tracks belie give it more the sense of a very strong proof of concept. If every track expanded its scope with a few extra minutes to fully explore all the layers of ideas contained within, this would be frontrunner for Record o’ the Month and an easy year-end candidate. As it stands, it comes across as a very successful showcase that doesn’t quite want to reveal the real deal.

Rise of the Merciless really cozies up as close to a 4.0 as it can get without crossing the line. The complaints are generally minor, and that includes the “I want more!” issue, and a fix on any of them might have pulled them over the line. I reckon a few of you will argue I shouldn’t have held off the boat at all.2 But the fact is, that feeling of being so tantalizingly close to something really, truly great makes it like sleeping on a priceless Swedish mattress that has just a little bit of sand in the sheets. It’s a wonderful experience that you just know for a fact could be at a level where few could match it. If Dystopia A.D. give their next outing time to gestate and develop, and clear away the grains of sand, they can absolutely grow into prog titans. They’re just not quite there yet.

Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Self-released
Websites: dystopiaad.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/dystopiaad
Releases Worldwide: July 31st, 2020

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Making this far more impressive, as conditions on military bases there are usually far from ideal. – Steel
  2. The commentariat complaining about a score being too high and/or too low?! Inconceivable!
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