Fallujah – Empyrean Review

Fallujah has a contentious history here at the house of AMG. From the first flirtations, Angry Metal Guy himself had with The Harvest Wombs,1 to the loudness wars that consumed The Flesh Prevails,2 to the unenthused success of Dreamless—all ending in the nonconsensual torture of our very own TheKenWord with his harrowed recount of 2019’s Undying Light, which left the poor poriferan in a state most unfit for attacking this newest, Empyrean. Fans and critics alike remain mixed regarding the continued departure from deathcore-adjacent roots into the questionably seeded grounds of ambiance and progressiveness; exactly the kind of continued experimentation that promises a novel time, prompting me to save our lovable sponge daddy from a potentially fluid-drained fate. With their continued push to succeed under the curiously contradicting banner of atmospheric, technical death metal, can Fallujah once again ascend to the good graces of AMG lore?

Similar to the path of a band like Obscura, Fallujahߵs course has swung and corrected with an iterative precision, often attempting to paint the cosmos with slightly different shades from effort to effort. The original Fallujah charm may have emerged from clean, techy pulses that fought to break through caustic and open-chested howls, but increasingly guitarist Scott Carstairs’ whisper-whammy, needle-threading leads have emerged as the gravitational guide. Finally, fitting of this more delicate approach, a wise sound engineer has granted Empyrean with the outfit’s most dynamic palate: a spacious (but not revolutionary) DR7 master. No longer hidden, Carstairs’ delicate, dancing melodies can be felt in all their strained glory (“Embrace Oblivion, “Into the Eventide”). Just in time, too, as it would have been a shame to have to fight to hear freshly recruited bass wizard Evan Brewer (Entheos, ex-The Faceless); thankfully, he rattles low, clear, and clacky. And while new vocalist, Kyle Schaefer (Archaeologist), doesn’t feature as monstrous as the long-departed Alex Hoffman, his range of harsh and clean stylings allow him to be the chameleon to Carstairs’ oscillating intensities. The passage of time pulls punches, but Fallujah towers as talented as ever.

While the riff never entirely left Fallujahߵs sound on Undying Light, Carstairs makes a point to bring to the forefront, again, his studied, jittery runs on key tracks to pin melody to memory. “The Bitter Taste of Clarity” opens the record teasing the tapering atmosphere that defined their previous release; in defiance, a modern staccato run gives way to Carstairs’ buttery yet formed refrain. Antithetical to the gnarl and fester of a traditional death metal buzz, his surgical guitar tone remains free to flitter from shining trem passage to galloping bridge to slippery slide and pull verse, as on “Radiant Ascension” and “Eden’s Lament”—a stream of dream consciousness. Additionally, Brewer’s Wooten-inspired taps, slaps, and pops weave between kick and pick to provide a pulse to the alien leads on album highlights “Eden’s Lament” and “Soulbreaker,” the latter of which also features Carstairs’ most unrestrained exercise in vibrational vibrato hypnosis.

Empyrean really is too long, though. After the roaring Fallujah of old emerges on the chug and roar of “Mindless Omnipotent Master,” led in march by Brewer’s ever-grinding thump and a snarling vocal guest spot from Chaney Crabb (Entheos), there are still two songs and fourteen minutes remaining. Now, I’m a fan of instrumental flair as much as the next prog fan, but the penultimate noodling “Celestial Resonance” falls flat as an epic build to the equally long closer “Artifacts.” Following epic with epic is a tough play, after all, especially when the main strategy of shimmering vocal layering has already been strewn about earlier with “Embrace Oblivion” and “Into the Eventide.”3 Rather than end with a bang, Fallujah exits with a sustained whimper.

It’s a shame that their best-sounding record to date doesn’t get to be my favorite of theirs, but that doesn’t stop this collection of tracks from being a delightfully solid outing. Not just atmospheric, not just technical, not just crushing, Fallujah manages to step into unknown territory with the groove and swagger of seasoned performersthe most comfortable they’ve felt in their skin since The Flesh Prevails, despite being far removed from it. Falling with grace is a talent that Fallujah continues to practice, and if this is what falling sounds like, then I can’t wait to hear them land.

Rating: 3.0/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Nuclear Blast | Bandcamp
Websites: fallujah.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/fallujahofficial
Releases Worldwide: September 9th, 2022

Show 3 footnotes

  1. Which was over ten years ago, wow.
  2. And the resulting beef with Zach “Friend of the Blog” Ohren and eventual re-review of a higher DR copy. Blashpemy!
  3. Both feature Katie Thompson of Chiasma.
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