We are taught from an early age, the value of hard work. First in the office, last to leave, always say yes, don’t complain, knuckle down, toughen up, and grind away for the recognition you’re owed. Except that in reality, it doesn’t pan out that way. You put in the hours and produce the goods, only for that promotion to glide into the hands of someone less worthy. “But I deserve it!” No one cares. Just because you wore yourself down to the stubs doesn’t mean you produced anything worth a damn. It’s about what you achieve, not how much of it. Halcyon Way would seem to disagree. Having built their reputation on grit and gumption, they stand proud of their latest album, Bloody But Unbowed, a declaration to dogged persistence if there ever was one. But, does effort guarantee success?
Based in Atlanta, Halcyon Way have been kicking around the tracks for a few years making Bloody But Unbowed their fourth full-length release. The album leans heavily on its technical chops, drawing from thrash, prog and even shades of power metal. It’s bombastic, loud and keen to impress, showering the listener with every manner of modern musical trick. Starting off strong, the first handful of tracks lay down the framework of what’s to follow. Title track “Bloody But Unbowed” slams into the firmament with tectonic force, spraying debris of fast riffs, precise drumming, and rousing choruses. Balanced somewhere between Dream Theater and Destruction, the execution is tight, displaying the prowess of a band whose instruments act as an extension of themselves. Halcyon Way know how to put together a song so that hits all the targets, designed to trigger our pleasure receptors via harmonies, slick solos, and catchy bridges. ”Blame” and “Slaves to Silicon” in particular acting as effective ear-worms, slithering in my subconscious for hours after every spin of the record.
If catchiness were a measure of quality then Bloody But Unbowed would be a resounding success — the first half at least. But the artificial nature of the music, the desire to stuff each song with hooks leaves one feeling manipulated into a purchase by a persuasive salesman. Steve Braun’s vocals are the focal point of the music, resembling a malnourished Dave Mustaine when he’s not trying to shatter glass. His voice is arresting but the nasal delivery coupled with a penchant for group shouts (closer to West Side Story than Anthrax) becomes a drag. This feeds into the more-is-more animus of stuffing each song with every predilection that comes to mind. Nothing is left off the table, clean vocals, harmonies, death grunts, solo upon solo, electronic elements, long songs, too many songs — it can all be suffocating at times.
The overt need to overwork and overwhelm leads to pacing issues. There is always something going on, never letting the music sit and breathe whether via a ballad, extended instrumental interlude or something similar. You could argue Halcyon take the “all killer, no filler” approach, but the opposite is true — the band is musically always running its mouth, filling the air with noise to the point that it becomes distracting and overbearing by the record’s conclusion. If Bloody But Unbowed was chopped by a third, then the dense nature of the music would work in its favor. Septic Flesh found this balance on Communion, delivering a complex, nigh-perfect assault that was timed to leave the listener salivating for more. It’s clear how rare a feat this is as the band failed to follow the template on subsequent albums, thinking the path to adoration lay in feverous productivity. This is Halcyon Way’s sin — the sin of commission.
It may seem that my criticism is harsh, but this is only because Bloody But Unbowed offers so much to enjoy, that it’s frustrating to see a band cut themselves off at the knees. If the only problem was lengthy tracks on an overburdened album then return trips could be justified via spaced out listening sessions. What sticks in my craw though, is just how disposable the music feels, despite being crafted with undeniable skill. The songs feel eked out by talented session musicians under contract, rather than a work of art borne from a singular vision. Bloody But Unbowed is a homunculus; bearing all the hallmarks of a quality record on the surface only to be exposed as a hollow facsimile upon closer inspection. Sometimes it’s better to work smarter, not harder.