Last year’s self-titled debut from prog “supergroup” Howling Sycamore was one of my more positive surprises. On paper it shouldn’t have really worked: extreme drumming married to down-tuned guitars, then mashed in with over the top old-school vocals and the occasional crazed baritone sax. Yet the whole thing gelled in some weird, freakish way, and I was left hoping it wasn’t a one-off project. Well, here we are less than a year and a half later, with Seven Pathways to Annihilation, the band’s follow-up. It’s the same cast of characters, but this isn’t Howling Sycamore 2.0. Is that a good thing?
As is usual, the answer is yes and no. You see, the band’s debut album came to be rather accidentally. Guitarist Davide Tiso (Ephel Duath) was writing guitar parts for another project that already had drum tracks laid down. These guitar parts didn’t really jive with that project, though, so they became the basis for Howling Sycamore. However, with these guitar parts already built around extreme drumming, Tiso had to keep that aspect alive, and thus we were given that frenetic first album, with drumming courtesy the omnipresent Hannes Grossmann (recently heard on Alkaloid, Gomorrah, and his solo album, Apophenia) and vocals from Watchtower’s Jason McMaster. This time around, Tiso was able to construct the tracks from the guitar parts out, and we are left with quite a different collection of songs–moody and dense, at times verging on impenetrable, and less occasionally veering into crazyland.
One dimension of Howling Sycamore’s debut that remains intact on Seven Pathways… is Jason McMaster’s singing. He still approaches each song–each lyric, in fact–like a more dramatic Dio.1 This starts literally one second into the opening number, “Mastering Fire,” where McMaster fluctuates fervently between sinister croons and unhinged wails. All the lyrics throughout the album are sung in first person, and deal with the idea of destroying one’s ego on the path to enlightenment. As complex as that is, the music is equal to the task. There are fewer blastbeats here than on the debut, but Grossmann lays down quite complex rhythms in their stead, and the layers of guitars alter between unapproachable and alluring. Through the first three songs, this intensity does not let up, making for an exhausting listen, but “Second Sight” is perfectly placed and paced, a dirge that morphs into a hypnotic, ethereal rhythm beneath a twin lead guitar break that fades out. Follow-up “Raw Bones” is epic in feel, containing perhaps the only riff on the album, which makes it all that more effective, but these two examples are exceptions.
Howling Sycamore’s debut album featured guest turns on guitar by Kevin Hufnagel (Dysrhythmia, Sabbath Assembly) and saxophone by Yakuza’s Bruce Lamont. Those two return here, although in Lamont’s case his work is slightly less chaotic, and only on the excellent final track, “Sorcerer,” in which he solos twice, first in a very demented manner, and then later in a more subdued style. Other guests this time around include Fabian Vestod (Skinlab) on additional drums and Marty Friedman and Matt Baldwinson (Dream Tröll) on guitar.
Howling Sycamore have not created an album that is easy to listen to. One can’t simply throw this record on, wander away, and find oneself rocking out. Seven Pathways… will challenge listeners in all manners. The compositions are long, with only one song (“Second Sight”) less than six minutes in length. As well, conventional song structure is thrown out the window. Songs fade out during guitar solos, for example, and even after nine playthroughs I still can’t pick out a chorus. That all adds up to music that may not fully engage the listener on the first – or even fifth – spin, which is a shame, since the album’s quality does seep through after that point. How many of us have the patience to get there, though?2
The less immediate nature of Seven Pathways to Annihilation made it a tougher album to get into.3 Not “getting” an album until the fifth or sixth spin isn’t my favorite thing in the world, but this is one of those records were multiple spins do in fact lead to greater enjoyment. The arrangements begin to click, and the nuances come to the fore. While this album doesn’t hit you across the face in the same manner as Howling Sycamore’s debut, it does sneak up on you eventually with a punch to the solar plexus. This is an album that, even though I’m done with the review, I’m still going to be playing for a while just to dig into it even more.