Five albums in, California’s Inanimate Existence still find themselves in an ironic perpetual animation, racing through phrases song by song while never quite making headway. Since the band ditched the whole Nightwish goes tech moments of Calling from a Dream – a record that I, oddly enough, quite liked – the band have returned to the vivid progressive and technical death metal that they’ve more or less always peddled. If you’re a fan of the band’s specific take on tech already, Clockwork will tide you over for the one-to-two-year gap between it and the sixth album. If you, like I, have mixed feelings on the band, you’ll probably be mildly disappointed that greatness continues to elude them.
Clockwork turns in shredding solos and blast beats on time, but its songs don’t measure up to the virtuosity on display. Ron Casey and Cameron Porras, the band’s only consistent members across five albums, are as synchronized as ever, with Casey’s drums playing a distinctly supporting role to the guitar work that’s the real focus of Inanimate Existence. This clear segmentation results in songs that spend a lot of time in 4/4 and rarely hone in on distinctive rhythms. Clockwork’s most rhythmically compelling moment – actually the album’s peak – at the end of “Voyager” is a simple breakdown beat, but it’s the one of the few times the band focus on rhythm and make music that actually feels impactful.
The lack of rhythm shows not only in the drums but also in the relegation of the rhythm guitar to a tertiary role. Most of this album is split between three guitars: a tightly controlled rhythm, a second lead, and a third clean that just sort of chimes along in the background. And chime it does – softly-strummed clean chords, lightly picked high arpeggios, and even synthesized blips are all but omnipresent in Clockwork (there’s not a song on the album without some sort of chiming sound-effect) and never once feel necessary. In fact in my time with the album I’ve grown to hate them. I presume these winks and tinkles exist to reinforce Inanimate Existence’s fantasy themes, but I’d vastly prefer the band trusted their own progressive writing to do that. A dozen little atmospheric breaks and glossy bass solos can more than convince me that this album isn’t about serial murder or cannibalism instruction.
As ever, Inanimate Existence chose Zack Ohren to handle production of Clockwork, and the result is a balanced mix that’s as polished as Steel Druhm’s shotgun collection. The album doesn’t sound terribly compressed, but industry-standard mastering does rob some of the big moments of the album – like the attack just before the end of “Diagnosis” – of their full impact. What does get a full impact is the full suite of reverberant dings and plinks form the 3rd guitar that back up nearly every riff. The clean guitar tone of Clockwork is vitreous and damp and sounds like an overly-processed headshot looks: appealing at first, but almost repulsively smoothed over on closer inspection. Near – continuous synth backing doesn’t help the appearance.
Clockwork’s title figures as a dim shadow of self-awareness that never quite falls on Inanimate Existence’s fantastical brand of proggy, techy death metal, but the implication of metronomic precision is more than accurate. The band can shred, for sure, but no matter how fast the hands move they’ll always return to the same place ad infinitum. Inanimate Existence are commendably consistent, and across their now substantial discography you’d be hard-pressed to find a real stinker of a song. But consistency in output begets consistency in criticism, and my opinion of this album isn’t much different than my opinion of Underneath a Melting Sky: competent and polished, but ultimately unsatisfying. Perhaps things will be different next time around.