Hey gang, it’s time to play a game. A fun game – but also a dangerous one, so make sure you’re qualified for it. In order to play you’ll need a few things: a bucket, a glass, a strong liver, and a large amount of (ideally) a slightly less strong drink. That’s right, we’re about to engage in every tech-death nerd’s plastering procedure: the Unique Leader Records drinking game!
Here are the rules; I’m going to review an upcoming album from Unique Leader, and every time a Unique Leader trope appears, you take a shot. For those of you not familiar with Unique Leader Records (shame on you), or for that matter, alcohol, I have provided both directions as to when to drink, and directions to place the aforementioned bucket nearby you for when you lose. Let’s begin.
Inanimate Existence’s (If I hadn’t checked, I would swear up and down that’s a Rings of Saturn song. Open your bottle) upcoming second record had been flying under my radar until our dear Steel Druhm alerted me of its imminent ingress. Being a dedicated and documented death metal devotee, I of course deigned to dive directly into the disc. A Never-Ending Cycle Of Atonement (pour a drink) is the sophomore offering from this California (Drink) based tech/prog death metal act, which formed in 2012 (Drink) and released their first album, Liberation Through Hearing the same year, solidifying their place in Unique Leader’s highly diverse family of artists. Now they’re out to win some bread for their elders.
A Never-Ending Cycle Of Atonement starts out a bit oddly – opener “Omni Padme Um” (or, according to the files I recieved, “Intro” [an album that I got from Unique Leader didn’t have any metadata – I take a drink, you’re invited to join me]) boasts both clarinet and flute as melody-carriers along a fantasy-laden instrumental, which is immediately followed by the crushing riffing of “Omen.” There’s a lot of brutal tech riffing to be had on this album and “Omen” immediately pushes forward with some of the heaviest this outing has to offer. It’s confusing how these songs are supposed to fit together until around the three-minute mark, when out of nowhere, a wild bassline appears. The lead guitar responds with a solo and it’s very effective, at which point one begins to realize what this band really excels at.
The realization continues with “Bioluminescent Photophores,” which opens with yet more loud, heavily distorted stop-and-go riffing and a mid-song breakdown (Drink), but once again gets interesting a little past the halfway mark. After a few impressive guitar licks, a quiet, foggy guitar drifts above an equally intriguing bongo line for just a moment before the band kicks back in to finish off an encapsulating odd-timed solo section. The subsequent tracks follow suit; crushing riffs that race along without making much impact (drink) sandwich some strange solo or fantasy-laden melodic break with unconventional instrumentation (i.e. female vocals, a harp) to gawk at. It’s as if The Kennedy Veil started listening to Dream Theater and reading Tolkien.
Of course, in the long standing tradition of adventurous strangeness, it’s a bit hit-or-miss. “the Catacomb of Mirrors” and “Staring Through Fire” both fall short of earlier tracks and overstay their welcome, clocking in at around 14 minutes combined. Long song length is a theme throughout the album, but, in shocking contrast to prog tradition, it’s not the melodic or experimental bits which are drawn out, it’s the actual metal riffing. The riffing problem is twofold: first; the actual parts are complex, but also tend towards the unmemorable, and there’s a whole lot of them, and second; they sound quite bad.
And that’s because this album is (drink, preemptively) ridiculously brickwalled, clocking in at DR 3. Opening up any one of these songs in Audacity leads to one being stared down by two large blue rectangles. A Never-Ending Cycle Of Atonement’s material obviously doesn’t call for this level of loudness, but because of it, even the subtle, melodic passages scream out of headphones as if each listening will be their last. Somehow the guitar tone has been saved from absolute destruction, but only through conversion into a cyborg-like state of computerization (drink). Rings of Saturn can get away with this shit because sounding overproduced and computerized is their shtick, but please, other bands need a shot at sounding like actual musicians.
And so here I’m left with a talented band with cool ideas, good chops, and a decent stylistic direction that has written and performed a pretty cool album – one that I’d give a 3.5 or 4.0 rating to. Upon receiving this album for mastering, a pale man in Oakland pushed every single switch on his limiter as far away from himself as he could and then spent the rest of his tenure on the project trying to make the riffs sound like any sort of instrument again. And someone paid him good money to do that. I honestly like Unique Leader for being a haven of interesting death metal, and I really like a lot of bands on this label. They definitely have an ear for talent (this is, after all, the label that signed Psycroptic and put out Scepter of The Ancients, the best tech death album of the last decade) and a good lineup, but this brickwalling cliché that either Unique Leader or their bands (or both) keep pushing has gone way too far. Even though this one label’s loudness is just a microcosm of the greater landscape of overdone metal production, it’s disappointing when I’m not even surprised that I can’t listen to this diverse and interesting album at anywhere above half volume. Pull that bucket in close. Drink again.