“Thinking man’s metal.” Aaron Turner of Isis coined the phrase when asked to characterize his band’s particular take on heavy music. Now, you may not find anyone proudly proclaim “Thinking Man’s” as their favorite metal subgenre, but Isis helped lay the groundwork for what would become modern post-metal and Turner’s words accurately describe the style of music. Post-metal thrives or dies based on its ability to evoke emotion, imagery and thought. This is doubly true for instrumental acts, where words have been abandoned in favor of ambience and atmosphere. Enter Memoirs of a Secret Empire (MOASE), a trio of Portuguese post-metallers ready to share their debut album, Vertigo. It’s a modern, if rather standard offering of instrumental-post, reminiscent of what you might get should Mono and Pelican ever decide to collaborate. But does this mean Vertigo succeeds in provoking feelings of dizziness and unease?
Well, the answer is a rather resounding “sometimes.” Vertigo kicks things off with the astral “Unknown,” a short and meandering track that reaches crescendo with the start of “Angst.” These two songs set the mood and tone of the record, repeatedly drifting from dreamy to crushing and back. It’s this constant movement between tempos and styles that’s supposed to impart the albums titular sensation. No track accomplishes this better than “Boris,” which starts off with an ethereal Alcest tone before moving back into heavier territory. The guitar and synth peak and valley in panicked unison, making the listener feel as though they’re in uncontrolled free fall. Each riff stays around only as long as needed before giving way to the next passage, resulting in a dynamic and intriguing listen. Overall, “Boris” accomplishes everything a post-metal song should; it’s engaging, evocative and powerful.
Unfortunately, the last half of the record is quite a bit weaker than the first. “Carried” stretches itself far too thin, taking a couple of good riffs and stagnating them across nine minutes of material. “Whorl” is just as poorly paced, the song chugging so slowly it would be capable of pissing off an entire frat party. Along with “Lull,” these tracks represent 22 minutes of rather sluggish music, in which ideas evolve much too slowly and the only emotion being evoked is boredom. These flaws grow more obvious with repeated listens, and the latter portion of the album becomes stale after only a couple of spins. Things pick up again with a great closer in “Movement,” but by this point Vertigo has reduced itself to background music.
Problems continue with the production, which falls rather flat. The lower end in particular sounds rather muddled, which definitely detracts from the experience. This isn’t an issue with the lighter material but when things get heavy, the drums mix with the low guitar tone and as a result dynamism is lost. These traits might be partially intentional, the production working to create a dense wall of sound, but some additional clarity would go a long way to making this album sound better. For a record trying to immerse you in atmosphere these are flaws that can’t be ignored.
At over 50 minutes in length, Vertigo doesn’t have enough solid material to hold my interest throughout, and by its closing moments my focus is often lost. There is some quality stuff here though, and MOASE proves they’re capable of writing meaningful, moving music. Some additional editing and a little more attention given to the mix could have let this debut shine. For fans of instrumental post-metal, there’s no harm in giving Vertigo a shot. It may not leave your head spinning but you’ll find something you enjoy none the less.