Way back in 2016, Kronos reviewed Chicago-area band Scientist’s second album, the frustratingly-titled 10100II00101 1. Believe it or not, we had differing opinions on it. While our resident Lord of Brvtality wrote that the band featured “an effects-swamped bouquet of sludgy riffing, hoarse roars, and buzzing electronics,” I equated the album to an hour of average music with people shouting at me. Fast-forward to present-day, and here I am taking a shot at reviewing their third album, Barbelith, and for a number of reasons I find this effort much more palatable than their last. Those reasons include a shorter, more focused album, the use of a single, more talented vocalist, and my gradual acclimation to metal of the more extreme variety. All in all, it adds up to me not being annoyed with Barbelith like I was with 10100II00101.
The band’s core sound has not changed. Scientist still drink deeply from the well of early Mastodon, adding the flavor of heavier moments of Baroness and even brief hints of Neurosis in places. Their self-proclaimed genre is “architectural metal,” but if they’re designing buildings those buildings are steel and concrete behemoths, not Architectural Digest works of art. Scientist bulldoze fragile structures and erect their own slabs of progressive, sludgy post-metal in their place. This pleasingly short album (seven songs, less than forty minutes) leads off with “Chokhmah Binah,” which quickly introduces us to new vocalist Barry Kotarba. The song launches directly into a frantic riff and massive rhythms, with Kotarba’s hardcore roar soon dominating. Throughout, the song writhes between barely restrained chaos, full-on panic mode, and devastating breakdowns. Barbelith’s tone has been set.
Based on concepts found in The Invisibles, a comic book series done by Grant Morrison, the songs on Barbelith center around the search for the meaning of life2, only to find you haven’t been born yet. It makes me wish I could decipher more of the lyrics. Musically, though, many elements are at play. “Magick Mirror” introduces blast beats and black metal shrieks in a few places, while “Retrograde” is a headlong dive led by a hectic riff, and “(Home) At Last” wraps the album up in fuzz-drenched fashion with an unrelenting melody. Thick and gloriously distorted bass opens a couple of songs, and dissonant guitar work is featured throughout. No single instrument stands above the others: Scientist demonstrate excellent chemistry and cohesiveness throughout.
One area where Scientist have regressed is in mastering. 10100II00101, while somewhat dense, was still a respectable DR8, whereas Barbelith comes in at an optimistic DR5.3 “But Huckles, this is sludge, it should sound like it’s played through pancake batter.” False. Everything sounds better when mastered correctly, and Barbelith would be no exception. This is a loud, explosive band, and when the sound is compressed this much it dulls the aggression of the music while adding unnecessary clipping. Hopefully on their next album, Scientist revert back to acceptable compression levels. It doesn’t have to be the DR15 of my Tchaikovsky discs, but let’s give this excellent music some room to breathe.
Claustrophobic mastering aside, Scientist have raised the stake over their first two albums. The addition of Kotarba was a huge plus, and the refined, slightly more diverse songwriting works well with his vocals, both clean and harsh. There’s nothing self-indulgent about Barbelith: the band has delivered a forearm shiver to us, giving us a taste of what they’re capable of, and coming damned close to a 4 out of 5. After 10100II00101 I wasn’t exactly holding my breath for this album, but Scientist have put themselves on my radar for their next release.