Have you ever listened to Between the Buried and Me and thought “Wow, wouldn’t it be great if there was a band just like this, but with even worse vocals?” I sure have, so it’s a good thing that Calgary’s Super Massive Black Holes are about to release their début album, Calculations of the Ancients. This experimental metal quartet has crafted a suite of tracks for the proggiest of them all, playing tuneful basslines and intricate riffs while filling the vocal skill gap between Between the Buried and Me and me.
If a shark swallowed a jewel-case copy of Colors and you later caught and dissected it, you would pull this album out of its stomach. It’s still in pretty good shape, but it’s not the same thing that went in. The opening riff of “(Sub-molecular) Transmogrification of the Oriphy” is an unabashed tribute to recent BTBAM material, divided measure by measure between percussive jolts and major-scale noodling. Prog nerds will love it, but soon be disappointed by the following lacklustre riffage. There are good basslines to be had here, though, and when the guitars fail to deliver, bassist Tristan Peterson usually picks up the slack. Clay Steadman handles his kit excellently as well, following complex stop-and-go riffing with ease and pumping out fills whenever he gets the chance.
Some of the album’s best moments happen when all of the instruments are locked in to a bass-driven or oddly-timed riff. “Dylatov Pass Incident” is stuffed with these moments, sporting bluesy riffs reminiscent of The Odious as well as a laid-back tapping midsection that I’m moderately sure is in 23/16. It’s really fun until the band tries to get heavy and stumbles through the rest of what could have been a really excellent track. Super Massive Black Holes suffers from that perennial disease of prog metal bands in that they don’t know when to stop being clever. While there’s no shortage of interesting riffs, grooves and leads, they’re thrown together haphazardly, and the transitions between them are often pretty abrupt. Few songs feel very cohesive; “Mathematics of Emotion” is probably the only lengthy song that is obviously a unit, and that’s because it’s an acoustic guitar solo. That being said, most of the songs aren’t very long, sticking around the 4-minute mark, so you don’t get bored to death by the constant cycling in of new riffs, the majority of which are weird but not very memorable.
If you read the opening paragraph of this review closely, it’s likely that you can guess what my main complaint with this album is. Unlike BTBAM’s Tommy Rogers, who has a decent singing voice but insists on belting out flat, lifeless screams at every opportunity, Super Massive Black Holes has chosen a vocalist who seems only capable of shouting and croaking inappropriately. His raw, tuneless style mirrors that of one of my other least-favorite screamers, Graeme V. Flynn from Slave Zero. Unlike Slave Zero, this band can’t justify their bad vocals as a grasp at brutality, given the decidedly non-brutal nature of every other performance. Compounding this shitcake are the mindless new-age/sci-fi lyrics, including golden roadapple phrases such as “ethereal plane” “locked onto the crystalline pattern” and “secret calculations of the ancients.” The saving grace in the vocal department is that the band seems pretty aware that their vocalist isn’t a selling point, so the majority of the album is instrumental, even if most of the tracks have lyrics.
As an instrumental prog metal act, these guys would be pretty good and I would probably come back to this album a couple times and listen through it, but the singing, though fairly sparse, bumps it down a notch. So if you love Between the Buried and Me and don’t mind bad vocals (because, as stated, you love Between the Buried and Me), you should check this album out. Pre-order it now and receive a free cancer-curing crystal with your CD.