Gun to my head, I’d have to say that no metal sub-genre tickles my fancy as much as progressive metal. It’s hardly a fully independent genre, though, because how often do you call a band straight-up progressive metal? Well, sometimes, but usually it’s progressive death metal, or progressive power metal, or any of the other combinations. This is because while other sub-genres are more about a certain sound or atmosphere, progressive is almost exclusively about the structure of the songs, freeing the band from their verse-chorus shackles. This allows for longer songs with more room to explore, and the pull of a narrative structure leads to concept albums more than any other genre. Which brings us to Abject Tomorrow, the debut of The Vicious Head Society (was “The Feral Blowjob Club” taken?), a concept album with many long tracks and winner of Worst Album Cover 2017 a full 9 months in advance.
Abject Tomorrow is the baby of Graham Keane, guitarist of Clare, and sure enough, there are plenty of tasty guitar licks and riffs to be had. Most of the time a skillful power-prog style is applied, supplemented with celestial keyboards, but head-spinning “Psychedelic Torture Trip” sounds like the bastard child of Liquid Tension Experiment and Mattias Eklundh of Freak Kitchen. The drums and bass don’t come to the front as much as the six strings or the keys, but they are nonetheless proficient and give a solid foundation for the lead instrumentation to play off of. The vocals are a point of contention, although detractors would not call them a deal breaker unless the dramatic style causes allergic reactions. Even for prog-power, the cheese is turned up to eleven, but although not exactly remarkable in range or timbre within the genre, the vocalist doesn’t break under the strain. Only the growls falter and sound too forced. Thankfully, their use remains limited.
The songwriting is a different, and complex, matter. The closest living relative of Society is, unsurprisingly, Dream Theater, of the lengthy variety. In fact, only the aforementioned head-spinning instrumental is under five minutes, while most cross the eight-minute line and the closer spans eighteen minutes, with the album clocking in at 73-minutes. I’ve always felt that the most successful progressive albums compose their songs like a story. It builds towards crescendos, drops off like a shocking revelation, and culminates in a heart-wrenching climax. The reason I never came to care for Dream Theater is because I miss that thread that pulls their albums together, and they come across like a series of musical stunts. Momentarily exciting, but not gripping, and not something that supports a 73-minute album. While the first half of the album seems to avoid this pitfall, it starts creeping in around the overlong “Agenda” and cements itself with the slower “The 11th Hour.” Things look up for a moment when “Psychedelic Torture Trip” jerks me around entertainingly, but it’s the last gasp before the final 25 minutes inevitably lose me.
It’s a shame the sum falls to pieces when many parts stand up fine. I quite like the opener “The Sycophants,” and “Abject Tomorrow” is the most cohesive track and is enjoyable enough even if it doesn’t exactly blow me away. In fact, nearly all songs have sections that stand up well enough, but the album as a whole fails to convince despite my best efforts. Maybe there’s an element of fatigue to it as well, not just from the lack of natural narrative progression but from the production as well. For all the ability of the musicians, they don’t seem to care what the album sounds like, barely scraping together a DR5 master that sounds flat and, frankly, boring. Apparently being able to play well is more important than being able to hear what was played.
With all the talent on display, it makes for a frustrating experience. It should have been a great album, and indeed many other publications appear to be raving, but beyond the parts that work superficially I fail to find a cohesive, convincing listening experience. When I spin Ocean Machine: Biomech or Guilt Machine I find myself taken on a journey akin to a great novel or film. On Abject Tomorrow, I just find myself looking at quotes from the novel or stills from the film. It may look amazing or sound inspiring, but it’s the entirety that makes the work transcendent, not the bits and pieces.