Few bands in the modern prog scene are as controversial as The Contortionist. Despite their growing success, the ongoing transition in sound from trailblazers of progressive deathcore to settling into a niche of post-rock and prog influenced alt metal has proven to be divisive among their otherwise dedicated fanbase. Although there were clear and deliberate steps away from deathcore between their celebrated debut Exoplanet and its well-received follow-up Intrinsic, the true turning point for The Contortionist came in 2014’s Language, and it’s no wonder given the lineup overhaul that occurred at that time. Vocalist and keyboard player Jonathan Carpenter and bassist Chris Tilley amicably left following the Intrinsic touring cycle for personal reasons, with the band picking up Last Chance To Reason‘s Michael Lessard (vocals), ex-Scale The Summit‘s Jordan Eberhardt (bass), and keyboardist Eric Guenther. With the band now half-consisting of new members and a trajectory towards prog already heavily hinted at, it’s no wonder that Language wound up being such a departure.
But as The Contortionist settles into its groove (and its lineup) in 2017, any shred of deathcore that might have remained on Language has now dissolved on the group’s fourth full-length Clairvoyant. The band have streamlined their songwriting from the ebb-and-flow meandering of Language to more traditional song structures and an atmosphere more comparable to Katatonia, Deftones, and Karnivool than the crushing extreme technical prog that made the act a household name in metal circles. Breathe deep, The Contortionist fans; they’re a rock band now, and believe it or not, they’re actually better off for it.
A major issue with Language was its lack of immediacy towards the listener; there were few hooks and the structure of the album took several spins to follow and appreciate. The Contortionist were evidently mindful of this while crafting Clairvoyant, and it shows with its greater frequency of moments that cement a song to memory. Clairvoyant does bring some immediacy and is top-loaded with interesting tracks that give proper introduction to this new version of The Contortionist. The record opens with the deceptively doomy instrumental “Monochrome (Passive)” — which sets forth a number of motifs that pay off in the album’s closer “Monochrome (Pensive)” — and gives way to the exhilaratingly bright and upbeat “Godspeed” and the beautifully simple “Reimagined.”
The album’s title track is perhaps the heaviest, and sounds like it could have been a cut from Language, and even still, there isn’t a single breakdown or growl in sight. “The Center” is a hypnotic shoegazer that utilizes arpeggiating guitar chords that build tension under Lessard’s crooning. Highlight single “Absolve” raises the tempo with snappy angular leads and an understated but haunting chorus. “Relapse” briefly hints at synthwave with pulsating synth bass and piano leads that could provide inspiration which broaden’s the band’s scope in future releases.
“Return to Earth” is another highlight and wise single material that showcases the band’s dynamic of huge riffs and ambient guitar leads and synth pads with lyrical references to obscure Maine act 6gig. The aforementioned closing track “Monochrome (Pensive)” delivers the promises of its homonymous counterpart at Clairvoyant’s introduction. It’s nine minutes of some of The Contortionist’s finest work and serves as a proof of concept for the band’s current sound and the possibilities of the band’s current iteration as a unit capable for crafting passionate and chilling songs in this style.
One of the major criticisms of Language unfortunately carries over in Clairvoyant; frontman Mike Lessard’s talents are still underutilized, in a couple of ways. Lack of his trademark pterodactyl screaming notwithstanding — and really, in the context of this record, the lack of harsh vocals are a non-issue — he remains grounded in a relatively narrow vocal range and has limited opportunity to soar. Understandably, Lessard and the rest of the band seem to be cultivating a certain vibe of mellow restraint, but there are many instances where the inclusion of an extra vocal layer showcasing Mike’s more impassioned higher register in the final chorus would elevate the track tremendously. “Godspeed” and “Monochrome (Pensive)” being of particular exemption, but its appearance at the front and back of the album leaves the performances in between feeling narrow. Mike is also buried in the mix on occasion, particularly on the record’s title track where the nuance of the performance in the first verse is almost inaudible.
Fortunately though, even with its faults, it turns out that the style of melancholic prog rock exhibited across Clairvoyant is a better fit for the band than the compromise heard on Language, which in hindsight, feels like it was only a metal record because it was obligated. With this in mind, Clairvoyant’s floaty downtempo rock songs are somewhat freeing; the band ripped the bandage off and started fresh as its own entity. The days of Exoplanet are long gone, but to this reviewer following a couple of spins of Clairvoyant, it feels just fine. Clairvoyant won’t do those fans of the early material any favors, but this foray into prog rock is a step in the right direction.
The Contortionist’s Clairvoyant is available September 15th, 2017 through eOne Music. Pre-order packages are available at this location.