If it feels like Mask of Judas‘ debut album has been a long time coming, it’s because it has. Active since the start of the decade, appearing at the inaugural Tech Fest in 2012 and releasing the Axis EP in 2013, they established themselves at the heavier end of the burgeoning UK tech scene that also gave us the likes of Monuments, TesseracT and Aliases. However, it would then be fair to say that real life rather got in the way. Originally intended to act as a teaser single for this album, “Gravity” was released back in 2014. But, just at the point, we might have abandoned all hope of ever hearing it, The Mesmerist appears.
Of course, one risk of such a long gestation period is that the ultimate results might just feel a little dated, especially with the cutting edge moving so quickly. Mask of Judas neatly sidesteps this potential issue by brewing a rich stew from influences both contemporary and classic. Modern technical flourishes and eight-string djenty breakdowns mix with old school death metal brutality and the note-blizzard shredding of the eighties guitar gods. If that wasn’t enough, the mixture is then garnished with tremendously hooky choruses and a couple of extra curveballs for good measure.
The Mesmerist‘s title track opens proceedings and gives the listener a good idea of what to expect from the rest of the album. In particular, it showcases the positively dizzying concentration of sheer ability in Mask of Judas’ line-up. It does not take long to realise that every single member clearly sits well above average in their respective disciplines, but these talents are accompanied with at least a modicum of restraint in how they are deployed. This is rammed home early on by the chorus of “Mesmerist“, which brings in a simple but effective chord progression, erupting out of the taut, staccato verse riff.
Guitarists Sam Bell and Reece Fullwood have both independently built fairly serious reputations in the world of online guitar videos, and both have their opportunities to really shine here. There are riffs incorporated into The Mesmerist that have previously seen the light of day on their respective channels, but it is particularly impressive that the focus of the album is clearly on the songwriting first and foremost, rather than providing a flimsy pretext for fretboard acrobatics. That’s not to say, of course, that there are not plenty of ‘how do they do that’ moments, especially in the solos, but they rarely feel gratuitous – although the tapping runs in “Gravity” sail pretty close to the wind on that front.
Bassist George Bell and drummer Jof Walsh also stamp their own identities on the songs, filling out the sound when Sam and Reece are off on those tapping runs, keeping the groove cooking and providing counterpoints of rhythm and melody rather than trailing along following the root notes. Possibly more than any tech bands since Aliases, Mask of Judas feel like an equal partnership.
To top it all off is singularly impressive vocalist Jo Challen. The novelty factor of female vocalists doing harsh, guttural death metal vocals has certainly lessened in recent years, but it hasn’t disappeared completely. Certainly, those coming to Mask of Judas completely cold might just be forgiven for thinking that the woman on The Mesmerist‘s cover art was either hired for the photo shoot alone, or only contributing the sultry and soulful clean sections, with one of the others handling the bellowing. But only just, this is 2018 after all. Jo’s real stand-out moment comes in the Stolen Babies-esque “Brand New Conquest“, where she starts climbing up through the registers of her voice and, well, just keeps going. It’s entirely plausible that there is a bonus line of vocal at the end of that run, but I did not have a dog available to check for me. Then, in the equivalent of a highdive into a bucket of water, Jo plunges straight down to her most guttural lows for the breakdown that immediately follows. Breathtaking.
“Siren” rounds the album off with another chorus visible from space (not to mention one that may well lure sailors towards the rocks) and concludes with more of the strings that opened it, in a neat final closing of the loop, even if these synth pads do feel like the most dated part of the recordings.
There was a genuine risk that throwing so many disparate ingredients into the cooking pot, The Mesmerist could have ended up sounding messy and confused. But this has not come to pass. Mask of Judas has been able to fine-tune the recipe and pull together an album that has been genuinely worth the wait. Whether coming to The Mesmerist looking for unbridled brutality, clever-clever technicality or a chorus that will earworm you for the next week, you won’t go away disappointed. And there are precious few albums for which all three hold true simultaneously. Great stuff. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait quite so long for the next one.
The Mesmerist is available now and can be purchased via the Bandcamp link above.