Mike Semesky is an obvious favorite around these parts; cool guy, workhorse of a musician, a general font of talent. Nobody can seem to get enough of him. From his time with The HAARP Machine and a one-album stint with Intervals, the current Raunchy vocalist brings forth his own passion project in Rest Among Ruins. Semesky plays a vital role, not only doing his part as a vocalist, but playing both rhythm guitar and bass. Accompanied by Ben Schmitz on lead guitar and Geoff Palmer on drums, the trio have crafted a fairly powerful 14-track melodic death metal record with the help of the inimitable Drewsif Stalin as a producer.
Fugue both is and isn’t a debut album for Rest Among Ruins so much as it is a re-imagining of the project that launched their first recording in 2008 as a quintet. Though not a full-fledged album, The Depths netted them a good number of fans and a fairly prolific US tour the following year. Here in 2015, however, Rest Among Ruins are building a different tale as a three-piece, well overshooting their promise of a 2010 album.
Fugue opens with Schmitz’s furious shredding on “Beyond the Storm,” Semesky’s growls piercing the destructive weedles of the elegantly-constructed lead work, both underlaid by stalwart rhythm and bass guitarst, as well as Palmer’s tasteful drumming. Listeners will notice that this style is a repeated motif in nearly every track on the album. “In Another’s Skin” is another really powerful song that echoes the one that preceded it in tone, but includes even more interesting lead-style guitars throughout. This is by no means a “bad” thing, as these three are playing to their compositional strengths of taking alluring rhythm backbones and combining them with striking vocal melodies and stimulating lead work.
Nearly all of the tracks on Fugue are strong on their own, working well outside of their concept album assemblage. “Before You Speak” introduces once of the catchiest riffs in recent memory, has superb vocal hooks (both clean and growled), and introduces Aleka Farha as a guest vocalist, to be utilized to greater effect later in the album on “Reach the Edge” where her beautiful voice soars high above the rest of the music. Both tracks are undoubtedly highlights and should by no means be ignored.
One of the strangest things about Fugue is that there are a lot of hard cuts for tracks that take away from the idea that this is meant to be a concept album. Transitions between several songs are sharp and strange, creating an odd irrelevance from one another musically, but not thematically. This also presents the largest problem, in that concept albums often have leitmotifs to not only propose the information of a continuous story and theme, but to keep the listener engaged by saying, “Hey, remember me? I’m important to the structure of this musical entity you’re currently listening to. Everything ties together and I’m part of the reason this is happening.” Fugue doesn’t explicitly say that it is a wholly composed unit outside of its lyrical themes, each song instead offering a compartmentalized listening experience.
Furthermore, due in part to the hard cuts and some of the construction decisions, it feels like the songs on the album are out of order. There are smart transitions, like “Cleanse the Sky” going into “Siren City,” the former ending with a fading keyboard and the latter developing upwards from the previous’ fade out. However, there are questionable choices throughout. “Siren City” ends with a fade out only to have “Everyone’s Glowing Home” batter at your ears with a really stinging intro. Even the first three tracks (“Beyond the Storm,” “In Another’s Skin,” and “Before You Speak”) begin and end without offering anything resembling cohesion to further the idea that all these pieces are meant for a grander puzzle.
The greatest issue is that Fugue attempts to tell a story lyrically while neglecting to tell a story musically. Concept album brethren like The Ocean‘s Pelagial [review] and Native Construct‘s Quiet World [review] manage to tie together their storytelling virtues while keeping strong and steady motifs throughout the music. The words are very telling of a fugue, but when you take a deeper look at the multiple definitions, there is little semblance of a musical fugue, where a theme is introduced early on and repeated throughout the piece of work, sometimes with tonal pitches, but still recognizable (see: leitmotif).
One of the stranger decisions with Fugue is in its mix. Drewsif Stalin is pretty well-known for his incredibly strong production techniques, but there are instances where the clean vocals are deeply buried into the mix that they are nearly overwhelmed by other aspects of the music. This becomes very apparently during the chorus of “Beyond the Storm,” the chorus of “Nothing Else,” and in the lead vocal melodies of “In Focus.” It is possible that the stem files may not have been up to snuff and this is Drewsif working some studio magic, but things of this nature are impossible to know without firsthand knowledge. Regardless, it makes for an unusual listening experience in spots, as you would hope Semesky’s vocals would stand out more from the music instead of being hidden away underneath other layers.
There are strong tracks on Fugue. Really strong tracks. There is literally something to like and appreciate in every song, whether it be Semesky’s vocal melodies, some seriously ripping rhythm guitar, Schmitz’s furious fretwork on lead, or Palmer’s elegant drumming. Hell, you could even come for Farha’s delightful contributions, as brief as they are, and find other aspects to enjoy quite easily. The songs are fun, catchy, and melodically alluring—a simple continuation of everything else Semesky has been involved with, from the hooking essence of Intervals to the head-bobbingly good pop edge of Raunchy. But the album is a hard sell when you’re looking for a concept album that functions as a concept album with all of its parts. Alone, the songs are beyond solid, fully exploring their self-contained purposes and proving the understanding and competence of the musicians involved with their individual 4-to-5-minute runtimes. From front to back, however, Fugue leaves much to be desired and almost works better when shuffled with tracks by similar artists.
Rest Among Ruins’ Fugue gets…