Textures has always been a difficult band to define. One could argue that they are the second djent band after Meshuggah, harnessing the Swedish quintet’s complex polyrhythmic onslaught and decorating it with layers of melodic vocals, palatial synths, and harmonious guitars. But that definition is too simple. Since their debut album Polars in 2004, the Textures sound has been a deepening goodie bag of all the tastiest bits of metal and its sub genres, melding elements of thrash, metalcore, death metal, progressive metal, and ambient; years before the term “djent” was infiltrating message boards and forums the world over.
No matter how one chooses to define them, they are no doubt one of the progenitors of the sound, and wholly under-appreciated for their influence on modern metal. 2006’s Drawing Circles saw the addition of vocalist Eric Kalsbeek, who helped propel the band forward into more melodically profound territory. Some consider 2008’s Silhouettes to be the pinnacle of the band’s career; an ambitious masterpiece of melodic and technical metal which was to be Kalsbeek’s swansong. 2011’s Dualism saw the addition of current vocalist Daniel de Jongh, formerly of Cilice. Dualism was the sound of a band readjusting and finding their way again, stripping down much of the previous cacophony for a more post-rock influenced album while still maintaining the core aesthetics of their sound. Co-founding guitarist Jochem Jacobs left the band a year later, staying on as producer while the relatively unknown Joe Tal filled the vacant guitar slot alongside Bart Hennephof soon after. Fast forward to 2016 and the release of Phenotype, the first part of a two album concept, with the second part, Genotype, to be released sometime in 2017.
No lyrics were available at the time of this review, but conceptually, Phenotype centers around genetics, and will work in tandem with the unreleased Genotype. A more thorough explanation can be found here.
Any apprehension regarding the exit of Jacobs is immediately quashed upon the beginning salvo of album opener ‘Oceans Collide’. The song kicks off with a deep inhale from de Jongh, a signal, or perhaps a warning, to prepare the listener for the onslaught of technical prowess, depth of musical emotion, and lush production aesthetics to come. This is the sound of a band returning to form and embracing what they do best: jagged rhythms dancing around downbeats, buzz saw guitars and bass locking in seamlessly with double-bass grooves, venom-spitting vocals teeter-tottering between sung-screams and smooth, soaring croons, and a lavish ambient backdrop of heavily layered synths. Like ‘Old Days Born Anew’ from 2008’s Silhouettes, ‘Oceans Collide’ is the quintessential Textures sampler platter, offering up all the best musical elements the band has to offer right out of the gate. The song ends with an exploding synth chord, conjuring the end of ‘Greetings’ from Devin Townsend’s magnum opus Ocean Machine without sounding derivative.
First single ‘New Horizons’ is a questionable choice for the second track, treading similar ground as Dualism in its straightforwardness and mid-paced plod. The song features a soaring chorus and more streamlined arrangements; a bit of a side step considering the turbulent framework of the majority of the album. The industry standard for first singles seems to have shifted to “lead with your weakest track first” as if playing a sly and cunning hand of Euchre. While not a terrible song by any means, it still begs the question, and illuminates the unheralded gut punch of songs like follow up track ‘Shaping A Single Grain of Sand’, which boasts the heaviest moments of the album by far, and perhaps within Textures’ entire discography. The band pulls no punches in the arrangement department here, fooling us as they do into thinking we’re in for a crunchy, mid paced staccato-based tune with a melodic chorus, only to completely abandon the presented themes and trail off into blast ridden territory. More power to them. This is the Textures we’ve come to know and embrace, throwing us musical ADHD curveballs without warning.
The majority of Textures’ synth layers tend to sit in the background as a counterpart to the guitars or an ominous, lurking presence that is more felt than heard, sometimes coming to the forefront when the music calls for it. However, the seven minute-plus epic ‘Illuminate the Trail’ sees the band treading unashamedly progressive ground. Keyboardist Uri Dijk’s pivoting synth leads filter in and out around the impassioned vocal harmonies, grinding guitars, and double bass drums, calling to mind Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess in their delivery yet surpassing him in melodic scope within the context of the music. de Jongh truly shines throughout, showcasing his diversity with impeccable delivery and melodic sensibilities. He manages to find every note and harmony to tug at the heartstrings, highlighted mostly near the halfway mark in the sensuous falsetto of the line, “evidence guides you.” An album standout to be sure.
Most surprising in the totality of Phenotype is ‘Meander’, a midway palette cleanser comprised entirely of layered tribal drums and subtle synth layers. This is a risk, considering the tacky notion of aping the Sepultura/Soulfly trademark that befalls so many other bands. But for some reason it works, and manages to nestle further into place within the context of the album with successive listens. The face pummeling picks right back up with ‘Erosion’, another track sure to stimulate the taste buds of Silhouettes fans, particularly following the perplexing worldly and rhythmic guitar/drum interplay starting at 1:38. Though de Jongh certainly stands on his own as an identifiable and competent vocalist in his own right, his note choice and delivery at 1:57 is eerily similar to the departed Kalsbeek, a likeness reinforced by the musical backdrop the rest of the band provides.
It must be noted how pivotal of a role new guitarist Joe Tal plays in the expansion of the Textures sound, adding a collection of blistering and beautiful guitar solos to the mix. The band’s reasoning for mostly avoiding them in the past is unclear, though it clearly was not due to lack of ability, as guitarists Bart Hennephof and Jochem Jacobs proved themselves certainly capable on previous releases. Tal dazzles his way through ‘Illuminate the Trail’ with colorful fusion inspired runs and emotive bends, and proves himself quite the adept shredder during the lead break in ‘The Fourth Prime’ with flawless sweeps and cleanly picked scale runs, albeit tastefully.
Another surprising turn and a first for Textures is the brilliant ‘Zman’, a solo piano piece by Uri Dijk that rounds out his stamp of artistic diversity, but also his growing imprint on the musical direction and aesthetic of the band. The beginning calls to mind Dream Theater’s ‘Wait For Sleep’ from the classic album Images and Words, but quickly drifts off into a more ethereal and somber direction that once again cleanses the palette for album closer ‘Timeless’. The song is a perfect counterpart to ‘Zman’, sharing timing and cadence characteristics which branch out into the metallic and syncopated feel so characteristic of the band’s sound. Comparisons once again go back to Silhouettes, most notably the overall “fives” feel of the main verse groove in ‘To Erase A Lifetime’. It’s hard to fault them for referencing such a pinnacle point of their career, and they do so with grace. It never once sounds like they ran out of ideas; just that they were either inspired by days past or that they chose snippets and puzzle pieces of music that have perhaps been archived for some time. The song takes quite a different turn to close out the album, leading into a massive, lamenting, heavily reverbed and tremolo picked guitar line before cutting away to de Jongh’s impassioned wails over more piano from Dijk. The whole band eventually picks it up again for one last go through of the singing guitar line before leaving us with a heartfelt scream from de Jongh, signalling the end, at least until we can get our hands on Genotype.
Textures have once again reminded us why they are revered and respected by many as trailblazers of the modern progressive metal scene. Though Phenotype retraces elements of their back catalogue, it was a necessary step in order to set them back on the path to doing what they do best while still managing to expand their sound, take new risks, and bring the more subtle elements of their sound to the forefront. The concept is a fresh approach, and we can look forward to hearing these infectious melodies re-imagined alongside new ones in 2017 with the release of Genotype.