Odyssey to the West is an endeavor. From beginning to end—from the very beginning—Odyssey to the West has been, as its name and spiritual origin imply, an arduous journey. The product of years of work, exasperation, conflict, and very little resolution, Odyssey to the West exists to us now as a sort of accident, borne of spite, frustration, deceit, and ultimately desperation. Nonetheless, we are given a gift in Slice the Cake‘s latest offering. The highly-anticipated follow-up to the lauded The Man With No Face is here and quite enrapturing.
Odyssey to the West is massive and dense, ebbing and flowing sonically and thematically; each piece interweaving within itself in an ostentatious, self-indulgent presentation that is, essentially, so decadent, so hedonistic that it spans nearly 110 minutes of genre-bending entertainment. Surprisingly, for all of its sybaritic existence, Odyssey to the West is the very opposite of exhausting, and certainly more blessing than curse.
Upon first listen, you might believe that a 28-minute spoken poetry/ambient track may be closer to an elaborate prank than a proper introduction, but “Odyssey to the Gallows,” in all its perceivably-draining length does a tantamount job in setting the tone of the ensuing 71 minutes. The three-movement epic is almost misleading, giving an airy quality to an album that is engulfed in a wholly ominous tone.
Once the half-hour introduction ends, however, Gareth Mason‘s breathy, anxious voice hovers over a simple, finger-picked guitar before the track explodes into this chugging, sludgy descending riff, Mason’s vocals aggressively soaring in tandem. This musical theme carries on throughout the album, rising and falling tides of emotion as the the music softens and harshens in predictable, but enjoyable patterns.
In fact, the only criticism that can be levied against Odyssey to the West is that its motions as a piece of storytelling can be anticipated. When a grinding piece of music slows down, you simply know it will be followed by a movement that is softer than the one that preceded it, only to be followed by, once again, a harsher piece of music. This does not stand as a “bad thing,” per se, but it does take away from some of the surprise upon first listen.
True enjoyment, however, is derived from subsequent listens. You begin to hear the subtleties in the instrumentation and compositions provided by the collective force that is Jack Magero, Jonas Johansson, and The Helix Nebula‘s Jake Lowe. You appreciate JJ Polachek‘s guest appearance as the monstrous Horned God on the track with the same name. Most notably, Laura Vine‘s beautiful narration rings so purely as The Oracle during the bass-driven section of “Unending Waltz,” deeply contrasting Mason’s own desperate voice.
There are just so many pieces, both in personnel and music, involved with Odyssey to the West, each of them as important as any other. Leaving any one of these key elements out would be a disastrous move, but they are so collectively pleasant, coming together to create this elegant and nightmarish journey of progressive music.
Odyssey to the West is masterful. It’s majestic. In all honesty, this is the level of quality that musicians should strive for when releasing albums, barring the accompanying strife. Minor nuisances aside, Slice the Cake have collectively managed to craft something special, across both sea and sorrow. If you listen to only a handful of albums in 2016, make sure Odyssey to the West is one of them.