Yo, to be totally honest for a second? It doesn’t really matter for shit how good your riffs are if you can’t string them together properly. There’s a real art in graceful transitions connecting various melodic barrages, and even if it sometimes seems easy to throw in a quick pause or a short one-instrument, one-bar doodle, relying on that every time you need to build one of the musical trips from one scorched-landscape guitar attack to the next can take otherwise phenomenal ideas and rob them of any and all potential for impact (here’s lookin at you, The Parallax II).
The problem comes from the disconnect between how the songwriter listens to a song and how an audience does so: for the composer (and to clarify, I, the reviewer, also write music so I understand both sides), a song is easy to track, because they wrote everything and have been following its growth with utmost precision since day 1, but no other listener is nearly as familiar with the work from such an intimate perspective, so there needs to be some sort of clear transition from one idea to the next, or nothing holds any particular water in the end. The problem comes when musicians either don’t understand or don’t care about the communication gap between writing process and finished progress and release albums full of ideas that swarm thick and heavy, ultimately suffocating the listener and rendering them confused and helpless.
This is a skill Australian-turned-Canadian progressive mathy deathcore outfit The Schoenberg Automaton has learned in the gap between their first record, VELA, and its follow up, Apus. Although their debut showed a band that clearly had the deadly combination of riff-writing prowess and technical knowhow that it takes to create truly noteworthy material, it also betrayed that they hadn’t quite managed to tamp down the cognitive dissonance between the ideas they spat out and what the listener actually took away from the album. On Apus, the quintet proves that while neither their writing skills nor their chops have diminished, they wised up from their old days (2013, to be exact) and found the musical voice they needed to truly bring their grand vision to fruition.
Musically, they fall somewhere in the middle of the triumvirate of demanding deathcore varieties progressive, technical, and math deathcore.The lurching, spasmodic grooves that Ion Dissonance remains a big name for, the post-2010 progressions that strike a delicate balance between melodic death metal sensibility and typical breakdowns of Slice The Cake, and the hypertechnical knife dance of counterpoint melodic structures and wicked-fast drumming native to The Boy Will Drown all find a home in this album, often overlapping in their presences. The Schoenberg Automaton manages to bring these three styles together into an attack that finds clever life as a mixture of high-flying melodies both grim and grand, punctuated with sharp rhythmic stabs of calculated, surgically precise dissonance. Every song manages to walk the proper line between the opposing sounds, maximizing that sweet rush that comes from a particularly powerful melodic structure bleeding into a pummeling, fist-swinging breakdown. At times, it almost seems like there’s two separate records going on here: one is a somewhat melodramatic progressive deathcore album that manages to find a home in the empty space of the other, which is an overly ambitious technical death metal release that brings the more dissonant side of Gorguts and their ilk into a cleaned-up Bay Area framework. It’s an airport style mix between the two; as soon as one album is ready to take off, the next swoops right on in, picking up where its other half left.
Odd, yes, but it works, because the band has grown to appreciate the art of a proper transition. With an album this idiosyncratic and piecemeal, it’s only natural to expect awkward movement between passages – and, to be clear, they’re still not entirely vanished from Apus – but most of the album’s passage between movements goes off without a hitch. There’s really something exceptional about how well the haphazard sections of this album are stitched together and the way it all forms a long, shifting tapestry that flows from scene to scene with a graceful confidence and an air of self-made accomplishment. Apus is nothing if not sure in its own quality, more suave than self-aggrandizing as it showcases all the craziness it has to offer across over fifty minutes of music. Every idea flows smoothly into the next, and the resulting journey is both rich across its entirety and sparkling with inspiring moments littered throughout.
The instrumental performance is what does the heavy lifting on Apus. Not to say that Jake Gerstle’s stellar vocals don’t add quite a lot to the music, but a vocalist is really only as good as the band they’re backed by, and the guitar duet, supported by frantic drums and solid, methodical bass, are what take this album from good to great. Shifting from stumbling rhythmic chugs and cascading walls of dissonance to tremolo-picked leads over blast beats on the drop of a hat, every member pulls their weight and the result is one of the most concerted team efforts to be seen from a band so far this year.
Although everything about Apus is cranked up to eleven for its entire runtime, the seamless fluidity with which the band puts their grand vision on display for their audience means that everything hits, and it hits hard. There’s a lot here, for sure, and multiple listens are necessary to really get at what The Schoenberg Automaton is doing, but each time one pores over the tapestry the quintet weaves, there’s something new just begging to be uncovered and examined. Far too often are albums this packed with material struck down by their own ambition, falling victim to their Icarian nature, but this album doesn’t fly on wings of wax. No, Apus is built on something much stronger, much more fluid, much more resilient, and it’s this care and precision in its craft that allows this album to soar high where others have fallen before it.