We sometimes ask ourselves, what does it mean to make good progressive metal or, put more broadly, to make good progressive music? One way of looking at it is to take bands like Opeth or Enslaved, where we determine the way they meld crushingly heavy extreme metal with beautifully mellow acoustics, the way they structure their songs, and the way they navigate the open seas of their sound with such ease as a prime example of what it means to be progressive. Another perspective could be to take bands such as Between the Buried and Me, Ne Obliviscaris or Cyborg Octopus, where we see different approaches to the art of incorporating scores of wildly disparate genres into a single release.
However, the first definition here has become so established that dozens of copy-cat bands have sprung up and tried to tap into that style. When the soft/heavy dynamic becomes so cliched and predictable, is it still able to be labelled progressive? The problem with the second definition is that if it is not executed well, your release ends up sounding like a garbled mess, and this isn’t going to lead to much progress for the band or the genre (pardon the pun). Thus, we want a more robust definition. A good progressive album is one which draws from different genres and incorporates new sounds, all whilst ensuring that everything fits together into a united whole, without ever losing sight of the objective: writing good songs. With this definition in mind, Fountainhead’s Reverse Engineering may just be one of 2016’s best progressive metal releases.
Fountainhead is the solo project of guitar wizard Tom Geldschläger, a man who is appearing on his third album of 2016, with all three likely to occupy prominent positions on end of year lists. First came Obscura’s Akroasis, a release which blurred the lines between technical death metal and progressive metal and one where Geldschläger’s songwriting and signature fretless guitar playing helped take the band’s sound to another level. Next up was his work with The Pitts Minnemann Project, as they released their second album, the excellent jazz fusion record Psychic Planetarium. And now we’re here, with a third album to look at, and thankfully this is not a case of quantity compromising quality.
The album kicks off with the wonderfully warm, exotic and distinctly Indian tones of “999”, one of the best songs of the year. It provides an excellent snapshot of the album (though honestly there is nothing we can say about the track that Tom himself didn’t already say in our premiere from last week, so do check that out if you haven’t already). Lead single “Ascension” is the jazziest track on the album, and also the one which best showcases the brilliant drumming on display. There are time signature shifts aplenty, as the band effortlessly move between very technical, jagged and almost atonal passages to smooth and melodic legato playing, all whilst retaining the Indian motif.
Roughly the first half of the album is instrumental before we see vocals introduced from the title track onwards. The fretless guitar is undoubtedly one of the stars of the show, as it takes up the lead role on each instrumental track, and this brings us to one of the most impressive aspects of this release. Even the instrumental songs have clear choruses, which make them extremely catchy and memorable, with the same melodies coming back time and again both within and between tracks. The diverse set of influences drawn from continues to expand with each song, as we encounter brass sections, piano-driven passages and the incorporation of some classical music elements with the use of strings. Despite the variety on display the album flows completely naturally as a whole. The production is also worthy of mention, with a crystal clear sound and a balanced mix.
As good as this album is, it is not without flaws, and the main one is the vocals. The vocal melodies are great and they fit the songs well, so that’s not the problem. The problem lies in both the abilities and the tone of the vocalists chosen. The vocals on “Reverse Engineering Part 1” and “Model Man” are often flat, whilst the voices themselves are nowhere near as good as the underlying instrumentation. Track seven is a re-worked version of “999” featuring vocals, and it feels like the best parts of the song, such as the oriental intro and the fretless bass solo, are discarded to create space for vocals which don’t really work. Thankfully they seem to fit much better on the re-worked version of “A Perfect Union”, where both the quality of singing is better and the overall structure of the song remains fundamentally intact, with only minor rearrangements being made to accommodate the vocals. Despite these problems, the instrumental aspects of these songs are so good that the album isn’t completely derailed, whilst on repeat listens the vocals tend to grow on you, though not enough to conclude they made a positive contribution to this release. Finally, the other issue is that the closing track “Model Man”, is a real step-down in quality from the rest of the album both vocally and instrumentally, and so it leaves the album ending on a flat note after having experienced tremendous highs.
Fountainhead’s Reverse Engineering contains some of the best work of his career, as he incorporates metal, classical music, traditional Indian music, drum & bass, jazz and much more in a manner that is unique, surprising and engaging from start to, well, almost finish. The record is a huge step up from his debut, Fear Is The Enemy, and it is a real shame that some poor choices in vocalists and a sub-par closing track have tarnished what was looking to be a near-perfect release. Yet, despite the fact it can be seen as an album of two halves, the quality of songwriting and the seamless integration of ideas is executed to such a high degree that this still warrants a label as one of the best progressive metal releases of 2016.
Finally, a quick aside. Tom currently does not have access to his Facebook account, which is his primary means of promoting this album. As a result he is in dire need of the support of anybody who enjoys what they’re hearing here, so if you fall into that category, please pre-order the album if you can afford to do so and help spread the word that the album is dropping August 5.