The progressive metal “scene” has become more and more insular over the past decade or so as it’s risen to prominence. While the higher profile has lead to more diversity among bands who can reach an audience, as with additional size comes additional bulk, the definition of “progressive” has become blurrier as more bands incorporate elements from the sound into their toolkit, forcing the genre to define itself by contrast. Complexity, self-seriousness, “enlightenment” and a gratuitous focus on music theory and pseudo-intellectualism have become pervasive. While the counter-movement of doubling down on “ignorant”, more streamlined music has also fostered, it’s become easy to be stuck between two extremes. As such, being able to find music that doesn’t stick to tropes has become increasingly difficult. Enter Exist, a progressive metal band that’s almost anti-prog. They take the intricacy of bands like Cynic and their predecessors in Death and combine it with sarcastic disrespect towards prog conventions. The end result is their sophomore release, So True, So Bound, and it’s a clever combination that is confusing in an intriguing way.
Frontman Max Phelps is no amateur. He’s been in Cynic for years, and he’s also toured with DTA (Death to All). Joined by Alex Weber (Jeff Loomis) on bass, Matt Rossa on guitars, and, well, Hannes Grossmann (literally everything prog/tech death) on drums, he’s gathered a formidable team of musicians. Their debut release Sunlight was a jazzier, elaborate take on the style of old school progressive death metal as originated by the likes of Cynic, Death and Atheist. As can be heard in our interview with Max, with their second album, they intentionally went for a different direction. Instead of doubling down on the more grandiose and overtly technical elements of their style, Exist’s sophomore effort is an exploration of the power of restraint and clever song writing to match and even exceed obvious excess.
Take a look at “Peer Prejudice” for example. The track begins with passages that can’t but be compared to Death; the deceptively slow progression from riff to riff, Phelps’ vocals, and the overall atmosphere scream Schuldiner’s influence. But that pedigree is a complex one; it’s not enough to simply play intricate and extreme metal. There’s a sort of quality that pervades these opening passages; the intricacies are there but they are not flaunted, instead blending into a more complete whole. This feeling of substance over flash is enhanced by the second half of the track. This more laid back part of the track (although that too is a deception) gives prominence to the band a different mode of vocals. It’s no less intricate however, sacrificing none of its cleverness in its ability to be flexible, to approach the same “problem” from a different angle.
That’s what makes Exist so unique. They’re able to draw swords with the best of them, playing in odd time signatures, intricate compositions, and weird influences. However, they understand that these are merely tools and that “progressive” is a modifier, a genre of music rather than a cardinal quality of the band. This allows them to write tracks (and make music videos for) like “Take My Picture”. Opening the album with its lilting melodies and imagery is a bold choice, one which sets out to say “yeah, we don’t take ourselves too seriously” and that’s great. It adds much needed grace to the effort, turning So True, So Bound into a more agile and pleasing affair rather than another indulgence from a musician obsessed with technicality or a faux thematic plan. One is left to speculate as to why Exist are able to produce such a work, with their veteran experience looming large in the explanatory mirror.
The last element which makes this album worthwhile, since an historical/social importance isn’t enough to do that, is the brilliant work by all involved in the project. They pull off the progressive death formula to a tee. From the weird melodies on the opening track, through the heavier segments found on “To Sever the Strings” and their jazz-y counterpoint and up to the vocal range exhibited by Phelps, Exist’s sophomore effort shows that the formula of progressive metal isn’t tired; it’s just probably a lot of the people making it. We can only hope that more bands take note on how to properly innovate and create within the progressive sphere; we’ll all be better for it.
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Exist’s So True, So Bound, released last week. You’d do yourself a disservice by not checking it out via the link above, to the band’s Bandcamp.