There’s been a lot of digital ink spilled over here on Heavy Blog and even more notes played in the effort to quantify what makes good progressive metal. This question, regardless of whatever sub-genre you’d like to put in between the two words, looks at progressive metal as a genre in crisis. Any movement famed for its willingness to break boundaries, complicate things or challenge preconceptions will one day face the inevitable challenge of hegemony and habit; progressive metal is no different. As we stand in the midst of the fourth decade since its founding (counting from the mid 80’s onward), progressive metal must continue to keep asking the question of its own relevance and hunt for new ways to make itself interesting. There are many answers out there (like nu-prog or djent, to a certain degree) but not many of them feel as if they propose something truly new.
Instead, and perhaps surprisingly so, it is from the core of the genre that salvation appears to be emerging. Instead of the incessant splicing of progressive metal and other genres, it seems that young bands who insist on keeping true to the core of the genre are also making some of the most exciting music within it. A few examples could include a diverse list like A Sense of Gravity, Dreadnought, Gods of Eden and more. If these bands seem to not have much in common, that is on purpose. But if you look past the simple trick of getting you riled up and consider the approach to composition, melody, technicality and the balance between those things, a gossamer strand of intention will quickly appear between these bands. They are signified and collected in their desire to maintain the essential balances and humors of progressive metal, the equilibrium between delivery, heaviness, melody and impact.
And so are Cryptodira (yes, it took me two paragraphs to get to the name of the band I’m reviewing; are you still surprised that I do this?). These Long Island natives have been a name in our little corner of the Internet Metal Nerd community for a while now; from splits with East of the Wall to killer live shows, through EP releases and singles, their name has been to watch out for. Now, we finally have The Devil’s Despair, their first full length release, and we find ourselves faced with just that effort to connect with the core of progressive metal that we described above. At the base of this album lie ideas and concepts that fans of progressive metal (and, specifically but not exclusively, progressive death) will find inherently familiar; riffs in weird meters, abrasive vocals which meld with clean ones and acoustic breaks are all present.
But two things make this album stand out from the progressive mold one, a template which has seen much use (and misuse) in the recent decade or two. The first is how well everything flows together; “The God of Epicurus” is a beautiful example. The first half of the track is all progressive fury; the guitars skip notes, the bass and drums furiously work away at off-kilter metronome nightmares and two sets of vocals (one low and one high, as is only natural) trade blows over everything. But the second half is all calm introspection, like a better version of what many “we’re more mature now” bands have tried to achieve recently. The bass is sonorous and caressing, the guitars take a backseat but a much needed one and the melancholic vocals are perfect for the mood created.
But here’s the real kicker: when the two minute long outro presents itself, as you knew it would, both the ideas from the beginning of the track and its second half blend together to herald the return of aggression. It’s not just a move back towards the start of the track, riffs repeated in a slightly different procession or key; something has been added a long the way, influenced by the more restrained middle passage. This repeats throughout the album; parts and their counterparts learn from each other, swayed by the ideas presented in both. A tempting example is the two-part opening track (if you discount the intro track, which you should. Petition to kill intro tracks 2017).
“Constituted” is a beautiful practice and in often underutilized tool, the two parts track. It shows how the second track must swing backwards in an intelligent, not simply progressing from the first part but also revisiting its basic ideas. This couplet also introduces the second defining quality of The Devil’s Despair and that’s the range of influences that can be heard on it. From the hardcore touches on the vocals on the emotional end of the second part, to the doom metal sensibilities of the opening riff (blended with great acoustic guitar parts which will immediately remind you of Opeth‘s mid-era), The Devil’s Despair is not shy in drawing from multiple musical wells for its identity and ideas. But it’s all arranged around the common core of progressive metal and the ideals of experimentation and technical proficiency which have always accompanied it.
And this, as we said above, is the true strength of the album. Organizing itself around the ideas and sounds of what we’ve come to call modern progressive metal, The Devil’s Despair is Cryptodira’s contribution to the ongoing answer for the progressive metal conundrum. It shows that there’s still reason and life in the genre, that in its sometimes over the top and too self-serious highs and lows, there are still interesting ideas and powerful emotions to be manifested. As such, it also promises much to the returning listener; true to the ideal of the genre, it’s an album for the marathon runner rather than the sprinter. Ready, set, go!
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The Devil’s Despair is available 11/17 via Good Fight Music.