It is folly to try to judge a piece of art independently of the circumstances surrounding its conception. A lack of awareness of those circumstances is excusable, of course, but when it comes to The Faceless, that seems quite unlikely to be the case. The Californian technical/progressive death metal band, which is probably better described as Michael Keene’s project, have been through some troubles. They made one of the most important albums of the genre in 2008 with Planetary Duality, and ever since then listeners have been looking for them to make an album that’s equally impactful. 2012’s Autotheism, regardless of its quality, wasn’t what most people wanted in that sense. After yet another 4+ year gap, and many line-up changes, tour cancellations and other drama, the band, well, Michael Keene is back with his fourth album, In Becoming A Ghost. It’s his most somber and personal album for sure, but is it a good album? Partially.
One thing about The Faceless that’s undeniable is that Michael Keene’s distinct sound always shines through no matter what spin is put on it. That’s also the case here. Like it or not, this is a very recognizable album. In fact, Keene seems to have pushed his antics to the next level. There’s more clean singing than ever, more synths and samples. To some, this may sound like a negative, but it seems like the right direction for the band considering the entirety of the album. These moments are when the songs shine. Fans expecting a Planetary Duality 2.0 are never going to get it, and such an album wouldn’t even be as interesting in the current climate where bands like Archspire, Obscura and First Fragment exist.
Instead, Keene laser-focuses on himself, making the album his most introspective. Most of the songs talk about addiction, loss, grief and depression, which go along with some of the rumors about his personal demons he’s dealt with over the years. There is a very palpable sense of catharsis and laying oneself bare here. “Digging the Grave”, “Cup of Mephistopheles”, the Depeche Mode cover “Shake the Disease” all very explicitly mention these themes. And yes, you read that right, there’s a Depeche Mode cover on the album, and it works perfectly within the band’s style. In fact, it may be one of the best tracks on the album.
Which leads the discussion into the shortcomings of the album. It just doesn’t feel substantial. Part of it is due to three of the best songs on the album having been released before the album, two of them being released nearly a year before or more. As such, they don’t feel like new material, and some of the songs even have a different line-up than the final album due to the troubles the band faced in the many months in between. Those 3 singles and the cover are basically the best songs on the album. There are two spoken word interludes and a short instrumental, which means there are only three more tracks on the album that are full on new songs, and they’re some of the band’s weakest material. Repetitive, uninspired and overall limp, these songs don’t really make the album feel any meatier. Coupled with how the singles were released in coincidence with the band having issues (like missing a tour, which makes it seem like the band trying to regain goodwill in the face of bad press), how the album was delayed for more than a year, how these remaining tracks feel like throwaways, and how lackluster the production is, one can’t help but shake the d̶i̶s̶e̶a̶s̶e̶ feeling that the album was rushed and cobbled together. Which is a shame.
That being said, when the material shines, it really shines. Some of the moments here are among the band’s best. There are flashes of brilliance in most songs. Keene’s singing finally feels like an integral part of the band’s sound. The riffing style takes the band’s trajectory over the past albums and amplifies it with more character. Keene is clearly taking risks here, and when they pay off, it’s great. The extra instrumentation works to add more depth to the music. Ken Sorceron of Abigail Williams on vocals feels like a much-needed fresh direction, and the emotion he brings matches Keene’s singing very well. Overall, all these changes work towards making the band much more expressive and progressive, and when they all align, In Becoming A Ghost is a fantastic album. The problem is, they only align for about half the time. In a sense, it feels like this album is a new page for The Faceless, and if they can keep it together, the next album can be incredible. But, after five years and so many troubles, one can’t help but wonder if Keene has more juice left in him.
In the end, In Becoming A Ghost is a flawed gem. It’s probably not the album The Faceless fans wanted, and it’s not enough after all the troubles and five years, but when it works, it’s incredible. There are only a few songs where the new, fresh style of riffing, Keene’s prominent singing, Ken’s screaming and the misanthropic melancholy of the lyrics come together in just the right way, but those songs are worth the wait. It’s just that those work so well that one can’t help but be disappointed that after so long, the rest of the album isn’t at the same level as well.