What in god’s name is even avant-garde? It seems to be a moniker used for at least four different things, and maybe even more, at the same time. It’s a genre, a sound, an approach, a movement in art and oh so much more. In metal, it denotes first a very specific approach to vocals which emphasizes the theatrical; think Dodheimsgard or Aenaon. Second, it usually comes with another adjective, experimental, when it describes the instruments. This instrumental approach is kind of like progressive metal gone haywire, entirely shedding what’s considered to be a normal approach to melody, rhythm, theme or all of the above. Avant-garde then is something elusive, an adjective everyone sort of knows and agrees on but no one can actually define.
Howling Sycamore is a supergroup which does interesting things within the avant-garde milieu but also does much that doesn’t immediately fall into the definition. Comprised of the cream of the crop of progressive metal, namely Jason McMaster (Watchtower), Davide Tiso (Ephel Duath), and Hannes Grossman (Necrophagist, Obscura), Howling Sycamore’s self-titled debut is a whirling mass of influences, ideas and composition drawn from the diverse world of progressive metal. These ideas, however, have been fed through a mirror darkly and now carry a distinctly sinister vibe that is wholly avant-garde. The result is an album that is often bewildering and scattered but which also feels convinced of where it’s heading, when it is at its best, as paradoxical as that might sound.
The first element which immediately springs to the ear is Jason McMaster’s vocals; they are perhaps the influence most wholly deserving of the avant-garde moniker. They do lots of interesting things during the entirety of the album, but “Obstinate Pace”, the second track, is where they really shine. Their dramatic tones are backed with plenty of power as they repeat and transform the track’s main lines on power and its network of ties. They also work very well with the saxophone, a duality which repeats throughout the album. However, the vocals also exemplify the main issue the album suffers from, an issue which plagues much of avant-garde. This is an issue of restraint; if the knob is always turned to eleven, doesn’t the ear miss the contrast? If you’re always at the top, how can the listener know when to perk up?
The instruments also share in this sin, a double edged sword. The over the top nature of the saxophone parts, the incredibly impressive (as always) drum work by Grossman, and Tiso’s guitar parts are all moving and effective but they also tend to blend into an overly complex whole. There are moments on the album, like the incredible groove on “Let Fall”, where everything works and you’re wholly drawn into the album’s world. But there are also parts, like the riffs which immediately followed said groove, that feel redundant and just there for complexity’s sake or in service to the avant-garde aspirations of the album.
Which is not to say this is a bad album; on the contrary, one could argue that this review is pointless since avant-garde is supposed to be overly complex and over the top. And hey, that’s true as well; far be it from this reviewer to say otherwise. Not only that but, when the album owns its own aspirations, its a fantastic piece of music. But, a bit too often, parts of it feel forced, added to the overall structure just because complexity and a progressive shine was needed to “sell” this album’s ideas. If you have tolerance for these kind of indulgent flourishes, then Howling Sycamore is perfect for you (as, indeed, it was for this reviewer). But if you like a bit of restraint in your avant-garde and the contrast between straight forward and complex, it might be just a bit too out there for your tastes.
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Howling Sycamore will see release on January 26th via Prosthetic Records. You can pre-order it via the band’s Bandcamp above or just stream a track or two and make up your own damn mind.