There was a distinct lack of post-metal in our end of 2017 round-up and, in some ways, this is unsurprising. The heyday of the genre happened over a decade ago, and its deceptively simple formula has now made it more and more challenging for bands to say something original with the sound. There have of course been exceptions to this rule, with releases like Cult of Luna’s Mariner garnering a lot of critical attention over the last few years. Still, even these standout albums have had to rely on external influences, like the vocal additions of Julie Christmas or an increasing dependence on prog metal and electronic ingredients, to reinvigorate post-metal’s now slightly tired recipe.
However, this is not to say that there weren’t any quality releases from the post-metal camp last year. One album that flew under our radar was Utopioid; the 6th full-length from veteran Philadelphia quintet, Rosetta. Rosetta were part of the original wave of post-metal titans, such as Pelican and ISIS, who established the genre’s sound with releases like their classic 2006 debut, The Galilean Satellites. Since then, they have quietly released one quality record after another and have tentatively begun to expand their own sound, as well the sonic potential of the genre itself. Rosetta have always been a band that placed notable emphasis on the atmospheric elements of post-metal, utilising passionate crescendos and spacey progressions to add emotional character and depth to their otherwise aggressive and often sludgy core sound. 2015’s Quintessential Ephemera saw the group make a concerted effort to frame their sound more than ever around their atmospheric qualities. The addition of clean vocals and a generally more patient and thoughtful feel translated into a fresh approach to a conventional sound, even if it left older, heavier fans slightly wanting. Rosetta’s latest effort pushes their sound even further into cerebral atmospheric territory, and has resulted in a thoroughly enjoyable album that lends itself to the project’s long-standing cosmic themes, while providing refreshing new possibilities for the genre.
Building on the forays of Quintessential Ephemera, Utopioid makes extended and effective use of clean vocals, which drone hypnotically throughout the mellower passages of the album before breaking out into the band’s trademark ragged scream as the music’s energy intensifies. Readers would be mistaken for thinking the scarcity of harsh vocals on this album means it lacks heaviness though, because when they do hit, they hit hard; providing powerful emotional climaxes as they ebb and flow in perfect synchronicity with the tone and intensity of the album’s hour-long run time.
Similarly, for the most part, the instrumental tone of the record is slow, brooding and pensive. Rosetta employ their signature progressions of floating, delay- and reverb-laden ethereal guitar passages, which are layered and interwoven to haunting effect. The tone of these passages, and of the instrumentals more generally, conveys an expansive sense of space and evokes feelings of both isolation and serenity. It also plays to the thematic elements of outer space that have comprised an essential element of the band’s sound since their inception. The album very effectively evokes the cold, unforgiving, desperate isolation and vastness of the cosmos, yet also its overwhelming grandeur and complexity. Like the vocals, the hypnotic spell cast by the airy guitars is only occasionally broken by moments of absolutely crushing heaviness, but once again the sparsity of these passages makes them all the more potent.
One potential criticism of the extended atmospheric passages and slow progression of the album is that tracks tend to blur together, although the natural flow between songs does add to the sense that the album is to be experienced as one larger, dynamic composition. That being said, the moments that do stand out tend to be on the heavier tracks. “King Ivory Tower”, “Détente” and “Qohelet” comprise the most memorable songs, and do so by finding the right yin-yang balance between vocal styles and by working compelling hooks into the guitar leads and vocal lines. Penultimate track “Qohelet” stands out as exemplary in that it subverts the expectation of the slow crescendo typically associated with post-metal. Just two and a half minutes in, it drops suddenly and uncompromisingly into one of the album’s most punishing passages, only to dissipate just as abruptly, leaving the listener stunned and reeling. Unfortunately, the malevolent intensity that builds throughout “Qohelet” is such that the album’s final foray – the slow and pensive “Intramorten” – feels somewhat redundant.
Utopioid is not a revolutionary album. Rosetta use the same solid foundation of post-metal tropes that they and many others have always employed, but with this release the band have successfully discovered fresh new territory in a genre that had appeared largely worn out. More impatient listeners might argue that the extensive quietude and lingering atmospheric passages must be endured, rather than enjoyed, in order to experience the cathartic pay-off of the few heavier climaxes. However, the subdued passages don’t come across as tension-building filler. They have their own engaging sense of depth and detail, and create immersive soundscapes that feed into the band’s long-standing space themes. Overall, this is a stellar release, and is well worth the time and attention of anyone with even a casual interest in music of the ‘post-‘ variety.