Waiting eagerly for an album is always a double edged sword; it’s hard to resist, especially when you loved a previous release to death, but as time goes by, you can feel disappointment building. The sad fact is, we often create impossible standards for follow ups, expecting the same level of excitement as the first time around. But much of that excitement was in the novel, in the thrill of discovery, and follow up albums have to be truly exceptional to meet that expectation when we already know, more or less, what to expect.
This is the complex emotional field with which fans of Barren Earth are faced when coming to listen to A Complex of Cages. It has been three years (and a week, at the time of writing this) since On Lonely Towers blew fans away; the Finnish band’s unique blend of progressive death hasn’t really been matched since. But can the new release live up to the expectations of the old? What will the second album featuring Jón Aldará (Hamferð) sound like? Will there be marked changes to the band’s sound and if so, how will they hold up?
The answer to all of these questions is mixed. If you’re expecting a direct continuation to On Lonely Towers, A Complex of Cages won’t give you that. While the core Barren Earth sound is certainly there, much of the experimentation has been pulled back in favor of more structured and cohesive tracks. But that is that a bad thing? Certainly not; it allows Barren Earth to create some incredibly powerful and groovy tracks, like the excellent “Ruby”, the second track. Everything just comes together and that fat has been trimmed, guitars, groove section and vocals working together to create momentum and drive.
In addition to that tightening of the ranks, the role of ambience has been increased on A Complex of Cages. Beyond the contemplative “Withdrawal”, which ends the album on an interesting and somber note, more atmospheric passages are littered throughout the album. “Zeal” is a great example; it opens with piano which quickly turns into thick synths, as the clean vocals set the stage for the later crescendo of the track. When that climax is reached, the track dives deeper than Barren Earth have ever gone, scrapping the upper edges of black metal in both vocals delivery and the role of the drums.
So, there are still twists and turns but something about A Complex of Cages that feels restrained in relation to the unfettered gestures of On Lonely Towers. But you know what? It works. The balance between the clean and guttural vocals feels more harmonious now, the two collaborating on one level instead of trading blows. The guitar lines have less flourish but more delivery, a clear line of approach and goal. Nowhere is this more obvious than on the longest track on the album, “Solitude Pith”. Every part of it flows into the other, from the “weirder” synths on the beginning coupled with deep, clean vocals, through the heavier parts near the middle and all the way to the progressive end.
Towers was a fantastic album but also an incredibly self-indulgent one, often overstaying its welcome and pilling on more than the listener might be able to take in. On the longest track of the album, it becomes clear that A Complex of Cages is a rarefied and sleek version of that formula; some of the operatic nature of Barren Earth has been cut away (though you can still find a soaring clean vocal line in plenty of places) and replaced with direction and attack Thus, even at their most elaborate, Barren Earth sound much clearer and stronger on this release, sacrificing some of what made them great in the past to update and maintain their stature in the future.
A Complex of Cages sees release today, March 30th, via Century Media. You can head on over here to grab it.