Meshiaak‘s debut album, Alliance of Thieves (2016), is one of the best thrash metal albums to ever come out of Australia. A supergroup of sorts, featuring current and ex-members of 4Arm and Terramaze, the Melbourne outfit perfectly blended groove and melody to deliver a record that simultaneously exceeded the bounds of their given genre, while firmly playing within them. The band’s highly-anticipated sophomore effort, Face of All Misery, sees them swinging in a far more definitively melodic direction. Yet, while the results remain impressive, the loss of contrast only goes to show just how much of their debut’s precarious balancing act was essential to its success.
The more melodic leanings of Mask of All Misery are made immediately apparent. Along with its pristine white cover, the album opens with a four-minute, epic, instrumental intro track, in the form of “Miasma”. At first the track comes off as a mere elongation of the intro to Alliance of Thieves’ “Drowning, Fading, Falling” (which the band used as the intro to their first live performance, if I recall correctly). Three minutes in, and after some serious shredding, the track feels like its has built to something grandiose and climactic—worthy of comparison to Megadeth‘s “Into the Lungs of Hell” and “Dialectic Chaos”. Rather than the album proper kicking in at that point however, it stops for an orchestral break and the whole process begins anew. It’s far too much way too soon, and ultimately feels unearned—especially when, rather than transitioning into the title-track, we’re met with another hard reset. It’s not only severely jarring, but calls into question what “Miasma” was even doing there in the first place. The track may have worked better split-up so and book-ending the album, so that it served more as a thematic theme than an elongated intro. As it is, however, it serves equally to foreground the album’s faults, along with its tone.
Contrast is an essential aspect of composition. As with Meshiaak’s debut, the best albums are those that strike the balance between harsher and softer tones just right. As wise old characters in fantasy epics are always going around saying: there is no light, without dark; As Mask of All Misery‘s title-track declares: “It cannot end when there has been no beginning”. Although many bands can get away with doubling down on the more aggressive aspects of their sound through sheer exhilaration, the opposite approach is often less rewarding, and herein lies the trap Meshiaak fall into on their second outing. During the writing process for Mask of All Misery, Meshiakk posted on their facebook page: “I think we just topped At The Edge of The World”—referring to Alliance of Thieves‘ standout, centerpiece moment. “At The Edge of the World” was a melodic masterpiece among groove-laden titans, and therein (along with the punishing groove section that occupies its third-quarter) lies the secret to its success. The “all-epic all the time approach” doesn’t allow room for contrast, and in chasing after the white whale that lies beyond what’s “At The Edge of the World” (if you will), Meshiaak appear to have lost sight of exactly what made the track so effective in the first place.
Mask of All Misery is an album lacking in shades. Along with the all-out epic approach exemplified by its opener, a lot of the tracks come across as unrefined and often overly repetitious, with the album as a whole feeling more like a collection of bridges than of verses and choruses. The problem is compounded by the songs’ often elongated run-times. “Tears that Burn the Son” is way too long for how one-dimensional it is. Likewise, the five-and-a-half-minute “Doves” hits it’s grandiose chorus only a minute or so into its five-and-a-half-minute run-time, and is left with nowhere to go as a result. It’s subsequent over-repetition sees saccharinity setting somewhere between the three and four-minute mark, after which it continues to be repeated, ad nauseam, without ever really building to anything. None of flows particularly well either, as exemplified by the repetition of the intro track’s jolting transition as the title-track drops suddenly into the slow dredging riff of “Bury the Bodies”. There doesn’t seem to be much logic to the track order which buries a lot of the record’s best material behind its more more mediocre moments.
What harder hitting-moments are on offer are also often underwhelming. The sudden groove sections of “Final Hour” and “City of Ghosts” feel uninspired, and the driving riff that opens “Godless” is quickly given up in favour of further epicness. “Bury the Bodies”—on which the ill-fitting string-sections that pervade the record feel particularly out of place—similarly squanders its promise of blending Metalica‘s “Sad but True” with Alice in Chains-style vocal harmonies. “City of Ghosts” also attempts to blend Alice in Chains-esque vocals with Black Album-era Metallica (although this time think more “Holier than Thou”). Alas, yet again, the results are “a little stock”.
Although often overwhelming and largely incoherent, Mask of All Misery is not at all unimpressive. Danny Camilleri’s vocals remain commanding and surprisingly dynamic. Terramaze guitarist Dean Wells’s performance is also consistently staggering, it just might be more effective if he’d reign it in a bit and let Camilleri flex the Hetfield-inspired muscles he honed while fronting 4Arm. Conversely, there isn’t much flair to the performance of David Godfrey, who replaces noted session-drummer Jon Dette (ex-Anthrax, ex-Iced Earth), although his performance is undeniably solid. As for the songs themselves, the title-track—which was the first song written for the album, and thus feels the closest in kind to the material from Alliance of Thieves—is a captivating melodic thrash number that recalls modern Trivium and never looses sight of its driving, central riff. “Face of Stone” recalls an upbeat Arch Enemy similar success and “In the Final Hour” is packed with tempo-changes that give the record some much needed variation. The record’s final two tracks are also arguably it’s strongest. “Adrena” sees Meshiaak drawing closer to the sense of balance that defined their debut, albeit rather late in the game. Even “Godless” goes a long way toward recapturing the Blackening-era Machine Head vibes that pervaded Alliance of Thieves and is largely successful in its endeavor. Unfortunately, they both come after so much untextured exhaustion and might have been better served if they had been better foregrounded.
Riff for riff, Mask of all Misery is likely one of the best thrash metal albums of 2019. Taken as a whole—or even a song at a time—however, it never seems to quite coalesce. In attempting to push themselves to loftier heights, Meshiaak’s sound has become ungrounded. There’s plenty to marvel at on the band’s second effort but, for all its accentuated arduousness, it ends up being a far less effective affair than their debut.
Mask of All Misery is out Nov. 15 through Mascot Records.