Fallujah is a band I’ve had an odd history with. I was never quite as in love with them as some other people in our scene when the first few releases came out. Don’t get me wrong, the music was good but I never found anything to really sink my teeth into with it. The first time that I really started taking more notice was with The Flesh Prevails but something there felt half-baked to me, a bold vision to be sure but one which needed to come into fruition. Dreamless was closer, taking more risks to bring forth the “dreamy” aspects that were nascent within this new vision of Fallujah. But it still felt disjointed in parts, missing some sort of quality or, more likely, several, to bring everything in sync.
It seems as if what was required was actually not a further development of the “new” Fallujah sound, that was slowly starting to garner the moniker “atmospheric death metal”, but a reconciliation of sorts of it with the earlier, more “meaty” sound of the band. Gladly, I can say that Empyrean is the best Fallujah album to date, finally finding the structure and balance that it needed in the more aggressive, direct style of the band while injecting it with enough of the latter influences to create something more chromatic and engaging. It also adds something new into the mix, perhaps serving as a catalyst, with the inclusion of blog-favorite Kyle Schaefer. Put all of this together and Empyrean is the first time I can wholeheartedly say that I am in love with a Fallujah record.
In order to support this “reconciliation” thesis of mine, we can take a look at the third track of the album (and, wisely, one of its lead singles), “Radiant Ascension”. This is surely one of Fallujah’s best tracks ever and the secrete lies in balance. The main riff, the one with which the track opens, is “oldschool” Fallujah at its best. The tones are thick, the composition is aggressive, more than “just” fast but possessed of this undeniable quality of focus and intensity. Not to be outdone, the drums are furious and tight, joining forces with the breakneck bass to create that grounded, present, and forceful groove section that drives the Fallujah engine.
This is one part of the balance. The other can be found in the leads and the solos (and the vocals, but more on that below) that dot the album and contain that “latter” Fallujah sound, the dreamy, soaring, chromatic, atmospheric quality. This sound, not exactly brighter but more scintillating, adds emotional variety to the sound, evoking sensations of hope, power, and self-assurance that do much to alleviate the unrelenting barrage of the heavier elements. Maybe that was what I was missing from the first Fallujah albums: emotional variety. While what I can now call the “middle era” felt unanchored and indulgent, fully giving into the more introspective elements of their sound.
And then there are the vocals. Listen, I have been singing Schaefer’s accolades for a while now but it really is crazy to see how far he’s come in the past few years. His performance on this album is like the avatar of the balance we mentioned above, since he shares equally in the creation of the heavier segments with his unquenchable harsh vocals and adds to the more melodic elements with his heart wrenching cleans. Check out the next track, “Embrace Oblivion”, for example and the melancholy which his clean vocals inject into the track there. Or just stay on “Radiant Ascension” and listen to what is probably the chorus of the year, sweeping, emboldening, and supercharged with his excellent delivery.
This balance, typified in Schaefer’s vocals but by no means limited to them, is what sets Empyrean apart, not just from Fallujah’s discography but from the incredibly prolific fields of progressive death metal. It is an album that can deliver the gut-punching assault that the band first became famous for while not relinquishing subtlety and variety. It is an album that can dwell on the beautiful, the interior, and the fragile without falling into naval-gazing, always focused on the goal and the road which lies ahead. It is, in short, Fallujah’s best effort to date, a culmination of their career so far, and a bright promise of the potential this new lineup has, and will hopefully continue to, unlock together.
Fallujah’s Empyrean releases on Friday, September 9th. Head on over to the Bandcamp link above to pre-order it.