Fallujah – Empyrean


Fallujah’s career is on the line with album number five. From the beginning, they ensured a frosty reception among the old school by starting out as a deathcore band in 2009 but changed people’s opinions with the magnificent progressive death metal of 2016’s Dreamless LP. Then vocalist, Alex Hofman, departed, and they produced one of the most hated records of the last five years with 2019’s Undying Light. Metal Injection’s verdict summed up the feeling: ‘Undying Light isn’t a mixed bag or a slight misstep. It is a genuinely bad record that even diehard fans will have difficulty sitting through.’ Fallujah mastermind, Scott Carstairs, bowed to the pressure of the fanbase and removed Undying Light’s vocalist, Antonio Palermo, and replaced him with new frontman, Kyle Schaefer. The question is whether the radical surgery will put them back on track or continue their descent into mediocrity?

Undying Light’s main flaw was its lack of focus, so fans will be pleased to learn that Fallujah went back to, uh, Focus by Cynic as their re-entry point into progressive death metal. One listen to opener, ‘The Bitter Taste of Clarity’, tells you that this band are back, and they mean business. The first thirty seconds fade in with Scott Carstairs’ trademark whammy bar compression melodies before the blast beats erupt and Schaefer announces himself into the mix like Cannibal Corpse frontman, Corpsegrinder. You can feel the urgency in every phonation as he gears into a higher pitched scream vocal for the verse parts and lights up the chorus with the majesty of Scott Carstairs’ aching guitar orgasms. The band could be talking about the distressing experience of Undying Light in the chorus: “So let the days you’ve lost/ Focus and align your thoughts/ To rediscover what you’ve buried under/ There is no greater cause/ In dying for the light you’ve lost/ Rediscover the heart you’ve buried under.” How do they control the audio chaos with such ease? Scott Carstairs is like a superhero holding back an earthquake rupture from total devastation.

Of course, the sensible thing to do on a career lifeline album is to place the faster and heavier songs at the beginning of the record. Track two, ‘Radiant Ascension’, is a clear standout composition built on finger-twisting guitar rhythms and virtuoso slap and pop techniques from ex-Entheos and The Faceless bassist, Evan Brewer. Here, Fallujah show that they’re the only death metal band that could play a Coachella or Lollapalooza festival without alienating the alternative crowd, and that’s because of the sophisticated texture of their melodies. The celestial late-night eroticism flowing through the guitars are unique to the playing style of Scott Carstairs. Listen how he heightens the senses with a gush of sweep-picking fretwork in the solo. Schaefer’s vocals stay on the right side of savage throughout. Dive in to repeat listens of ‘Embrace Oblivion’ and you’ll hear the Meshuggah influences working their way through the song writing. You could even argue that Fallujah are the Periphery of technical death metal with a nod to the candle-light meditation of The Contortionist thrown in for good measure.

Fallujah have always been a visual band, and ‘Into the Eventide’ is the best example of their aesthetic. The spindly bass slapping and sixteenth-note double-kick patterns form the backbone for Scott Carstairs to plug in and imagine himself playing along to a Future Sound of London visualiser screen on a Hewlett Packard PC. You don’t even notice the preponderance of chug riffs when the colour palette of the music borders on violet and red. Where did the female serenades come from at three minutes and forty seconds? It’s easy to forget that Fallujah are a monstrous machine at their heaviest. The opening riffs to ‘Eden’s Lament’ conjure images of a soldier-commander trying to call for air support in the middle of an artillery ambush. The reinforcements arrive and the chopper in the rear pulls them to safety, but the hostile bite of the guitars remind you, as the spectator, that it’s hell out there.

At times, the lyrics read like a sorrowful diary entry from Andre Gidé, in other stanzas you can detect the anxiety of the Terminator prophecies for the day when AI enslaves its creators. ‘Mindless Omnipotent Master’ captures the philosophical pessimism: “Its computations compel you to obey/ Industrial motion of optimal escape/ Hеlpless to reversе this unstoppable decay/ Of individuality.” On a musical level it shakes like a Gojira blast with the technical guitar work of Interloper. The melodies are bountiful and felicitous. Evan Brewer and drummer, Andrew Baird, dare to insert a middle eight of funk-reggae bass and jazz fusion drums in ‘Duality of Intent’ without spoiling the late-night ambience. Your instructions are clear when listening to music like this – dim the lights, clink your glass of red wine, run the bath, and summon your lover to share the moment on the hotel balcony where you can look down upon the dark evening of the city below.

Fallujah know by track nine that their recovery operation is a success, yet you wonder if they could have ended the album with the crowning instrumental of ‘Celestial Resonance’ rather than closing it with the seven-minute masturbation of ‘Artifacts’. Fifty minutes for a record should not be a hurdle if your tastes gravitate towards progressive death metal, but a nine-track LP of forty-two minutes would have been the smarter option. A couple of derivative attempts to rekindle the awe of Meshuggah’s ‘Bleed’ riff from 2008 do not help matters, either, but how many bands are guilty of this in today’s era?

Rebirth or oblivion were the two possibilities for Fallujah when they recorded Empyrean. They save their career here and remind us how unique they are to the world of progressive metal. Maybe some of the old school tastemakers will change their minds once again and accept them into the higher echelons of the contemporary metal scene.

JVB


Verdict


Release Date: 09/09/2022

Record Label: Nuclear Blast Records

Standout tracks: Radiant Ascension, Embrace Oblivion, Duality of Intent

Suggested Further Listening: Entheos – Dark Future (2017), Cynic – Focus (1993), The Faceless – Autotheism (2012)