Israeli progressives, Subterranean Masquerade, are back with their fourth album but only started touring as a collective in 2018. Now armed with the finest musicians in Israel’s prog metal scene, the group are as daring and as experimental as ever and pray that Covid-19 will abate soon enough, so they can take their music out on the road. At fifty-four minutes and spanning many genres, Mountain Fever should be a challenge for most artists, but the sextet make it look easy.
Like modern day Opeth, the Israelis straddle the border between epic 70s rock and 90s metal but incorporate a wide range of genres into the melting pot. Opener, ‘Snake Charmer’, is good enough to be a lesson in exquisite rock vocals with its switch from emotive whispers to chest-heavy lamentations. The remarkable uplift in semitones from husk to falsetto voice will remind you of Jeff Buckley in his prime. ‘Diaspora My Love’ is Dream Theater playing a Middle Eastern rock ballad with a sudden flash of death metal roars that come from nowhere like a stealth bomber. The title track is where you start to piece it together – the guitarists favour a hard rock approach using traditional metal techniques, a bit like the way the Smashing Pumpkins draw upon the two genres for the core of their heavier sound. But that’s where the comparisons end. Here, Subterranean Masquerade explore Mediterranean brass harmonies and Arabic scales as if combining two cuisines into one fusion dish. The mystical Turkish flavouring of the middle eight only adds to the excitement, yet it never feels eclectic or eccentric. Again, they employ death metal vocals when you least expect them.
Like any worthwhile effort, the middle section of Mountain Fever is just as strong and even stranger in its experimentation. You’ll notice more of a Mike Patton/Mr Bungle vibe on ‘Somewhere I Sadly Belong’ and ‘The Stillnox Oratory’, yet the male-female soul in the chorus of the former is pure Californian hippy rock mixed with elements of thrash metal and bass groove. Only on ‘Ascend’ do we encounter the one persistent problem of this record – the metallic guitar approach needs a chunkier tone and a more powerful presence in the mix. You can’t fault the song writing or stupendous vocals, but this album cries out for a few more blasts of the heavier stuff. ‘For the Leader, With Strings Music’ is a rare example where the band turn up to eleven and unleash a ferocious assault of melodeath and symphonic metal with pounding double-kick drums. It’s no surprise when they burrow through tangents of gypsy folk and Arabic percussions when nothing is beyond consideration, nor does any aspect of this album fail to rock with a capital ‘R’. But including death metal vocals reminds you that the dormant extreme elements of the Subterranean Masquerade repertoire could be enhanced rather than held back.
Nonetheless, the music and technicality of each person is astonishing for a band that started as a studio project and now encompasses a veteran ensemble of musicians. Mountain Fever mixes the best of 70s rock and 90s progressive metal and even reaches out to African beats, Balkans folk music and Arabic violin for inspiration. With so much to unpack, it gets better with each listen and leaves you with a sensation lying somewhere between bedazzlement and bewilderment. For that reason alone, you must give it a go.
Release Date: 14/05/2021
Record Label: Sensory Records
Standout tracks: Mountain Fever; Somewhere I Sadly Belong; For the Leader, With Strings Music
Suggested Further Listening: Dream Theater – Falling into Infinity (1997), Hongo Fuu – Fuu (2021), Opeth – Heritage (2011)