*** Go to our YouTube channel in the link below to see the video review of this record in episode #41 of the SBR Album of the Week.
Justin McKinney started The Zenith Passage in 2012 and secured a deal with Unique Leader Records to release the band’s 2016 debut, Solipsist. He then completed some recordings with The Faceless and did session work for Soreption. The band went into hibernation until 2021, when he overhauled the line-up to introduce Brandon Giffin (bass) and Derek Rydquist (vocals) into the fold. Some of you will know that the former just finished a tour filling in for Cynic on their North American trek with Atheist. The latter started as a vocalist for The Faceless in their early days but never recorded an album with them. These changes caught the attention of Brian Slagel at Metal Blade Records and persuaded him that he might have another Rivers of Nihil on his hands. On the evidence of Datalysium, he made the right decision.
The Zenith Passage play death metal. But it’s a progressive form of bludgeoning with technical foundations. Like French stalwarts, Gorod, the axemen in this band emphasise the intricacies of rhythm over expressive soloing, although there’s plenty of that when a song calls for it. Opener, ‘The Axiom of Error’, might be just two minutes and twenty-seven seconds in length, but it starts in the same high gear intensity as Decapitated before finding an Archspire hook riddled with intelligible complexities. The onomatopoeia of guitar and voice will remind you of the latest Cattle Decapitation record. Palm-muted guitar stabs form spiky rhythms and leave gaps for the double-kick drums to fill. There’s no doubt that the person behind the kit will need a click track to perform this in a live setting.
Astounding levels of musicianship are the norm in progressive metal, but The Zenith Passage are in a league of their own. Listen to the precise rhythmic velocity of ‘Algorithmic Salvation’ as the guitar plectrums fret their strings like a master guild of watchmakers. Brandon Giffin’s slap bass techniques underneath the main action operate in their own domain away from the chugging guitars. The colourful fusion solo could pass the audition to study under the tutelage of Steve Vai at the Berklee College of Music.
Though this is an album for musicians to enjoy, it’s not just for musicians. ‘Lexicontagion’ dispenses with the self-indulgent intro and aims right for the gut until breathing levels come down at the mid-way point. The Necrophagist cult of followers will find something to inspire them on ‘Synaptic Depravation’. Fretless bass noodling and panic-inducing keyboard atmospherics prevent it from turning into one long piece of machine-standard syncopation. You don’t notice the one-dimensional vocal growls when the music is as illustrative as this.
Naturally, The Zenith Passage set their playing standards at levels of extreme difficulty. No sane guitarist would try to emulate the synth arpeggiator at the beginning of ‘Deletion Cult’. It explains why the dimensions of space are so expansive on this record. Each musician demands their own room to explore their instrument. ‘Divinertia I’ mixes tech death, jazz fusion and prog metal with the same brush and offers moments of serenity when you least expect them. Its sequel, ‘Divinertia II’, transitions into a slower tempo of open-string chug patterns, like Cynic if you asked Paul Masvidal to interpret the mid-career albums of Meshuggah. Derek Rydquist’s vocals are lively and abrasive in the mix despite their limitations of range.
Like all progressive metal records, your mind wonders where the saturation point will be. The Zenith Passage call it just right at nine tracks spread over forty-five minutes. Penultimate song, ‘Automated Twilight,’ ought to be the one to test your stamina, but it second-guesses you. Instead, the band present a mystical landscape of clean guitars and cautious drumbeats. Presumably, it’s McKinney that opens his diaphragm to a surprise tenor voice on this track – the album notes make no mention of a guest vocalist. There are so many competing forces at play – melodic keyboards, dissonant guitars, malevolent growls, operatic outcries. The closing title track continues the divine meditation with a rare chorus and a venture into more ethereal textures.
It starts like a tech death album, but it finishes like a prog metal odyssey. Datalysium demands no patience to understand it, but it gives you the impetus to sit back and let it flow through your body like a boost of kilojoules.
Release Date: 21/07/2023
Record Label: Metal Blade Records
Standout tracks: The Axiom of Error, Algorithmic Salvation, Synaptic Depravation
Suggested Further Listening: Cattle Decapitation – Terrasite (2023), Gorod – The Orb (2023), Omnerod – The Amensal Rise (2023)