Utopia – Shame


English mathcore disruptors, Utopia, formed during the lockdown and assembled an impressive cast of guest contributors to their debut album, including Billy Rhymer (Dillinger Escape Plan) and Baard Kolstad (Leprous). Named after the famous Andrei Tarkovsky film, Stalker, the band’s 2021 effort established the trio of John Bailey (guitar), Chris Reese (vocals) and Arran McSporran (bass) as serious players in the UK experimental metal scene. Indeed, Reese already has a name thanks to his involvement with Liverpool sludge-grind quintet, Corrupt Moral Altar, while Blackpool native, McSporran, also plays in the Australian progressive metal band, Vipassi (now signed to Season of Mist). On the evidence of this LP, Utopia is about to become priority number one in their lives.

The first thing Utopia want you to know is that they mean business on album number two. That translates into higher levels of crazed aggression, more jazz elements, warmer melodies, and sonic extremities that aim to cause death by evisceration. Opener, ‘Machiavelli’, is extreme math-grind from the first note with gory death metal vocals and scale-shredding guitar patterns that imitate smashed up pinball machines. The tempo shifts and staccato bludgeoning will strain your speakerphones like a sonic boom effect from a jet plane. McSporran’s bass follows the guitars like a shadow military unit ready to step in and take control of the situation when the action becomes too intense. How do the band unearth a modicum of melody among this constant start-stop madness?

You could be listening to an alternative rock band playing jazz in the title-track. The first minute saunters by in a minor key sadness until the chugging guitars growl like Gorguts, and Reese puts his voice through hell. Listen to the sharp crunch of the palm-muted guitar shapes. Tech death would be much more enjoyable if it sounded as urgent and as terrifying as this. There’s a reason why Utopia receive comparisons to the Dillinger Escape Plan, yet they have a wider range of death metal in their armoury and a quirky side that will remind you of I Wrestled a Bear Once. John Zorn and Mike Patton deserve to hear it.

Lifeless this is not. This band know to avoid constant pounding for thirty-five minutes – their quieter moments soothe like a nostalgic Sunday stroll on Southport pier. ‘Sun Damage’ is a song for the curious. Do you want to explore the quiet country lanes in the early morning when no human activity can spoil your solitude? You can do until the dreamy jazz guitars give way to total fucking chaos at 01:33 under the hammer of diminished scale runs and seething palm-mutes. ‘Waking Visions’ is mathcore with a side helping of psychotic extreme metal. Inhumane wails and violent spasms haunt its debauched madness.

You can identify a few permanent features once you enter the last third of Shame, but these only become apparent after three listens. Track seven, ‘Withering Away and Laughing’, is the moment where the record evolves into a jazz-metal hybrid with the heaviest aspects of technical death metal propping it up. Your body will twist and navigate through the modulations with no sense of purpose because your instinct is always two seconds behind the action. At what point did this song turn into an eerie cinematic score beset by murderous string arrangements? The post-metal rage that follows is easier to comprehend. Likewise, the jazz-fusion passages and busy drums don’t even bother to escape the clutches of the death metal guitar bludgeoning in ‘Never Argue with an Idiot’. These are wise words if the idiot in question is as dangerous as this song.

Utopia have a cruel streak to their music – they offer you sporadic moments of serene calm in a secret air-raid shelter before their bomb exposes you to the hell outside. The aim in ‘Social Contracts’ is to see how many jazz scales they can shred through in between the boneheaded chug techniques. It’s catchy, and that’s what makes it unique. This band know that the best way to grab your attention is by holding you under duress. ‘The Gift of Failure’ is the only dubious experiment on the album. It doesn’t work. The rhythms imitate nursery rhymes, and the aggression feels tongue-in-cheek as a result.

Closing track, ‘Moving Gently Towards the Grave’, is a delightful surprise and a marvellous way to end this record. Hello Kraftwerk. Goodbye strife. The aesthetic is simple: Welcome to the space age of urban planning and smooth motorways. Here, the utopian synths sparkle like a new line of high-speed trains on display at an international trade fair. Adding a layer of sludgy guitar riffing does not diminish the light-headed optimism of the music for one second. Think of it as a fawning appraisal of Les Trente Glorieuses in France circa 1945-1975.

Music as violent and as unpredictable as this is always in danger of alienating the listener. Not so with this LP. You won’t have time to switch off when you have a sergeant major barking in your face with a truncheon at the ready. It ought to demand many listens and many questions before you can understand it, but Shame leaves an impression from the first note.

JVB


Verdict


Release Date: 02/02/2024

Record Label: Self-released

Standout tracks: Shame; Sun Damage; Moving Gently Towards the Grave

Suggested Further Listening: I Wrestled a Bear Once – Ruining it for Everybody (2011), Tomb Mold – The Enduring Spirit (2023), 6exhance – Et in Cacophonia Ego (2023)