The human voice is a powerful musical instrument. In fact, as an instrument for conveying emotion, it’s unmatched by any human-made device, because it’s the sound of . . . us. By definition, if you take it away from an ensemble of instruments, the music loses something irreplaceable.
This is true even in the case of extreme metal. In extreme music with harsh vocals, the capacity of a voice to express human emotion is constricted by comparison to music with clean vocals. Nuance and range are greatly reduced, and in most instances the emotion-triggering effect of the lyrics themselves is lost because the words are unintelligible. On the other hand, harsh vocals are very effective (more so than clean vocals) as instruments for expressing certain emotions — such as rage, frustration, and anguish — and for producing in the listener a sense of danger and dread. Take them away, and once again you lose something irreplaceable.
Orchestral music compensates for the lack of voices with an extensive array of human-made instruments, affording a lush palette of tones that can be combined in a multitude of ways. That may be one reason why many instrumental metal bands use synthesizers to reproduce the sonic variety and power of a symphony orchestra. But you take away the synths as well as the voices, and strip the instrumentation down to guitars, drums, and a bass, and you’re then placing considerable demands on the songwriting skill and performance chops of a band.
I suppose, for these reasons, I rarely find instrumental metal that jumps up and grabs my interest. But An Abstract Existence, the new album from a three-piece, no-vocals, no-synth band called Odyssey, has done that. I haven’t been this captivated by an instrumental album since 2009, when Animals As Leaders debuted and Scale the Summit released Carving Desert Canyons.
This isn’t our first exposure to Odyssey. A bit more than a year ago, we reviewed a four-song Odyssey EP called Schematics, which was mighty impressive. We wondered aloud what it would take for Odyssey to become more widely known. That has already happened since our last review, and An Abstract Existence ought to carry them dramatically further indeed.
The album consists of six tracks, four of them hovering around 7 minutes, one clocking in at nearly 14, and the album closer “Quantum Symbiotic Inception” reaching nearly 20 minutes. But in that hour-long offering of purely instrumental music, my attention never wandered (and of course it’s widely known that I have the attention span of a hummingbird). That’s a testament not only to the band’s top-shelf performance skill, but also to their talent for delivering considerable musical variety without ever seeming to force it.
From big, heavy, slamming chords to flights of prog-metal extravagance, from foundation-crushing doom riffs to thrash attacks to mellow jazz-fusion arpeggios, Jerrick Crites is seemingly capable of doing just about everything an electric guitar permits a talented musician to do with it. He makes it ring like chimes, hammer like a nail-gun, and send flashy streamers skyward like an eye-popping fireworks display in a clear night sky. There’s a wide variety of tones in the guitar melodies, and his solos range from soft and deeply soulful to full-on, smokin’ shredfests. Shades of Steve Vai and Alex Skolnick!
Amazingly, bass-player Jordan Hilker is a match for Crites’ guitar wizardry. I suppose it goes without saying, but merely competent bass playing won’t cut it in a stripped-down instrumental metal ensemble. There’s too much space to fill without vocals or keys, and too much need for goodies to hold the listener’s attention. Jordan Hilker’s very natural sounding (and very audible) bass is nimble and creative. One of the true highlights of the album is the interplay between him and Crites, with the bass sometimes matching note-for-note what Crites is doing and sometimes going off on its own in counterpoint. He can be brutal with the low-end hammering, but also almost playful.
With those two being such riveting performers, it would be tough for most drummers to stand much chance of making an impression, but Lukas Hilker makes one nonetheless. Sometimes all he needs to do is roll out simple rock rhythms, but he can turn on a dime into elaborate progressions or pounding jackhammer strikes. While not blazingly fast or technically flashy for its own sake, his choice of rhythms and techniques to suit the music always seems to be spot on. I also have to make note of the fact that the drum tones sound completely natural.
And speaking of turning on a dime, the one additional aspect of the music that maintains interest and respect is the facility with which Odyssey move among varying tempos and time signatures without losing a step and without jarring the listener by sounding abrupt. Sometimes the changes are so subtle that in hindsight they seem like exactly what you were expecting — even though they weren’t.
An Abstract Existence thankfully shies away from reliance on overproduced technical wankery or repetitive djent-chug to justify its abstract existence, and despite the album’s title, you won’t find much in the way of dreamy ambient, atmospheric floating, which carries the day with other instrumental metal bands. What you will find are three very capable musicians just hitting their stride, in control, operating with self-assurance, and producing something very special.
And that brings me full-circle to those musings about the consequences of banishing the human voice. Losing the vocals creates space to be filled and room for the instrumental performances to shine (or melt in embarrassment), without distraction or cover. Odyssey take full advantage of the extra space; they stretch out and fill the room with adventurous, multifaceted jams that don’t wear out their welcome.
Odyssey is unsigned (though surely that can’t last long!). They recorded the album themselves in their practice room from January into May 2011 on essentially no budget and mixed it themselves, with mastering by Bruce Connole at Wild Whirled Music. This is a band that deserves support for such an impressive DIY achievement. If you dig this music, go like them on Facebook and spend some dollars on their music at Bandcamp (here), where all of Odyssey’s recordings are for sale.
By the way, kudos to Kathryne McKinnon for the eye-catching artwork. Now, check out this album’s title track; you can stream the whole thing via that Bandcamp link:
P.S. I exaggerated a bit when I wrote that Odyssey is a no-synths outfit. Jerrick Crites does use them briefly on “Cellular Deconstruction” to mimic the wordless sound of male choral voices soaring above (and contrasting with) the heavy hammering rhythms going on below.