(DGR reviews the new album by Arkaik.)
The idea of a “tentpole” band is something that has been playing on the darkest reaches of my mind lately. Like an idea that has its claws slowly wrapping around you, so the tendrils have slowly wormed their way into my thoughts over the course of my album listenings for this review.
I’m definitely the most unqualified person in the world to opine about how the record label business is conducted, but I’ve always been under the impression that a lot of many label’s rosters often don’t exactly generate tremendous amounts of money, and under some business models there are usually two or three fairly huge bands that happen to bring in most of the money, and that tends to get kind of spread out amongst the rest of the label.
If it isn’t the profit factor, sometimes these bands I’m thinking of just happen to be the ones that seem to define the ethos of the label. In other words, there will usually be a band or two per label that seem to define what much of the roster sounds like, or they embody huge swaths of the sound — the exemplaries of the label, so to speak. In my mind, this is the case with Arkaik and their label Unique Leader.
Arkaik seems to be the sort of band that embodies everything that label has stood for and is representative of a pretty good cross-section of the roster. If someone on the roster is doing something, either Arkaik will pick it up or they were already there, and so it shall be. The fact that Arkaik involves a musician from one of Unique Leader’s other flagship bands, Deeds Of Flesh, certainly hasn’t helped to dispel that thought in my head. Arkaik seems to absorb musicians on the Unique Leader roster like The Blob.
This means that Arkaik’s releases tend to be huge, as either giant summaries of where the tech-death scene is now or something of a forecast for the future. In the case of Lucid Dawn, Arkaik’s end-of-October release, it’s starting to look like a whole lot more of the former and less of the latter.
Lucid Dawn is Arkaik’s fourth full-length release in ten years of existence, with the band having stuck to a pretty solid two-to-three-year album cycle. It also represents a chapter in an admittedly ambitious series of concept discs — of which 2012’s precursor Metamorphignition is a part. Metamorphignition dealt with some heavy concepts and gave us such incredible song titles as the two-parter “Sirens In Electric Veils” and “Blade Grasp Priesthood” — the latter feeling like it comes from the Dimmu Borgir school of “three random words that sound awesome” method of titling. You wouldn’t know it up front, as Metamorphignition was a dense and low-end-heavy disc, as has been much of Arkaik’s overall discography. It has seemingly served as an outlet for a rotating cast of musicians to unleash some of their most groove-focused riffs; whilst the songs are definitely written as finger exercises, there has been a fair amount of chug to Arkaik’s sound. Lucid Dawn continues that trend, though the band make more of an effort across this disc to differentiate the songs and they come armed with a new cast of musicians on guitar, both having joined in 2014.
Lucid Dawn is an album of two movements — one that starts out generally in the group’s comfort zone before quickly moving into an intense and high-scream-heavy back half of the album. Since Lucid Dawn is part of a string of concept discs for Arkaik, you would expect it to share musical elements with its predecessor. And it would probably be insane to think that they’re going to make a massive shift in sound — it’s not as if they were due to become an industrial polka band anytime soon. However, the opening few songs on Lucid Dawn do have the effect of being a tad too familiar; it doesn’t really feel like the album comes into its own until you hit “Awaken The I”. (If there is one thing to commend the band for this time around, the song titles aren’t quite so word-salad-soup and generally match the tone of the song being played behind it.)
I don’t want to sound too overly dour on the album’s first three tracks, as it is definitely more of a “pales in comparison to” situation than one might imagine. Each song after “Awaken The I” has its own little quirk to it, whereas the first three songs come more from the school of “Holy shit these guys can play circles around me” method of songwriting. ‘”From The Void” — the first song after Lucid Dawn’s opening sound collage, “Risen” — features a real heavy downward chug intertwined with a buzzing guitar riff that is armed with a tone straight out of death metal 101. It’s a quick-moving little thing as it works its way down, and so too is the beat of the song, which ties it in well with Arkaik’s sense of heft and groove. “From The Void” feels like the transitional song between Metamorphignition and Lucid Dawn, the one that takes its protagonist from one sequence of events to the next, and in that sense it treats the listener the same way.
Things change a bit when you reach “Digital Shroud”, which sees the first appearance of some high vocals on Lucid Dawn. “Digital Shroud” starts off with a percussive opening that you can count off in your head, with the vocal line matching it, before it drops into a buzzing riff similar to the one that made its appearance in the opening of “From The Void”. It’s a faster-moving song, but the opening two “real” tracks feel like two sides of the same coin, as the album steadies itself — as if it were awakening from a sort of cryosleep.
“Awaken The I” and onward are where Lucid Dawn really wakes up and punches things into high gear. “Awaken The I” sounds like a more mature take on “Digital Shroud” at first, before quickly leaning into a roller coaster of differing dynamics. What “Awaken The I” feels like is the start of a pretty solid batch of songs, from “Fleshwalkers” all the way through “Temple Aflame”.
“Fleshwalkers” features an appearance by Black Dahlia Murder vocalist Trevor Strnad, who has clearly decided that one album isn’t enough this year and that he needs to pop up on every other disc as well. He takes over for Arkaik’s main vocalist when it comes to the highs on that song and in part makes it feel like a slightly more complicated Black Dahlia Murder song when he is screaming. “Fleshwalkers” has a schizophrenic quality that makes it an interesting listen as we bounce between two writing styles, depending on which vocalist has the spotlight. Even with a six-minute track time, Arkaik make the song absolutely fly, and “Fleshwalkers” quickly becomes a highlight of Lucid Dawn for those reasons.
“Fusion Of Epochs” comes across like a continuation of “Fleshwalkers” in some aspects, as it uses a similar one-two rhythm after a quick epic opener. The song quickly differentiates itself, though, as “Fusion of Epochs” favors a start/stop approach to most of its rhythms, but it also includes some hefty bass work that sits at the forefront of the song. Actually, the bass guitar gets a lot of mileage on the album. Arkaik are one of the most rhythmic modern tech-death bands out there, and on Lucid Dawn they lean on the low end like there’s no tomorrow, from heavy and chunky rhythms to strings that have been contorted to make alien sounds.
If I have one real complaint in regard to Lucid Dawn, it probably has to do with the song “Temple Aflame”. If you have glanced at the track times, then you have probably noticed that it soars way the hell over the fifteen-minute mark with ease; without knowing more, it could give off the impression that Arkaik have penned themselves a tech-death epic. Sadly, that is not the case. I would love to hear Arkaik pen themselves a tech-death epic. They’ve demonstrated before that they can. But in the case of “Temple Aflame” it’s more of an artificial lengthening that kind of misses its intended mark.
The song itself is solid and actually falls in line with the quality that I am generally excited about as I focus on the back half of the disc. “Temple Aflame” counts as one of those songs, part of a high-speed death metal roller coaster that seems to be accelerating all the way to heat-death. Afterwards, though, comes a collage of sound and recorded clips of various philosophers, pundits, and talking heads covering topics from consuming culture to freeing your mind. The idea in itself is sound, but it feels like it was taken from the same three voices.
Not only that, but because of the way the ambient collage of sound behind it was written, I kept waiting for Bill Hicks to slowly fade in and talk about how he thinks drugs have done good things for us, and if I don’t agree I should take my albums and burn them. So that section in specific becomes a bit of a walk, and more often than not winds up being skipped in my listening, in favor of a full restart. Without it, I imagine Lucid Dawn would probably come off a little more punchy and quick than what actually happens, where all of a sudden it goes from full-on guitar and drum pyrotechnics to languidly paced odd noises.
Despite its take-it-or-leave-it ending, Lucid Dawn continues a pretty high mark of consistency for Arkaik and is definitely one of the most-Unique-Leader-to-its-core discs out there. The band continue to be the hallmark of all that label’s tenets. Lucid Dawn is Arkaik flexing their muscles to show that even the rhythm section can groove pretty hard, while still writing batshit-complicated pieces of music. While the overall motifs tying Lucid Dawn to its predecessor are tenous in terms of music, lyrically the album is ambitious, and I like that the group are attempting to construct an overarching narrative, even if the songs within it don’t cover specific events.
Lucid Dawn consists of big sweeps of movement, and even though the front few tracks can be a bit of a walk, the journey becomes worth it for everything post “Awaken The I”. From there on, Lucid Dawn comes into its own as death metal delivered at a frantic pace, with a keen rhythmic sense that verges on tribal, meaning that even in between all of the hyper-kinetic guitar playing and hefty riff work Arkaik remain composed enough to keep you headbanging. Just be ready to have your finger on the skip button to get you back to the start once the music stops on “Temple Aflame”.
Lucid Dawn is out now on the Unique Leader label. A few of the tracks can be heard below, and the whole album is streaming here.