Jul 112023

(In June Nuclear Blast released Scar Symmetry‘s first studio album in nine years. DGR was in no great hurry to review it. And you’d better be in no great hurry to read the review, because he has a lot of thoughts about it.)

Ever since its early June release, I’ve thought a lot about Scar Symmetry‘s newest album The Singulary (Phase II – Xenotaph) and what it means for the band, the limits of artist freedom, the effect of a long wait between albums, Scar Symmetry‘s place within the overall heavy metal world, and just how much the naming of an album really matters in relation to the music within.

Long story short, for an album that is recognizably one of the most Scar Symmetry albums that could’ve feasibly been conceived, it sure has set the old brain muscles aflame, and for better or for worse not all of that relates to the quality of music contained within Xenotaph‘s near hour of run time. Because what does it mean for a band like Scar Symmetry to essentially vanish, go dormant for nine-plus years and then reappear with an album that sounds like it too was placed within stasis itself and basically continues right where the band left off from their previous adventures – though it takes a few songs to get there?

Scar Symmetry are an interesting case because, let’s face it, for a better part of the early-2000s the band were something of a cultural force within heavy metal. Given the almost decade-long gap between albums, there are probably adults for whom this is an album from a band that gateway’d them into heavier forms of metal, and just as many for whom Scar Symmetry are probably the heaviest they’ve ever gotten.

Though they were propelled largely by a combination of expertly-written music and incredible vocalists over the years, it’s still amazing that there weren’t more bands who nailed it quite like Scar Symmetry did when it came to hybridizing melodeath and pop music. Choruses that were often science-fiction-inspired – and real-science inspired, given the sheer amount of theoretical physics references in those first few albums – were often so syrupy sweet you couldn’t help but sing along even though just seconds ago the band were deeply ensconced in some of the deepest death metal growling you could find.

The good cop/bad cop dynamic on the vocal front, combined with some insanely pyrotechnic guitar playing meant that Scar Symmetry carved out quite the cultural niche for themselves and were even starting to achieve the status wherein an album release felt like an actual ‘event’ within the heavy metal world.

Which is why them effectively going silent like they did and returning like they have now is all the more interesting, because nobody really took a shot at trying to fill that Scar Symmetry-shaped void in the musical sphere. No one thought to take a shot at that scientifically sterile atmosphere of some songs or that crystalline-clear guitar sound that the solo work might have ,and though the tech-death world more than happily leapt into the fray with many an album featuring planets and alien creatures on the front, the musical hooks of a Scar Symmetry weren’t going to be present, because although the subject matter was similar, the musical playground was a few school districts separated.

It isn’t like the musicians in Scar Symmetry went silent either, with many either launching multiple projects of their own or joining others. Henrik Ohlsson kept busy with his Apocryphon project during the pandemic; people finally wised up to Roberth Karlsson having an amazing growl and he wound up in a handful of projects including the recently penned about Ironmaster; Lars Palmqvist kept equally busy on the vocals front, including teaming up with longtime NCS character Jonny Pettersson in The Hangman’s Sorrow; Ben Ellis, though a late join, did a bunch of guest guitar work; and Per Nilsson spent years picking up live duties for Messhugah. It was just that Scar Symmetry for some reason wound up being placed in stasis – which makes The Singularity (Phase II – Xenotaph) such an interesting premise. Honestly, with a nine-year gap, what does it even mean to be part a series of albums meant to be part of an overall “The Singularity” series?

It’s difficult to pin down because that would suggest that at one point there was an overarching theme to the idea of “The Singularity”. But as the time in between has panned out, The Singularity (Phase II – Xenotaph) is having to do a whole lot more footwork than just continuing an artistic story. It is effectively having to reintroduce a new crowd of people to a band, guide them to where the band last left off, and more importantly justify its own existence as a sequel to a relatively tightly packed album that has existed long enough that the band could’ve toured on a tenth anniversary release of it before unleashing round two.

At the very least the band never pushed the boundaries of Tool‘s ‘children conceived around the time of the previous album’s release now entering middle school and going to their first concert with dad’ levels of distance between albums. Because as time goes on, the case for an album such as Xenotaph sounding so much like a ‘Scar Symmetry album that fans will instantly lap it up because it strikes them right in the segment of the brain that they used to so many years ago’ becomes harder to make to people who might be outside that sphere of influence. With the first three songs on Xenotaph, it seemed like the case for this album being a “Singularity” disc might’ve been equally difficult to make to someone such as yours truly, because it really doesn’t feel like the band find their “Singularity” footing until they delve into the spectacle that is “Altergeist” – four songs in.

It’s likely a reinforced-bias happening here, but has anyone else noticed a recent grouping of albums where it seems like the first few songs on the release are three completely different songs from one another? As if they’re singles added right up front to the release before the actual musical ‘meat’ of what an album might otherwise be arrives a few songs later?

It sure does seem like we’ve recently had more than our fair share of reviews where we’ve made some sort of offhanded comment about how the first few songs don’t feel truly representative of an album. Phase II – Xenotaph is no different. “Chrononautilus”, “Scorched Quadrant”, and to a lesser extent “Overworld” don’t really feel like they’re part of the overall ‘Singularity’ musical sphere – which honestly, I’m still debating whether or not that just translates to a ton of sci-fi soundtrack keyboards like what starts popping up in “Altergeist – and instead are like three completely distinct songs that neatly tie off once their four-to-five minutes are up.

Those are solid Scar Symmetry songs, and much like the album, seem to have emerged from cryogenic storage. They could’ve easily slotted into the heavier moments of an album like Dark Matter Dimensions or the lizard-people bullshit of The Unseen Empire. But picking up the baton from a song like “Technocalyptic Cybergeddon” that closed out Phase I: Neohumanity back in 2014? That throughline doesn’t seem to fully emerge until the band settle into songs four and five. The chorus of “Altergiest” does a lot of the legwork on that front but “Reichsfall” and its guitar fade-in for an intro are where the path into something resembling a “Singularity” suite starts to re-emerge.

The pairing of “Reichsfall” and “Digiphrenia Dawn” will likely grab the lion’s share of attention with this album and only partially because they’re some of the easier song titles to write out from Phase II – Xenotaph. Both have the sort of glorious guitar work Scar Symmetry became known for, and at times the synthesis of guitar and keyboard lead is truly transcendent. The opening segments of “Reichsfall” especially are going to lock in with some people for months to come, and the chorus of “Digiphrenia Dawn” is the one of the handful of moments at the mid-point of the disc where it seems like the band are truly settling into their ‘Singularity’ suite of music.

This time around that translates to some of the catchiest stuff Scar Symmetry have ever written and some of the heaviest stuff they have trotted out in some time – case in point, the near-annihilation of “Gridworm” and how “A Voyage With Tailed Meteors” basically grabs both of those flags within the same song. The back half of “A Voyage With Tailed Meteors” grows increasingly angular and bludgeoning before it calls it quits. Though at this point, because the band effectively bookend their album again, even songs like the two just mentioned feel like they fit fully within the entity that is Xenotaph. Maybe it’s just a case of odd album sequencing that seems to hover over this release. It isn’t a lack of music — Scar Symmetry made sure that at the very least there’d be plenty to digest and that that it would feel like the eleven songs here had been burdened with the weight of ideas in the time since its predecessor.

That also frees up a song like “Soulscanner” to be more microscopic in scope. Instead of being this wide-reaching, vast idea of a sci-fi episode of a song, it’s just a surgical attack with plenty of pyrotechnics thrown in to brush by the fact that it is one of the shortest songs on the disc and is basically preceding the ‘damn near required’ closer for a release like this. Its formula is recognizable as hell, especially coming that late within the Phase II – Xenotaph affair, but there’s always room for something a little punchier and more straightforward later on in an album when it seems like you’re starting to ascend to a release’s finale – which the titular “Xenotaph” song fully is, though unlike its competitor closing song from the disc prior, it doesn’t promise any hint of where “The Singularity” might musically head in the future.

Instead, it just has this constant feeling – only partially due to a near-eight minute song length – that it was written to be a gigantic song. It has all of the opening cinematic keyboards that one could ask for, with big, sweeping movements to start the song off, only to launch into what could best be described as ‘angular madness’ for its first few minutes.

Alkaloid may have called the naming rights on outright calling a track “Clusterfuck”, and writing a song meant to fit it, but that’s the best way to describe the absolute wall of sound the Scar Symmetry team throw at you in those opening moments of “Xenotaph”. That’s the song where everyone came in revved up to two-hundred million miles an hour and decided to record it. The whole entity of “Xenotaph” is essentially Scar Symmetry throwing ‘a lot’ at its listeners, though it rarely feels like a monster stapled together of parts. Things flow naturally and are often wrapped within a choir of Lars exhorting to the “Xenotaph” all that has been done within its name. It’s a massive song closing out what was a large album to begin with.

It’s a weird dance, of course, because the whole of this write-up is constantly circling one fact. One that we’ve stated within the boundaries of the opening couple of paragraphs here. It’s a gong we’re banging on so constantly that we might as well be the chorus of a classic rock song that Ministry is going to do a passable cover of years later. The Singularity (Phase II – Xenotaph) is a classic Scar Symmetry album. It’s not shocking that they played it pretty conservatively in coming back. A years-long gap will do that to a group, and when you’re introducing yourself to a new generation maybe the window for experimentation might be shut a little tighter than one might expect.

Those of us who have history with the band will know what we’re in for upon hearing that phrase, and likely will find plenty to enjoy here, because Xenotaph is a lot of Scar Symmetry playing to their strong points and never straying far from them. Even though it takes a few songs for them to fully ensconce back into the “Singularity” mindset, the music present here has a lot to offer for those who enjoyed that good cop/bad cop dynamic and a whole lotta fireworks in between that the band built their formula around.

And maybe, maybe Xenotaph being as firmly in the Scar Symmetry DNA as it is means that the wait for a followup in the Singularity series – or hell, a completely different journey since the group have so much musical experience in the near-decade between releases – will hopefully be much shorter than this wait was.


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