(Andy Synn has once again chosen to bite the bullet and attempt to analyse the new Alkaloid album)
Finding the right way to write about a band like Alkaloid isn’t easy.
After all, not only are the band’s collective technical talents are practically unparalleled, but their uniquely unorthodox songwriting style – which has become more and more dominated by the influence and input of legendary uber-drummer Hannes Grossmann over the years – has allowed them to venture into places that most “heavy” bands likely wouldn’t even dare, which makes all the usual methods and measures hard to apply.
At the same time, they’ve garnered a rather rabid fanbase over the last few years who tend not to take too kindly to any criticism – no matter how constructive or well-intentioned – of their Bavarian heroes.
But if the band themselves are able to thread the needle between the eccentric and the extreme as well as they are, then surely I can find a way to talk about what they’ve woven on their upcoming new album, Numen?
Having had the pleasure of being able to listen to Numen numerous times, from front to back, over the last couple of months, it’s become pretty clear to me that this is the group’s most “accessible” and least “extreme” work yet – although, when you’re a band like Alkaloid both those terms are most definitely relative – which sees them honing and refining their proggier and more melodic side while still maintaining their established intelligence and unpredictability.
It also finds the band wearing their influences even more loudly and proudly than ever – whether that’s the post-Pink Floyd Prog-Pop vibes underpinning early highlight “Clusterfuck”, the moody Metallica-esque grandeur of “A Fool’s Desire”, or the Morbid Angel inspired grooves of “The Fungi from Yuggoth” – with the newly slimmed-down quartet clearly confident that, at this stage of things, whatever they do and whatever direction they choose to go in it will always sound like Alkaloid in the end.
At the same time, however, it pains me to say that Numen is also the group’s most uneven album so far, as it doesn’t really begin to live up to its full potential until the advent of the aforementioned “Clusterfuck” – which is not to say that either “Qliphosis” or “The Cambrian Explosion” are actually bad songs, more that (despite some cool moments in both) they still feel like left-overs from previous records (which, again, isn’t necessarily a bad thing…) rather than the sort of step forward we’ve come to expect – and then takes another stumble later on with the initially impressive, but ultimately self-indulgent, instrumental strains of “The Black Siren”.
But while it may not be as consistently stunning or surprising as its predecessor – and, let’s face it, even when playing it “safe” these guys are capable of running rings around most bands – the highs on Numen are seriously high indeed, with the one-two punch of “Clusterfuck” (which, to be honest, really should have been the album opener) and the shape-shifting “Shades of Shub-Niggurath” capable of going toe-to-toe with anything from the group’s first two albums, while the sinister space-ska of “Numen” (which builds on the tradition of scintillating strangeness established by songs such as “The God Over” and “Interstellar Boredom”) and the inverted angles of “The Folding” reinforce the idea that Alkaloid are often at their best when they’re at their weirdest.
It all culminates of course in the climactic “Alpha Aur” – a spiritual, if not sonic or lyrical, successor to “Rise of the Cephalopods” – which simultaneously stretches the band’s songwriting ambitions (though not, it must be noted, as far as its elder, and longer, sibling) while also cutting, tightening, and condensing the very best elements of their increasingly proggy sound into an even more self-contained and cohesive whole.
All this, then, ultimately seems to beg the question – and shame on you if you skipped the above paragraphs looking for the answer, as you’ll have missed some vital context in the process – of whether Numen is a better album than either The Malkuth Grimoire or Liquid Anatomy.
Of course, while it’s understandable to want to have things summed up in a nice, neat little answer like that (if you must know it’s probably on a par with their debut – less heavy, yes, but with more melodic and emotional range – while Liquid Anatomy remains their crowning achievement… for now) what you should really be asking is not whether it’s “better” or “worse” (which is an overly simple and reductive approach) but what, and how much, it adds to the band’s ever-evolving creative palette.
And the answer to that question is far more complex, as for all its flaws – and, let’s be honest, no band is ever perfect, not even Alkaloid – Numen certainly expands the scope of the group’s sound, even if not always in the ways their listeners might have predicted, as they continue to evolve and mutate in response to the ever-changing pressures and circumstances around them.