Friday, May 21, 2010

Sculptured - Apollo Ends

Sculptured - Apollo Ends
1999, The End Records

Progressive metal can be a tricky genre to be in involved in - your band sometimes rises or falls depending on the ability you have to convince your listeners that you are on a genuine and/or original musical journey with your releases, and the constant pressure to remain innovative and incorporate new and interesting techniques, sounds, methods, textures, etc. can lead you either to music that collapses under its own weight of technical difficulty or to the more obscure reaches of sound experimentation: true industrial noise, power electronics, ambient solipsism, or Pink Floyd-like nullity (where your experimentation, having escaped all normal boundaries of compositional aesthetics, flounders in its own directionless self-pity - the black labyrinth of expression). To me, the measure of success within the progressive metal genre is a band's ability to incorporate new influences and directions without losing sight of their aesthetic vision: the capability to experiment, but also the skill and musical maturity to integrate these experiments under the power of the original vision, where experimentation is a genuine search for new methods of expression (and then used in this way to actually transmit emotions or messages that can not be passed through in any other way) and an earnest result of the band's desire to push their music forward into new realms of viability, resonance, and relevance.

Because I am not very familiar with Sculptured's musical history, having only come to notice them through this record, I can not say in what measure this album serves as an example of maturation or personal progression. I have been assured that these songs are an effort on Sculptured's part to further refine their own idiosyncratic pursuit of musical truth, and that they have reached a certain level of compositional mastery on this release which places them in a better position to claim a unique place in the metal scene, but I would have to listen to their earlier release to justify that. I can only attempt a critique based on the many times I have listened to this work.

What strikes you almost immediately is the guitar tone: the dry, hollow, arid, understated, and monotone nature of its sound, and the way in which that clear tone is used to mark this music as intensely cerebral, even as it struggles to reach out and communicate fervent emotion. It may just be the production, but I don't think so - in many ways it reminds me of the guitar sound on Metallica's 'And Justice For All', where the dried-up tones effectively communicated a new seriousness in that band's approach. Don Anderson is an innovative, original guitarist, striving to construct small segments of melodies or rhythms that are presented unmodified for your approval, and then spun into collapsed or expanded versions of themselves: themes that are transmitted and then transcended, twisted, crushed, torn apart, and then put back together in new variations.

In addition Anderson uses many elements from different stylistic genres to form a unique musical landscape: industrial guitar noise, a horn section, television broadcast sampling, clean and soulful vocals, and even whistling in one small segment. These disparate and at times jarring elements are often used to reinforce or illustrate the main themes of the album: the struggle for rebirth and/or renewal, the creative forces inherent in destructiveness or chaos, and the contrasts or empathies between inner emotional states and the forces of nature.

At certain points, you get the feeling that the music is here mainly to communicate certain ethical considerations or idealistic doctrines: that the structure of the songs, the ways that the melodies are twisted, warped and transfigured, is not so much an indication of any inner turmoil or a reflection of the musicians' emotional state but a conscious effort of will to present philosophical views on the world in a musical form. In this sense (and this will probably be the only negative aspect of this review) the music often sounds forced: too dry, too well-planned, too practiced. However, that is a common characteristic of progressive bands - too often their search for originality and variation becomes a set of compositional tests or a increasingly cerebral exercise at the expense of real feeling in the music. I think that this is something Sculptured will easily be able to escape in the future. Anderson is still very young, and his approach to music will doubtlessly ripen, mature, and take on more and more feeling as he becomes comfortable with his own innovations and uses them increasingly for personal expression rather than novelty or technical flourishes. The main emotional content of these songs, for me, comes through in the lyrics and their very personal nature - they form a pleasing contrast between the progressive sounds of the music and the confessional aspect of the messages encoded within the vocals.

Having said that, Sculptured are still a remarkably effective unit: witness the compositional mastery of the fourth song 'Between Goldberg' with its effortless transition between layered guitar melodies, subversive sampling, bright horn segments, and post-thrash muted stomping. This track is a very good example of the way that a traditional song structure can be used as a successful vehicle for progressive musical elements, and in my opinion it is the best song on the album. While there are other songs that are more outlandish, or include sound segments that purposely (and beautifully) violate the traditions inherent in metal composition, 'Between Goldberg' is just a good song: in it the progressive elements do not seem forced or out of place, and everything fits together into a cohesive whole reaching towards a single statement. In the same way 'Song To Fall On Deaf Ears' is a powerful and interesting combination of progressive factors (as well as all the elements of Sculptured's sound mentioned above) and a more traditional structure, mixing 'Birth of the Cool'-style horn washes with a slower chorus and a multi-textured exploration of the dark main melodies of the song, sounding at times like a cross between Paradise Lost, Miles Davis, and Agalloch.

Over all, this is an album that is very difficult to get into in the beginning - but it rewards multiple listenings and the decision on the part of the listener to meet the band in the middle of the listening space with preconceptions already packaged for easy disposal. Sculptured will take what you know about or expect from metal musicians, pick through it all, and then return to you something original, distinctive, and eye-opening. You may not able to immediately understand it or instantly receive pleasure from it, but it will expand, at least, your listening skills and the way that you approach music in the future. Isn't that the purpose of a progressive band?