Thursday, August 4, 2016

Album Review: Meshiaak - "Alliance of Thieves"

Meshiaak, based way down under in the barrens of Sydney, Australia, is the new straight up heavy metal four piece captained by Jon Dette, notable for, among many other projects, being drummer for about half of the classic thrash bands of the eighties, headlined by his time with Slayer.  (No insult to Dette, Slayer is officially at the age now where you can say that and then have to clarify by saying ‘no, not that drummer.  And no, not the other drummer.  The OTHER other drummer.’)

Dette and his musical compatriots have set out to toe the often tenuous line between accessible, downbeat-driven heavy metal and the subtle progressive overtones that shadow some of the genre’s best works.  The end result is “Alliance of Thieves,” as ambitious a debut as we’ve seen this calendar year, doubly benefitted by seamless production and a slick, clean sound that displays the necessary power of the record without perverting it into some sort of bizarre pop-metal anathema.

The album hits many of the right notes, beginning with the blistering chug of the record’s opener “Chronicles of the Dead,” which thunders along for just over six minutes without really stopping to pause.  Listen, we talk a lot around here about how bands can drone on too long without changing direction, but Meshiaak seems to have found the proper balance of making a musical point versus drilling it unnecessarily into the ground.  A good chunk of that comes from variations within the lead riffs, which don’t break new ground, but provide a great deal of energy and just enough variety to float the song’s general direction.

That likely comes off as a lot of double-talking drivel, so let’s streamline the argument.  Meshiaak’s album works because it borrows a great deal from the lessons of pure grain metal success like Soilwork’s “Figure Number Five” and Megadeth’s “Rust in Peace.”  This is metal that gives the impression of being simple and open while simultaneously working in rich, complex overlays.  Listen to “Drowning, Fading, Falling,” the album’s first single, and sure, you’ll hear big percussion and overdriven riffs, but there’s also some hidden harmony in there as well that helps add some depth to the proceedings, coupled with a well-articulated solo.

It’s a working formula that sounds devilishly simple, but eludes the great majority of bands who try to execute it.  So “Alliance of Thieves” gets full credit for being able to understand how the formula works.

Here’s the rub (and there’s a saving grace at the end, promise.)

However many months ago it was, the first-person action movie “Hardcore Henry” was released.  As a production junkie, and lifelong action movie fan, I was instantly intrigued.  While certainly gimmicky at best, there was real potential in the shooting technique, or at least, space to see where ground could someday be broken.  I consulted a coworker who’s opinion I trust on these matters in his assessment of the movie.  His straight-faced, unemotional answer was “it’s fine.”

That is a clear-cut, no frills, unadorned, textbook case of damning with faint praise.  As a result, did I ever go see “Hardcore Henry”?  No, I didn’t.  But I tell you that story to tell you this one: Meshiaak’s album is “fine.”  I have no qualms about saying it’s good.  There’s nothing wrong with it.  It’s a professional album by professional musicians in a form of the genre that too often goes overlooked for lack of both those things.  All of that makes “Alliance of Thieves” laudable in every respect.  Still, it’s hard to go out on a limb for this record, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, even to me.  There’s an unidentifiable something that holds this album back from being a unilateral success, a nagging feeling like most of the songs are reminiscent of songs you’ve heard before, which tempers the album’s novelty.

Okay, the promised saving grace.  Each time I spin “Alliance of Thieves,” I like it a little more than I did the previous time.  As you listen to it with a critical ear, it unfolds and shows you a thing you missed here or there.  If there's a pitfall to reviewing music, it's that editorial decisions are made early in the listening process, when sometimes albums would be better served to be reviewed months after their release.  So there’s that to think about.

Also, let’s keep in mind that this is a debut record that is so tight at the corners and well assembled that it’s easy to forget the band’s youth and judge the album by the standard metric for a band’s third or fourth record.  The sky is clearly the limit for Meshiaak, and to that end, “Alliance of Thieves” is a very solid start.

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