Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Album Review: Barren Earth - A Complex Of Cages

Thankfully, the metal world is wide and deep, so people like me don't have to listen to what makes up so much of the genre; death metal. I'm the kind of listener who can only tolerate that style for short periods of time, and only when certain moods are in sway. Even then, I gravitate towards death metal that is on the tamer side, either that which already contains a lot of melody (Dan Swano's work, or bands like Be'lakor) or bands that mix death metal with more melodic fare (mid-era Opeth, Scar Symmetry). Barren Earth is one of those bands that sort of splits the difference between the two, which means they are deserving of another chance.

"A Complex Of Cages" is likely their most progressive album to date, with these nine tracks clocking in at roughly an hour, only one clocking in at less than five minutes (barely). This is as much an experience as it is an album, as that amount of time gives the band ample space to traverse the landscape, which they put to good use. The opener, "The Living Fortress" is nearly seven minutes of prog through and through, with organs ripped from a 70s Yes album interspersed with moments of death metal fury. The find a solid balance between the two, and between keeping the song structured as they explore their musical ideas. It leads to a moment of beauty at the end, where the guitars swell under the roaring vocals right as the melodic hook re-renters. It's fantastic.

Listening to "Ruby", it's hard not to get the feeling of the classic Opeth albums. With death metal leaning verses that have just enough guitar intricacy to elevate themselves, leading into a chorus that layers acoustic guitars under mournful clean vocals, the track is by no means a copycat, but carries on the spirit of fusing beauty and brutality in the same way. It's a sound that works remarkably well when it's done the right way, and Barren Earth has that locked down. Hearing death metal like this makes me even more forlorn that so much of it doesn't understand how important adding dynamics can be to amplifying the impact.

That becomes evident on "Zeal", where we get three minutes of buildup for a four minute doomy death metal song, the first one here that stays firmly planted on one side of the divide. That decision works against it, as it is easily the least interesting song, even in the way the riffs are put together. Where everything else has layers to dissect, "Zeal" is flat and much more immediately apparent. It almost doesn't feel like it belongs on this record, given how different the approach is.

But that's certainly the exception here. The majority of the album is a beautiful brand of death metal that is able to be dark and heavy without succumbing to the need to strip the musicality out of the songs. Barren Earth is giving us music with details lurking in the background, songs that can reveal nuances after the first listen, tracks that can work on multiple levels. That isn't an easy thing to do, and I haven't always thought Barren Earth hit the mark on their previous albums either. While there was always good stuff, they have upped the ante this time, for sure. "A Complex Of Cages" is their best album to date, and is precisely how death metal can be used in service of heavy songwriting.

I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if "A Complex Of Cages" ended up my favorite extreme metal album of the year.

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