Review Summary: Overrated Much?
Ah, maudlin of the Well (which for all intents and purposes I'll now refer to as MOTW or Maudlin), one of the champions of underground progressive metal and a band whose leader, Toby Driver, many believe to be a musical visionary on par with Maynard James Keenan, Roger Waters, or perhaps Steven Wilson, despite it being more than six years since the group overhauled their sound, and changed their title, a great deal of hype still surrounds their original name to this day. There is no doubt that in their time MOTW has indeed created some very ambitious and forward-thinking music, but it seems that many have become so lost in their mass acclaim as to not be able to see their not so subtle shortcomings (particularly on this site).
One thing no one can in good conscience say is that MOTW are contrived or boring, au contrairé! Toby and crew don't just cross genre boundaries, they stomp all over them. Where else might one hear a metal band employ church organs, jazzy breakdowns, blistering grind flurries, horns, and folky accoustic sections? No where, that's where! Maudlin really aren't like any other band; they aren't Opeth, they aren't Isis, they aren't Mr. Bungle either, in fact it's pointless even draw such comparisons; they are entirely their own musical island. Now one might ask is this island worth visiting? Is it's civilization sophisticated? Are the accommodations pleasant? And how about the natives, are they hostile?
Yes to all. MOTW take you on a vacation from the ordinary that is utterly different from anything else you've ever heard; it is a trip of beautiful sceneries, dangerous excursions, and puzzling foreign rituals that will keep your head spinning and leave you guessing till the very end (even after repeated listens). Unfortunately there is nearly as much good as there is bad on the tour and you really have no choice, but to follow along and make the best of what you paid for.
Alright, I'm just about done with the b.s.-laden metaphors, but just indulge me in one more (or perhaps a simile here : ). Maudlin, as I've mentioned, combine a great deal of different musical genres and ideas into their sound, however perhaps their downfall in a sense lies in the way they present them; the various styles don't really mesh. It's kind of like somebody took Faith No More, Death, and an undercooked Jeff Buckley, chucked them in a blender and just pushed pulse a couple times. The ingredients themselves are palatable, well maybe save the later which doesn't really get cooked until Kayo Dot, however, they just aren't mixed into the smooth sauce they could be. Instead you get a chunk of death metal here, a slice of jazz there, and a folky ballad sprinkled in between. Many bands throw these disparate ideas together, but generally stir them within the context of the same song, unfortunately, Maudlin shifts genre from track to track and it makes Bath sound like three or four bands teaming up for a totally non-sensical split album.
That said, the songs themselves aren't bad in fact some are quite good- the opener “Blue Ghost” is a fantastically dreamy instrumental piece melding acoustic guitar and rousing other-worldly leads for a sweeping effect. “They Aren't All Beautiful” pulverizes the listener with a technical death metal freak-out and “Heaven and Weak” is a pleasantly jazzy ballad that out of nowhere goes grindcore toward the end. These songs are fine in their own right, even despite the fairly out-of-left-field schism of the latter track, however, these are the first three songs on the record and considering their colossal differences and proximity toward one another they also make my main complaint pretty clear- the album has no focus. It's all over the place and switches from one extreme to the next via hairpin turns. This is an error that the band also learned to remedy in the Kayo Dot years, even despite having a wilder sound. One can still listen to them and know that they're listening to Kayo Dot and only Kayo Dot, also the songs are generally limited enough in scope to sonically have direction.
Mr. Driver's focus only becomes more convoluted as the album progresses to female vocal-led goth metal songs (“Girl with the Watering Can”) and gentle acoustic ballads and interludes (“Marid's Gift of Art,” “Geography). The female vocals used on the aforementioned track as well as “The Ferryman” are very well done and radiate with a lot of emotion however, again they sound totally random and further add to the lack of coherency on the record. Another negative of these vocals is that they totally eclipse Driver's own voice which is used far more frequently. Toby is a pretty small guy with a pretty mighty roar that is totally incongruous to his stature, however, his clean singing voice is unfortunately very much characteristic of a scrawny, pubescent white boy. I've certainly heard worse voices, but it can become pretty annoying at times (His cringe-worthy whine toward the end of “Birth Pains...”). Fortunately, this is another thing he has worked on since starting up Kayo Dot.
When Maudlin properly merges their genres within songs the results are overall impressive as they do in “The Ferryman” and “Birth Pains of Astral Projection.” Both tracks cover a wide array of moods and dynamics that are more representative of the band's true talents than perhaps the bulk of songs on the album as they show that they are actually capable of writing well thought-out pieces that actually go somewhere.
One aspect of the band's sound that is very much noteworthy is their unusual sense of melody particularly with their guitar leads. Most of the songs are drenched with psychedelic, ethereal melodies that are about as far from metal as can be and yet they work perfectly on top of the group's smoldering riffs. This attribute in itself is one of the few aspects of MOTW's sound that is actually indicative of them having some kind of concrete style of their own. Had the other hodge-podge of elements been integrated more thoroughly into their songs and not just here or there Bath would have undoubtedly been a far superior record.
So there you have it: maudlin of the Well's Bath. A unique album that pushes the limits of what can be considered metal? Certainly. A flawless masterpiece? I think not. Driver was clearly on to something great as his future works have shown, however there are simply too many inconsistencies in Bath to make it whole-heartedly recommendable. Fans of really bizarre music will perhaps enjoy this, but I find it hard to believe many people concerned with structure and consistency will see this as all it's cracked up to be.