Review Summary: More Isis than Isis.
As Above, So Below
In a year where heaping piles of hype and praise have been thrown on stoner rock and sludge metal bands, it's easy to forget the sensitive and melodic older sibling, post-metal. Hydra Head, Neurot, and Robotic Empire's tried and true union of post-rock and metal is now out of the critical limelight that is currently being occupied by bands like Torche
, Harvey Milk
, and Mastodon
, who trade in atmospheric production and slow-building crescendos for lower-abdomen screaming and pure, syrupy riffing. Even Akimbo
, a post-hardcore band that has always been a kindred spirit of Frodus, Fugazi, and These Arms Are Snakes, put out the album Jersey Shores
that has an undeniably heavy, sludge slant. And where are the post-metal champions of yesteryear? Isis
is currently recording a new album, but ever since their 2006 release, In the Absence of Truth
, have been tied up with a series of side projects, including Caleb Scofield's Zozobra
is still riding the wake of Given to the Rising
, and in a sad, ironic turn of fate, Pelican
was robbed in Rome while seeing the Coliseum. Among items stolen were "a number of personal journals and two portable recording devices containing hours of song ideas that are now lost forever." These unfortunate events leave a gaping hole for a new, opportunistic band to put out a stellar, original post-metal album for the ages.
The best candidate for this opportunity is Ganon, an under-the-radar band from Michigan signed to Acerbic Noise Development. Their 2006 debut LP, In the Dead of Sleep
, was a solid album but was dwarfed by the competition. Their sound on that album put them as a straight-shooting member of the post-metal community. At times they were more Isis than Isis in their ability to go from brooding ambiance to heavy pummeling. Also they didn't experiment with the stark weirdness of Neurosis or the major-key melodies of Pelican, so they were ultimately cast as imitators instead of innovators. As Alternative Press succinctly put it, Ganon sounds like "[t]he kind of stuff Neurot and Hydra Head pay their mortgages with." Their follow-up album, poised to change their legacy, couldn't have better timing. However, in many ways they haven't changed their general formula. They still sound like Isis devotees and aren't experimenting in any crazy or weird directions.
Despite their static development and little to no attempt to distance themselves from their influences and previous album, Ganon's As Above, So Below
is a better album than their previous one, and is even better than the most recent set of albums offered by the post-metal icons of days' past. The secret to their success? The songwriting is just killer. Unlike the linear quiet to violent ascent of Isis or the constantly shapeshifting passages of Pelican, Ganon find a nice spot between the two. They build up emotionally crushing climaxes, but don't do it in such an obvious, start slow / end big kind of way. However, they don't alter their passages from one section to another in jutting, drastic ways either, pacing the different song sections really well. The best track on the album, "Until First Light," draws its power from an awesome, simplistic core harmonic progression that begins auspiciously in the bass and slowly grows, catching different grooves every time and instrument slightly deviates to a new pattern or idea. Once the track has reached its local maximum from 3:54-4:45, it then uses rhythmic variations in each instrument, all led by the capable drumming, to navigate the song in yet new directions, all under the same initial chord progression, only deviating for a contrasting bridge, which leads us back to the final huge chorus. It's fairly simple and slow to develop, but at every critical inflection point, the song manages to push and pull all of the right strings.
The other tracks, the arguably more complex in song structures and chord progressions, all have the same understanding. They are going to bring mosh at just the right times and take their sweet time getting there. It's typical post-metal but it's deployed elegantly and without flaw. If there's beef to be had, it's with the aforementioned lack of obvious curiosity and experimentation. This problem is rather superficial because good songwriting always trumps artistic intent and progression, however occasionally this imagination deficit bleeds into other elements of the music. For example, the production is a little one-dimensional. There is a ton of beef and low-end to the album, as well as clean-tone bridges that provide a nice dynamic contrast. However, whenever these two sounds overlap, the high-frequency tends to get overtaken by the low end, resulting in a muddiness that mutes the effectiveness of the contrast. I also wish the vocals would branch out a little more. Screaming as a default vocal output is fine if it offers something different than the other instruments, that is, if it gives another texture, counter rhythm, etc. rather than just being a vehicle to convey lyrics. Here, the vocals rarely branch out from typical screaming and are, like many of the high-pitched instrumental parts, subsumed by the overall intensity of the album. Despite these unfortunate pitfalls of Ganon's derivative sound, they have put together an awesome album with As Above, So Below
. It's not going to revolutionize the genre, but it's a nice placeholder for both the scene's current absenteeism as well as Ganon's blossoming career.