Review Summary: The definining classic of one of the most underrated bands ever to come out of Australia.
There’s an ominous humming in the background. It’s faint; not quite discernable. But it’s growing closer. Soon you can make out individual notes. A rhythmic sequence of guitar notes accompanied by faint percussion fades into range. It’s getting louder. And closer.
And suddenly you’re buried in a wall of sound and your world descends into madness.
From the moment Alchemist’s Spiritech begins, it is apparent that there’s something different about this album. It’s not just Roy Torknington’s and Adam Agius’ unique, alien riffs, nor is it Agius’ somehow offbeat vocals. It’s not just Rodney Holder’s fluid, almost tribal drumming. It’s not just John Bray’s rhythmic bass assault, nor is it the spidery , atmospheric background electronics woven into the album. It’s not easily identifiable. But one thing is obvious- Alchemist make extremely unique music. Once described as the “Pink Floyd of Metal”, Australia’s criminally underrated Alchemist have been churning out album after album of mind-bending progressive metal in obscurity since the early nineties. Not many people have ever heard of them. But for the select few that have, whether through their “breakthrough” Organasm, their follow ups Tripsis and Austral Alien, or their underground sensation Spiritech, the truth is undeniable. Alchemist make amazing music, music that in actuality has to be heard to be believed.
The album’s frontrunner, the nine minute Chinese Whispers, opens with the aforementioned fade-in of guitar and percussion. The tension rises, the hairs stand up on the back of your neck as the eerie intro gently hums out of your speakers. But it only lasts a second before the guitars descend into oblivion, the drums and bass kick in, and the sonic assault begins. Like a kick in the face, the mid-paced drumming propels the song forward as the guitars switch between bottom-end tremolo riffing and eastern-influenced melodies. And then the chorus hits, descending into a crazed, burning segment of aural fury, carried by Agius’ otherworldly, spine chilling “Banshee Screams” (as he himself has dubbed them). Almost as soon as you start to recover from the initial shock of the sheer oddity of this music, Alchemist hit you with the blindsiders they have waiting in the wings. One after the other, synth breaks, speedy bass-led sections, a keyboard solo and an ambient break-to-climax that wouldn’t sound so out of place on a Post-Rock album all come into play, before, nine minutes in, the album delivers the knockout punch.
You realise you’ve only listened to one song.
Spiritech continues on, delivering unexpected twist after unexpected turn. Aside from the mainstays of their sound-the power grooves, tremolo riffs, unsettling chords and quickly-shifting astral melodies- the band manages to mutate their sound to almost avant-garde levels for their prog-metal direction. Here, in Beyond Genesis-a Floyd-influenced synth-break that manages to turn the song a complete 180 degress. There, in Staying Conscious-a beat that wouldn’t sound out of place in a dance club or rave. Inertia contains psychedelic influences enough to take you on an acid-less acid trip, while Spiritechnology even samples Richard Nixon discussing extraterrestrial life and the possible impacts it may have on human religion. Road to Ubar contains brilliant tribal-influenced drumming and middle-eastern influences. Dancing to Life, in essence, is electronic music adorned with hints of metal. Throughout the album, even Aboriginal Australian music manages to show up in the background, from clapping sticks to the fabled didgeridoo, not to mention the subtly interwoven atmospheric synths. Amazingly, Alchemist actually manage to make it all work-the most eclectic range of sounds and influences one is likely to find this side of Frank Zappa all manage to meld completely, creating highly unique, eerie soundscapes that have to be heard to be believed.
The lyrics and vocals are performed in almost just as wide a range as the music itself on Spiritech. Adam Agius has perhaps one of the most recognisable throats in metal today, and his vocals, far removed from their original death metal territory, now encompass everything from eerie chanting to whispering, oddly-textured shouting to his original yet still excellent death growls, to his ultra-high pitched banshee shrieks, to odd, almost alien-sounding melodic singing, sometimes all within a single song. The lyrics are no less wide ranged-topics of technology, mysticism, the human condition, extraterrestrial life, the natural world, and even evolution are hidden behind Agius’ sometimes indiscernible throat shredding. But this vast range of vocal stylings and topics only serves to accentuate and amplify the oddity of the music.
The production brings out the best of the music in Spiritech. Clear, but just murky enough to save some of the inner nuances for later listens, the production accentuates what makes Alchemist so great. The guitars are front-and-centre, but never completely take over the sound, instead happily playing alongside the rest of the band rather than over them. The bass isn’t quite as clear as other prog-metal bands would have it, but it’s still miles more audible than on your typical record, and fluid, pulsating basslines can be heard the album over. The drum production is excellent-allowing the drums to carry and support the music with their large presence while never pushing other parts of the whole to the back (ala In Flames’ Colony). The vocals are at times slightly (and purposely) buried under the wall of sound, but never enough that they become inaudible. Rather, this allows the instrumentation-the main focus of the band’s sound-to shine through. Nevertheless, the award for best sounding instrument on the album goes to the synth. Always audible, yet never annoying, always a central part of the music but never the central focus, Alchemist manage to incorporate keyboards completely and wholly without sounding ridiculous, something that few bands ever achieve.
Regardless of all the praise, Spiritech is still an amazingly hard listen, and many will be turned off by its progressive and at times almost alien sound and the mammoth songs. Some may find it will take over ten listens to appreciate the album; some may take upwards of fifteen. The vocal stylings aren’t likely to appease all but the most open-minded or tolerant metalheads. But there isn’t a weak moment on Spiritech. Sure, Road to Ubar might stumble a bit towards the middle, but it’s also the shortest and most conventional track on the album, and this just proves what is already common knowledge. Alchemist excel at making extremely weird music. On par with Floyd-influenced metal greats such as Voivod and Ulver and Hawkwind, Alchemist excel at mixing the most eclectic and varied of influences into their one, avant-metal flavoured pot. After two albums, Alchemist have finally done their name unequivocal justice with Spiritech.