Review Summary: The difference of progression and stagnation.
Misery Signals, a band with the legacy of two tragedies. The first of the two tragedies was the dissolution of 7 Angels 7 Plagues. The second was the disbanding of Compromise due to a fatal car crash. As painful as these incidents were, the members came together in a bid to continue both bands’ work. The result was Misery Signals; a progressive metalcore band that mixed their dissonant sound with ambience. Of Malice and the Magnum Heart
was a statement of their of intent and as turgid as the album’s creation, the music is a contradiction.
It may seem ironic that this album is as divided as its creation but it is a fact that this album’s sound is a mixture of both Compromise and 7 Angels 7 Plagues. The jagged metalcore rhythms with an underlying current of melody are courtesy of 7 Angels 7 Plagues while the ambience and chugging riffs are brought in by Compromise. The fusion of these two styles can be, at best, a thorough cleansing of the musical palette but leaving echoes of the anger and the pain at the forefront of the mind. At worst though the music can become derivative and boring. “Murder” is a prime example of this contradiction. For the first minute and ten seconds of the song the listener is propelled upon waves of repetitive, progressive chords before being swamped down in a drop-tuned chug that changes from a slow tempo to a crawling pace until the last minute. This is at its most monotonous, from which not even Jesse Zaraska or Branden Morgan can save the song. While this maybe the worst occurrence, there are points where the music relies too much upon Zaraska’s mid-pitched screams or Branden’s drum patterns to drive the song along. The first half of “The Year Summer Ended In June” is nearly pushed along by the raging torrent of Jesse’s screams and Branden injecting bursts of vigour through the use of his drum peddle. The riffs that carry along the first half are one-tone and forgettable. The song only picks up in the second half when Ryan Morgan’s and Stuart Ross’ guitar work becomes far more progressive-orientated, building to a calm yet blissful climax.
There are times when the more progressive riffs can become forgettable. “In Response To Stars” is pure filler material with uninteresting ideas being quashed by excessive amounts of chugging. For the most part the guitar work is consistently good on the more melodic side of the spectrum. Layered atop Branden’s drum work, the resulting chords are interesting and varied, changing tempo and mood with ease. The variation helps distinguish “In Summary of What I Am” from “The Stinging Rain” which use the same hard-soft-hard structure but deal with different emotions. The former’s mid-tempo approach is more forlorn with a hint of hope while the latter is much more aggressive in speed but also brighter in emotion. The contrast does nothing to stutter the flow of the album, only the excessive amount of chugging does. This aside though, the song order is well-thought out if formulaic. As is the case with many albums it is a conveyance of feelings about the tragedies in their own lives, using lyrical stories to explain them.
These lyrics cover a plethora of subjects, from the death of a lover to the betrayal of a close relation, but they are all anchored by the existential view point of an individual as they deal with the fallout. The observations made by the narrator can be clichéd, such as the appeals to their own “heart” and “tears” in “Murder,” yet it does not always detract from how profound the words can be. Lines from “The Year Summer Ended In June” such as “I hope you know I tried to find those pictures Jordo...” combine naturalistic imagery with an informal writing style to create metaphors that plumb deep into the experiences of the band members. As powerful as these lines are Jesse’s lyrics can be self-indulgent at points. “Difference of Vengeance and Wrongs” takes this indulgence to the extreme. The narrator becomes an omniscient figure, proclaiming that this song that will heal all of humanity’s mistakes. At first this can be seen as egotistical but this arrogance is tempered by the ambiguity of certain symbols such as “the fall.” The personal nature of the album suggests that these images are more symbolic for the struggles of the band rather than the song alone. Self-absorbed it may be but it is also sincere. Zaraska’s screams and spoken word vocals are the apt representation of this sincerity, burning away most pretention with rage. His vocal performance can be inconsistent, with a wrongly placed spoken word passage or the musical quality reigning in the impact of his voice, but mostly he is unremitting in his delivery. It is just one part, though, of the harsh music that dominate this album. The intertwining of ambience into the sound acts as a partial counter-balance to this dark side though because it is able to convey the emotions that the band could not with their normal, metalcore sound. This use of the hard-soft dynamic is nothing new to the genre but here it is a more original take on it and a more effective one at that.
The ambient sections are composed of simple chords that ebb and flow throughout. The choice of instrumentation in these is more varied than the standard guitars, drums etc., employing choir-esque clean vocals, synthesisers and an audible bass. Indeed the ambient instrumentals are one of the few times the bass can be heard, it being buried under the other instruments, but it is not an impressive technical display of Kyle Johnson’s prowess. The bass lines follow the melodies and never deviate with one or two note beats. It is disappointing but not strictly necessary for the ambient pieces as their uncomplicated composition is what makes them so effective. In contrast to the complexity of the main songs, the ambience serves up the emotion in a plainer form. “Worlds and Dreams” slow layered build towards its climax portrays the sadness and hope that comprises “The Stinging Rain’s” emotional palette but unobstructed by the controlled rage of the normal songs. It is stripped back but it is still an inflection of Misery Signals’ progressive tendencies with the light noodling on the high-pitched riffs. Equally when melded into the dissonance of the normal songwriting, their consonant melodies help touch on a more tender side to the pain in contrast to the brutishness of the music. Despite this contrast the harmony between the two sides is flawless and arguably these sections, though few and far between, pack more of a punch than the metalcore sound alone. This is only enhanced by Devin Townsend’s contribution to the album.
Devin Townsend’s “wall of sound” production work adds a crucial third dimension to the music. It creates panoramic soundscapes that the band can mould to their choice. Sometimes it does nothing for the band’s music as a song’s failings reduces the production’s effectiveness. However on the album’s best moments, in particular the last two songs; “Five Years” and “Difference of Vengeance and Wrongs,” the emotional depths of this album become visual. “Five Years” and “Difference of Vengeance and Wrongs” embracing of the music’s more melodic, progressive elements paints vast skies and oceans with every deep shade of Misery Signals’ world. On the wings of melodic chords, the listener makes a staggered ascent into a world of iridescent storm clouds, lit by the blue light from a recalcitrant sun. Juxtaposed against this is the calm of “Difference of Vengeance and Wrongs,” its sound stripped bare of any excess and fully embracing the progressive rock influences that haunt the album. Byron J. Ellis’ singing sooths the listener after the lashing but gives no comfort with the down tuned guitars and Zaraska’s harsh barks leaving the listener dripping with every regret they’ve experienced.
It is the peak of Misery Signals’ sound; simple but clever musicianship creating soundscapes with emotional heights and depths that are fathomless but easy to connect with. It is the album’s greatest moment but it only lasts for two songs. It is a potent display of potential but it is only a show, it is not enacted upon throughout the rest of the album. Yes, the vocals and lyrics are powerful, the drumming is precise and the production is great but the song writing is not consistent enough. It can be occasionally banal and rely a little too much upon a drop-tuned chug while not showing enough of certain aspects that make this album so great; the more adventurous experiments with the progression and the ambient passages. Make no mistake, Misery Signals have not shackled themselves to regression but because it recycles certain elements and makes certain mistakes, it prevents them from showing what they're fully capable of. It is a great album, full of fervent emotion but also of potential that could have been fulfilled but never was.