Review Summary: Don't believe the sticker.
Guess what? Nu metal’s attempted 2010 revival didn’t work. Taproot’s as far from being a household name as they were prior to their Victory Records debut, none of the painstakingly crafted wannabe singles blew up on the radio, and the album’s chart performance was the band’s worst to date. As KoRn is busy ticking off their fans by screwing around with dubstep, there’s no trend to latch on to, and Taproot discreetly put away their baritone guitars and went back to their prior musical direction, leaving a mildly ridiculous skid mark of an album on their track record. Fast forward to 2012, and The Episodes is hitting the shelves, complete with a pretentious information sticker – “Over six years in the making, The Episodes is a poignant and complex album which will cement Taproot atop the modern hard rock empire”.
The Episodes is actually a shelved “album within an album” that took up two weeks of the sessions leading up to Our Long Road Home. During those two weeks, the concept materialized, got split up into ten pieces corresponding to songs, and the entire musical/lyrical side of the tale got whipped up. A bunch of brief, mildly promising demo snippets have been hanging on Taproot’s YouTube channel for years now, and the reception was pretty positive overall. Thus, the band can’t be blamed for wanting to get this out into the open – after all, that’s a full record’s worth of material that let them easily regroup after the dud that was Plead The Fifth.
There’s just one problem with the material at hand – if it was of truly immense quality, like the sticker implies, it would be pretty safe to assume that the initial version of the record wouldn’t have gotten shelved in favor of Our Long Road Home in the first place. The demo clips weren’t lying, as The Episodes are chock-full of vintage mid-00s Taproot musical backdrop, the quirky harmony, bizarre chord shapes and shimmering clean passages firmly in place… the problem is that none of it is really memorable. “Memorial Park”, the fleshed out version of the most tantalizing YouTube snippet, features a truly delightful, floating interlude, opaque instrument interaction and good dynamic work, but in spite of numerous listens, recalling any particular melodies is pretty challenging.
I’ve perused the record quite a few times by now, and “Memorial Park” is a trend setter instead of an exception. “Good Morning” stomps beautiful and ugly into paste with its hyper-charged blast, “Lost Boy” attempts to do the same in a more tame setting, “A Kiss From The Sky” has a very faint trace of that atrocious c minor, thirds-based form of pop metal that was cool around 2007, and “We Don’t Belong Here” is Taproot’s first closing track that actually sounds like an album closer. That doesn’t change the fact that they’re all dangerously close to forgettable, an experiment gone wrong, a band stumbling around after leaving the majors. It got justly shelved, the writing method and self-imposed time restraint didn’t serve it well. Something has to be said for Taproot’s artistic integrity though – they could have taken “Memorial Park” and some other nuggets and sprinkled them into Our Long Road Home, but they opted to keep the record together as one focused unit.
But instead of letting the experiment gather dust in the archives, or get some attention via a demo leak (akin to the similarly pedestrian “Get Me” and “Strive” from the Gift sessions), Taproot opted to give it a facelift and release it as an album proper. The foundation stayed the same though… and if Chinese Democracy taught the world anything, no matter how much icing you layer on a bad song, the end product will not be amazing. The guys went overboard with arrangements, and there’s tons of layers that end up cluttering the production to the point of uneasiness, but all that fails to mask the passive nature of the base they started decorating. Also, someone added a synthesized narrative, and the gimmick gets old. Fast. It was cool when it came in the middle of “No Surrender”, putting the song’s underwhelming wannabe-anthem chorus on hold for a while to construct a mildly intriguing bridge (and then leave a foul aftertaste when the song roughly cuts back to the chorus out of thin air), but the entire album’s littered with it. The first four songs each have a bit of that robotic voice out of nowhere, and by the time “The Everlasting” (the first cut without it) rolls out its feeble emulation of Blue Sky Research’s finest moments, the listener is classically conditioned to hate the narrative with a passion.
Thus, this isn’t a poignant and complex album that will cement Taproot atop the modern rock empire. This is a shelved conceptual experiment from years ago turned into an overproduced mess. The music is proper, Taproot’s professionalism and distinct style branding each second of the record, but there’s absolutely nothing here that will manage to grab your attention like their more focused material can. Treat it as a historical nuisance, the missing link between Blue Sky Research and Our Long Road Home. Also, if it’s Open The Vaults Day over at Taproot land, I’d love to hear the ditched after-Gift sessions. Just imagine the sticker on that one – “Over a decade in the making…”