Review Summary: Although it doesn't make any forward-moving leaps from their earlier material, God Is An Automaton remains as a robust album that stands tall over the many lesser releases of this year.
I have always been fond of Sybreed for such artistic feats like Antares and The Pulse of Awakening. They have a knack for leaning just at the edge of being progressive, yet still have their foot on the ground just enough that their tracks remain tight and focused. In essence, their music is uniquely structured and interesting, but are still appealing enough on a non-cognitive basis that one doesn't feel alienated or has to consciously 'get into' a certain aesthetic to be able to appreciate them. Drop does some amazing work in writing proper arrangements, and Ben still persists as the shining light guiding their path. His vocal work has its own unprecedented style and flavor while still managing to change things up from album to album. There can be no Sybreed without these two.
That being said, this brings me to one peculiar double-edged sword present in this album. In earlier work, Ben's vocals have been linear and working only under a theme as set by the texture of the album. The harsh and foreign style of Slave Design; the cold and melancholic style of Antares; the flattened and exhausted feel of Pulse - all represented within his vocal efforts. Here there is no such determination to be made: each track has its own take on what the vocals should represent. In this, you get an appealing scope of variety, yet at the same time his work is constrained to become more generic and typical. It is often the case that this growls are just too similar to what has become the norm in metal.
Posthuman Manifeso starts off its introduction with nothing particularly interesting until the synths start rolling in. I think it is at this point that the listener could truly want to lean in and form some opinion on what is being thrown in at them. The bar set from the introductory phase is excellently maintained throughout the entire song. Ben delivers a great performance in the coming verse and the chorus features what is probably the thinnest and most American-style clean vocals we have to hear from him to date. And it is in this track that Kevin is starting to really evolve as a drummer. I was disappointed going into Pulse with the divine work of Dirk Verbeuren that his presence in Antares made stuck in my mind. Kevin's performance just was not very interesting in comparison. In writing the drum track, the band seemed to be relying too much on a certain 'thick' repetition; having him just play for the song. I guess that in order try and save some style, Kevin's playing featured this heavier hitting groove that only some phenomenologically void head banging swine could ever be into. However, this mistake was blissfully redacted for at least the second half of this track. In the end, the drumming still remains uninteresting throughout most of the album. There are some excellent rhythmatic feats that Kevin is able to pull off in individualized instances - such as the in chorus for Red Nova Ignition - and for that I give him infinite credit. To a reader without a feel for the climate being discussed here, I should note that the drumming here isn't particularly bad if you compare it to most metal - or music in general. What the problem here is that this band is so interesting in every other sense that the sub par drumming really bottlenecks their aesthetic output.
It should by this point be obvious what model the mix/master style this album is going to consistently feature: sonically flat guitar riffs, bass overshadowing the synths and other content, a meeker volumetric presence of electronics, and vocals that have been completely crushed and mutilated under the weight of careless mastering. Slave Design and Antares, being engineered only by Drop, just happened to service just fine their functional purposes. Slave Design was pretty harsh on the ears, but other than that the content was clear, revealed, and individual volume levels were reasonable; subtlety equalized yet distinguished. Antares was more of recreation for the ears than anything, with a comparatively lessened presence of bass and had presented itself in some very fluid & thin retrospect. None of the flavor spins here are necessarily worse or better than the other, but at this level of things there is just no excuse. If you are going to produce an album, then for the love of all that is good can you please just make sure I can comfortably pick out everything that is going on?
The second and third tracks are undoubtedly the worst songs on the album. They may actually be amongst the bottom-tier in all they have recorded ever. The Line Of Least Resistance is generic to its core. The chorus is the one single instance with Sybreed that I have felt they have tried a little too hard to be catchy. The structure of it all is just horrible: (chorus), verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, repeat chorus till end. Seriously guys? There is nothing here to save this track; the song space is being entirely underutilized. A complete waste of 4 & 1/2 minutes that could have been put to use listening to something with actual content. The synths 'sound good' but are sorely lacking in variety - I can't help but feel that something is off with their time signatures in the chorus. The drums are boring and the verse/chorus sections feel literal copy/paste repeats rather than part of the natural structure in the song. No Wisdom Brings Solace features a chorus that is terrifyingly appealing, and to its credit the vocal feats in the third verse and the Isolate bell in the bridge are discernible highlights. However, there is just not that much to this song either. It's pretty standard, it's not something that this band should ever be recording. The earlier verses feature highly programmed set of vocals that are too similar to what is featured in the first track, so I was pretty bored of that by this point. There is this subtly satisfying synth running along most of them, but it just repeats a 3 second interval and is ultimately not that interesting by technical terms. Drop does manage to save this song some face by working his magic (keeping the rifts interesting and relevant). Otherwise, it's just barely passable for being a Sybreed song.
Back in the haze of early '11, Sybreed released a single EP entitled "Challenger". It was undoubtedly one of the best songs they had ever written. The track was mixed very clearly, everything could be heard just as you needed. The synth work was interesting and meaningful for such is the usual, and the drumming presented itself as being certainly evolved from the work featured in Pulse. However, the re-recorded version present mid-tier into this album has been horrifyingly mutilated. So much has been pushed aside in favor of pointless over-mastering, and the quieter mix of the synths and some of the vocals just doesn't work out well. It's simply way too bass-y in comparison to EP, requiring me to lower 80hz on my EQ to get a half-decent experience. This is very disappointing because some new listeners will be apt to conclude that it is one of the worst tracks on the album, a true judgment relative to its current state, but they are be unlikely to ever know the glory of the EP. And the prospect of it all is just sad: to turn one of your best songs into one of your worst? Such a shame.
Regardless, these mid sections are where things pick up despite the false foreshadowing given by TLOLR. Tracks like Hightech Versus Lowlife and Downfall Inc. are definite highlights. There are some discernible dubstep influences in Hightech, or otherwise just the synth drop effect being featured in the verses. The chorus is one of the most beautiful things they have ever recorded. This track is structurally significant and interesting, though not to the effect of the great A Radiant Daybreak featured closing in on the near-hour of this album, bringing itself into my top 3 tier in contextual relation to this album. Downfall Inc. left me with goose bumps amidst beholding the genius of its bridge. To shove all the praise aside, these tracks contrast perfectly one of the most disappointing things about this album. In Pulse, the lyrics were tight and meaningful - they were fluid to read and to sing; the lines impactful and relevant. This is not so much true in this album. While Downfall Inc. and A Radiant Daybreak include some of their best lyrics to date, Hightech Versus Lowlife and Into The Blackest Light represents everything that goes wrong (lyrically) with this album. With awkward lines such as "The excess of truth isolates us," or, "Ouroborean seduction of foreknown doom," I can't help but be in awe at what Ben was thinking with this stuff. Not all of the lyrics are bad, and they are certainly better than those you will find in most music. Especially metal. On that note, the lyric book is much better this time around. Most fans will be familiar with the egregious errors present in the books of Pulse and Antares, but in here God Is Automaton finally delivers a set of accurate lyrics from these guys.
Destruction And Bliss just might be their best epilogue track to date. In continuing with the established trend, this track prints in at a whopping 9:45. It combines elements of previous epics like From Zero To Nothing and Ethernity; structuring itself as the natural but linear evolution from the two; this track packs the content-filled nature of Ethernity with the nature of FZTN's reliance on subtle nuances rather than presenting it all just in front of your face. Kevin delivers an excellent performance in the later stages of the track. In fact, it is absolutely the best we have had the pleasure to hear from him. And something completely unexpected from Sybreed is the inclusion of a guitar solo by guest Travis Montgomery. I don't like guitar solos that much, it's like they are unfairly epic by nature without having to be that varied or structurally autonomous. However, its execution is tight and adds much needed beef to the premise of the latter half in the song. This track is where I was vividly enjoying myself by true Antares' caliber. This is what Sybreed is all about and is this exactly where they should be. An absolutely stunning track save for the machinations of the mastering and weird vocal programming.
I would recommend a listen of this to just about anyone. And if you're a fan of their previous work, then this is definitely something that you should have from pre-order! God Is An Automaton will cut between two large demographics of Sybreed listeners what with its continued focusing on good songwriting rather than non-cognitive appeals like 'groove' that is but combined with its reintroduction of a heavier, harsher tone to their sound. Those preferring either the softness of Antares or the industrial stereotype of Slave Design will have to just set aside their prejudices.