Review Summary: A smartly composed album where melody, heaviness and technicality amount to more than just the sum of the components.
Technical death metal is a mixed bag for many listeners. Some admire it for the musicians' skill, others appreciate the soulless, almost cruel meticulousness and perfection in its own right. These very factors are detrimental in the eyes of others, however - along with the fact that overt technicality and complication often detract from the flow of the song, and the brutality expected of death metal gets compromised by the frequent time changes. Well, there are some good news for you, because we have Vale of Pnath.
"The Prodigal Empire" is a really satisfying effort by this group of Americans. It works on the frame of technical death metal much like The Faceless, but with several key differences. One will immediately notice that the spacey feel of The Faceless is instead replaced with something more akin to the Canadian tech death scene's favored aesthetics. Melodies in minor keys and melancholic atmospheres. Vale of Pnath take it even further, though, even employing straight black metal riffs in songs like "Brain Butchers", or lengthy acoustic passages such as the one in "Mental Crucifixion". Though most of the songs consist of continuous blast beat streaks, the band makes it a point to keep things varied, like in the quirky yet haunting, excellent track "Borne Extinction". One will also definitely smile in satisfaction at the final riff of track two mentioned above - some of the most headbangable stuff around.
While the album makes comparatively less use of keyboards to build ambience than The Faceless, they make up for it with acoustic guitars. Several tracks contain cleverly written passages that flow seamlessly into further parts of the songs they grace. Overall, consistency and flow in songwriting is one of this release's strong points, and overall an underappreciated aspect of the genre as a whole - especially next to prog metal which technical death often mingles with. "The Prodigal Empire" is just tight enough not to tire, just melodic enough not to turn away the "bad boys", and just groovy enough to make returning to it pleasurable and anticipated.
By all means, this is a cornerstone release of the new melodic/technical death metal trend, and VoP can be counted as one of the acts spearheading this way of playing, along with others like Beyond Creation. The album lacks nothing, it's very varied, tight and pleasant to listen to. While it doesn't produce any numbness-inducing emotional sensations, it certainly delivers on the heaviness, catchiness and even at times, groove. It is a highly recommended listen for fans of melodeath and tech death alike.