Review Summary: On their debut album the Welsh trio imbue the primal power of sludge metal with intricate progressive leanings to riveting effect.
Sludge metal has always been predominantly about bludgeoning riffs pummeling the listener into submission. The most successful acts in this sphere, though, are capable of fusing the relentless heaviness with different styles of music to suit their cause. Take Torche whose pop leanings have landed them substantial following outside the metal realm, or Beastwars whose potent mash-up of sludge metal and AmRep noise rock has displayed a distinctive quality. Similarly, Welsh trio Hark only use the primal, groove-laden power of sludge metal as a foundation for their progressive inclinations. The songs on Crystalline
are plenty complex with meticulous twists and turns oftentimes honed to perfection. The might of Crowbar, High On Fire and the likes is juxtaposed with the technicality of Tool and a dash of hardcore pugnacity to captivating effect.
The musicianship on show is nothing short of commendable. Even though Crystalline
is technically a debut album, vocalist-guitarist Jimbob Isaac knows the ins and outs of heavy rock as he fronted Taint last decade. The boisterous output of these underrated sludge metal luminaries has left its stamp on Hark's debut full-length, yet the former Whyteleaf rhythm section of bassist Nikolai Ribnikov and drummer Simon Bonwick lends this album its stylistic individuality. Earth-shaking rhythmic rolls provide a skeleton for turbulent chord progressions and Isaac's angular riffs which permeate through the group's labyrinthine arrangements. Naturally this approach results in the album that's challenging with plenty of listening sessions required to decipher every of its copious nuances. Hark make this effort worthwhile, delivering a multitude of dexterous transitions and contrasting moods. That doesn't mean that Crystalline
is terribly efficient. There are passages on the album that feel overly stretched-out, and some editing should be done to transform certain songs into more visceral pieces. For instance, 'Sins on Sleeves' overstays its welcome, unnecessarily prolonging its doomy last act. The trio are clearly at their best when they stick to more compact song structures like on robust opener 'Palendromeda' which brims with acerbic bass lines, intricate drums and riffs that can throttle then groove deeply.
Converge’s Kurt Ballou provides the ample weight and breadth to the mix, making every instrument sound as articulate and punishing as possible. Although Crystalline
is majorly an instrumentally oriented album, Isaac's gruff vocals and feral roars are tailor made for this kind of music. He delivers an authoritative performance with a penchant for corrosive vocal harmonies, establishing the record's most immediately alluring moments. 'Hounded By Callous Decree' boasts a rousing chorus, while 'Scarlet Extermities' centers around a formidable vocal hook that later on devolves into an epic Tool-echoing crescendo. The most staggering segment of grand, chameleonic closer 'Clear Light Of...' comes when Isaac teams up with Clutch's Neil Fallon. Needless to say, the end result packs a punch.
It takes a few spins to fully appreciate the ambitious scope at hand here, but this is the type of record that unfolds the longer one ventures into its complexities. Hark are masterfully in control of their craft, and Crystalline
is a heaving beast of an album. The lapses in consistency can be forgiven as the trio's brand of progressive sludge metal displays enough novelty to leave a powerful impression on heavy rock and metal fans alike.