Review Summary: Lesser Key demonstrate a desire to improve only their own strengths, making their ambition (for better or for worse) a comfortable one.
On Los Angeles rock band Lesser Key’s website, the band claims to represent “an exploration into personal and artistic freedom.” That’s a pretty vague description, one that any band that breaks the status quo would say. It’s common for a band to want to dodge those established pillars of legacy and try something new, something that they want to do. So, Lesser Key’s stance on that is pretty substantiated. That’s nothing too outrageous to say.
But herein lies the issue with the band announcing that so confidently: Lesser Key really don’t try anything that new, at least not on their self-titled EP.
Lesser Key’s debut is an example of a band that doesn’t reach for the impossible. With a calming, hypnotic aesthetic, Lesser Key’s emphasis on viscerally tightening up their atmospheric sound seems to highlight their lack of anything truly revolutionary. Take that as you will.
The one feature of Lesser Key that’s gotten the most attention is the membership of bassist Paul D’Amour, the original bassist of prog metal kings Tool
. D’Amour earned a ton of praise for his lone appearance on a Tool LP in Undertow
(though he did contribute to demos used on Aenima
), which offered weighted, low-tuned bass beats that were rich with atmospheric texture, sounds that became synonymous with Tool’s aesthetic even after D’Amour left the band. Lesser Key
doesn’t offer as much texture as Undertow
did; D’Amour’s bass doesn’t sound as distinctive here, and in the worst cases, it’s barely noticeable. It seems odd that one of the bassists from one of the most prolific progressive metal bands of all time seems so content with simply keeping a low-tuned beat than shaking up the earth with his rhythms, but really, that’s what Lesser Key
seems to be for D’Amour, for better or for worse.
Similarly, the rest of the band never reaches for progressive metal virtuosity, but instead captures much of the ambient and atmospheric sound that Tool and its many protégés like Karnivool
harnessed. It’s a powerful sound that trades endurance-driven musicianship for strong, resilient fundamentals in tone. Opener and first single “Intercession” is a fantastic track, one that somehow manages to take bursting rock melodies and blend them with subdued, biding vocals, a trademark of other successful bands like Deftones
. But unlike Tool, Lesser Key are bigger fans of mood than technicality. Though the tracks rarely demonstrate any superhuman ability, the songwriting confidently stands as an example of precise tonal radiance, which definitely keeps the tracks from faltering.
But the occasions of apparent skill do appear clearly. “Parallels” is a clear demonstration of the band coloring outside the lines, with an excellent guitar solo from axeman Brett Fanger and a surprisingly complex drum rhythm from Justin Hanson. Similarly, “Folding Stairs” mixes things up considerably, especially in the riffs from Fanger, which reach chaotic proportions in the final minute of the track. These moments can feel a bit disorienting not in their appearance, but in being so suppressed on Lesser Key
. It would’ve been a lot more impressive if these moments appeared more often, because they don’t just demonstrate some great virtuosity: they also, oddly enough, show a clear sonic distinction from all of their peers, including Tool.
Vocalist Andrew Zamudio has a singing style that rarely demonstrates superhuman vocal chops, but is constantly easy on the ears. Zamudio’s vocal delivery sounds like what you get when you take away the raspy breathiness of Deftones’ Chino Moreno. It has all the melody and atmospheric intensity, but it’s unquestionably croony and fits in well with the less abrasive music. As stated earlier, it’s nothing impossible. Zamudio’s range isn’t as rhythmically diverse as Maynard James Keenan’s or Chino Moreno’s, nor does it have the melodic scope of Karnivool’s Ian Kenny. Instead, Zamudio’s singing takes much of the wavy moodiness of Ashes Divide
’s Billy Howerdel, and while that’s still a solid sound, it can make the music blend together a bit too much on Lesser Key
. The vocal styling that Zamudio provides is superb, especially in tracks like the desperate call “Pale Horse” and the swelling “Folding Stairs”, but it has the distinct disadvantage of being connected to a genre with vocalists that have gone above and beyond that standard. This makes Zamudio’s efforts sound smooth, but a bit too settled.
Lesser Key’s debut EP has just as many faults as it does successes. The subdued bass work from D’Amour is probably the most apparent one, as his contribution doesn’t sound fleshed out at all. The group’s decision to keep the technicality in D’Amour’s past project out of the picture is also rather disorienting, but it’s a fault with a much less lingering impact. The successes are there, though: when it comes to mood, Lesser Key are right where they need to be. With a hypnotic vocalist in Andrew Zamudio and some excellent (albeit underutilized) guitars and drumming from Fanger and Hanson respectively, this is a band with a tight control on what they want to accomplish. There are no sky-high aspirations with Lesser Key; this is a band that wants to simply perfect what they’re good at instead of stepping outside of their own box. Normally, that’s a discouraging sentiment, and it should be taken into consideration when you listen to Lesser Key’s debut. But it doesn’t keep the band’s first EP from being a solid listen and a great example of atmosphere’s place in modern rock music.