Review Summary: The album of your nightmares.
These days it seems like metal bands will throw in just about any ridiculous gimmick to get noticed, whether it be keyboards over horrible chugga chugga breakdowns (cough cough Devil Wears Prada), movie excerpts (Kill Whitney Dead) or of course cheesy Nintendo sounds (HORSE the Band). As much as I enjoy the latter of those, being tastefully innovative in a genre as rigid and opinionated as metal certainly isn't easy to do without sounding novel. However, Chicago's Yakuza, named after the infamous Japanese mafia, incorporates the unusual instrumentation of jazzy saxophone into a tech-metal foundation. Because of this, people have pegged Yakuza as a jazz metal band, but such a labeling could not be further from the truth. Rather than haphazardly, throwing in jazz breakdowns, as the trend has become of recent, the band instead layers the sax runs over their technical guitar riffs and doomy clean sections to create an incredibly fresh dynamic.
While the group, as stated before, does have some very complex sections and even a couple straight up mathcore songs ("Praying for Asteroids" and "Steal the Fire") they devote equal time to Tool-like atmospherics, Opethean contrasts, and slow-mounting post metal crescendos, making them even more difficult to properly categorize. Many of the songs lack the typical verse-chorus structure and instead move from slow and murky doom passages to moments of all out chaos where Mastodon-esque riffing, spastic drum work, furious horn runs, and throat-slicing death growls assail the listener. It's a big jump to make, but generally the group is able to avoid falling into the pit that lies precariously between the two extremes.
Yakuza's instrumental capabilities are thus quite diverse. The player who stands out most immediately (for both good and bad reasons) however, is the drummer. He is obviously very skilled and shows some crazy chops particularly from his wild rolls and his ability to switch up time signatures on the fly, but if anything he over plays a bit. There are spots in some songs where he gets so busy it's hard to discern any kind of concrete rhythm and he also tends in places to out of nowhere rapidly kick the tempo up. This seems to be done on purpose, but it can make for some very jarring moments like in the otherwise flawless chorus of "Zombies." If he can reign it in a little on their next outing it would be for the better. The guitars and bass are done very tastefully though, and throw in some very original sounding riffs and clean parts in tracks such as the death metal meets Primus-like "Praying for Asteroids" and "Existence into Oblivion." There are no solos, but they likely would not have fit into the band's sound anyway. Also, just the fact that they can keep up with the drumming is a feat in itself.
Vocalist, Bruce Lamont, who also handles the excellent horn work on the album, seems to be a point of major contention for most listeners. He uses two primary styles in roughly equal proportion: a brutal death growl and a dry, ominous singing voice. His clean vocals are perhaps the real make it or break it factor; it sounds a little like a cross between Maynard James Keenan and Ozzy and is frequently used in an almost hypnotic sounding layered chant as in the hilariously titled "Meat Curtains." They take a little warming up to and they can get a little pitchy at times, but generally they are quite effective and lend a truly eerie atmosphere to the record.
One more aspect of Transmutations that definitely bears mention is just how friggin' depressing it sounds. There is nary a major key riff or chord to be found on the entire album. The whole work just swells with such immense feelings of hopelessness and loss that making it through the whole thing in one sitting may prove overwhelming for some. Transmutations is a very affecting record that really transports the listener to another place; a dark void dimly lit by small patches of red light where violent gales blow constantly (Think of what happens in Lord of the Rings when Frodo puts the ring on...) The aforementioned opener, "Meat Curtains" kicks off the album with nearly four minutes of slow doomy riffs before venting all the built up rage in the last two minutes which manifests itself in an all out assault on the ears. "The Blinding" could also be one of the most terrifying songs I've ever heard spanning nearly six minutes of crazy drum soloing, guitar feedback, atonal horns, and Lamont cackling "YOU WILL NEVER SEE THE SUN!" It's horrible, almost so horrible that you can't bring yourself to shut it off. But by far, the most chilling piece of the album is the entirely clean anti-ballad, "Raus," which is the most hopeless and menacing sounding song I have heard since "Hurt." Needless to say anyone looking for a feel good affair need not apply.
Yakuza is really something else and Transmutations is unlike any other album I can think of. It's certainly not for everyone and takes some time to truly explore, however this dark journey of self discovery is one that is very much worth taking.