Review Summary: An overlooked gem that pushes the boundaries of fusions between jazz and heavy musicWhat the hell is Ephel Duath？
For the unacquainted, Ephel Duath are an Italian avant-garde metal band that is effectively the brainchild of guitarist/composer Davide Tiso. Their weird name is (obviously) not Italian, but is taken from The Lord of the Rings. Tiso's vision is original, uncompromising and often hard to pin down, but the band’s most famous work is their 2003 album The Painter's Palette
, which combined jazz and metal in an intriguingly even manner. Past fusions, such as Atheist's Unquestionable Presence
, generally felt heavily weighted towards metal and were unsatisfying as albums that were hyperbolised as 'jazz-metal', but the two styles were so intricately blended on The Painter's Palette
that the ratio between them was hard to gauge and ultimately ceased to matter. Some have hailed it as a masterpiece, and while I wouldn't go quite that far, it is certainly an impressive achievement.
Now, Pain Necessary to Know
is both its chronological and stylistic successor; it maintains a jazz-heavy approach but thanks to a few small changes, it is a distinctly different album. Clean vocalist Davide Tolomei left the band after The Painter's Palette
, so the sole voice of this album is now the distorted yelp of Luciano Lorusso George, and Tiso's songwriting here is even more labyrinthine than on Palette
(which is really saying something). The result is an album that has often been overlooked, misunderstood, or simply seen as 'what Ephel Duath did after their album that people listen to'.
I thought this album separated the metal and the jazz pretty clearly...
No, not at all. It is true that Tiso relies a lot on contrast and that Pain
is a volatile, schizophrenic album that changes tone and intensity very often. However, the more aggressive sections aren't very different from the softer ones musically; the album is driven throughout by dark, jazzy guitar riffs and melodies, and whilst these may vary in intensity, they never sound stylistically distinct from one another. The vocals are heavy as hell and often are often filtered through a generous amount of distortion, so when Luciano starts screaming it hits the listener invariably hard. Therefore, his appearances (which are actually fairly sparse - he generally has around two per song) are very distinct, and it certainly seems that the Luciano and the non-Luciano are separated clearly. This does not mean that the metal and the jazz are separated; they are fused and remain so throughout. On this topic, I consider the band’s heavy influence as being closer to hardcore than metal on this album, but that isn't particularly important.
But doesn't it come across as an unstructured mess？
That depends on what you're used to and what you expect. Pain
is not a straightforward album, but it is absolutely not unstructured. The arrangements are complicated and unpredictable, but they still work quite effectively - as I said before, this is a volatile album, and it certainly isn't a half-arsed one.
In fact, when one looks at them carefully, the structures here aren't that intimidating. Take the opener New Disorder
: it consists in a slow introduction that introduces a motif that is repeated throughout the song, then an appropriately chaotic section in which Luciano makes his appearance, followed by a few minutes of sophisticated guitarwork at various intensities that is supported by a simple synth organ hook, and then we hear the song's motif come back, leading into a return to the scathing vocals and the end of the song. It's confusing at first but hardly incoherent, and in many ways it's simpler than Palette
's flagship song, The Passage
. Some songs are more complicated than New Disorder
, but the whole album has a strong degree of fluidity alongside its spontaneity that makes it a progression rather than a mess.
Do you think it's fair to describe it as free jazz？
Hmm, that's tricky. Free jazz means a lot of different things and is easily misunderstood. In essence it refers to a bold approach to jazz that defies convention and pushes boundaries, and Pain
certainly does that. However, it certainly isn't free jazz in the tradition of chaotic improvisation attributed to Ornette Coleman - the transitions here are far too tight and numerous for it to be improvised. Similarly, it isn't particularly related to Albert Ayler's approach of soloing dissonantly over normal chord structures - everything here comes across as calculated, and there isn't any traditional chord structure in sight. Therefore, I'd say that while Tiso's compositions exhibit a lot of free jazz-esque traits, it isn't a particularly helpful classification.
But regardless of its style and elaborate structures within each song, doesn't the album blur a bit as a whole？
Well, yes and no. I do find that I need to pay a certain amount of attention to the music in order to prevent the album from speeding past my ears and moving between phrases before I can take in what's happened, but you can say that for a lot of complicated music (Naked City, Mr. Bungle, The Dillinger Escape Plan, A Lot Like Birds). It's also true that the album is very much the same beast from start to finish; it kicks off with a distinctive approach and that approach, albeit volatile and unpredictable in itself, is maintained throughout its runtime without much variation, although there are a few surprises (the music box break in Vector Second Movement
and the doomy stomp at the end of I Killed Rebecca
does flow very much as a whole and although it's just under 40 minutes long, it has such an intense, challenging style that it verges on being too much at times.
However, that isn't to say that every song sounds exactly the same or that there are no standouts. New Disorder
is an intriguing and hooky opener that pretty much exemplifies everything I love about this band, and Pleonasm
is a shorter track that grooves aggressively and is one of the easier songs to take in.
is the album’s 'coolest' song and kicks off with some excellent riffage that will play itself over and over in the listener's mind long after hearing it, and it also features a very impressive, if somewhat spooky, section in which Luciano screams over the rhythm section and is accompanied sparsely by guitar licks (his sections are normally very guitar-driven). Also notable are I Killed Rebecca
, which is the slowest and most emotional (in a rage/guilt way) song here and probably Luciano's best performance with this band, and the closer Imploding
, which is especially fragmented and schizophrenic but flows surprisingly more coherently than most other tracks, resulting in a highly satisfying conclusion.
Note that I just listed five out of the album’s nine songs as being immediately distinctive for different reasons; although the sporadic style does come close to outwearing itself in sections (particularly the three Vector
tracks), it does not lead to a boringly indistinguishable blur.
But after all that, The Painter's Palette is better anyway, right？
Tough one - The Painter's Palette
certainly plays with its style is a more expansive way, but I enjoy the tight focus on Pain Necessary to Know
. I did find the Palette
slightly overlong since it had some moments I really didn't care for (the entirety of My Glassy Shelter
being the worst), whereas Pain
cuts the fat somewhat. I also found Tolomei's clean vocals quite hit or miss; he took some songs to another level but stagnated others, so I prefer only having Luciano on the mic. The other notable departure in the interim period is that of trumpeter Maurizio Scomparin, whose performance I very much enjoyed on the Palette
. Fortunately, Tiso more than compensates for his absence with a breathtaking guitar performance on Pain
, so this isn't an issue.
On the other hand, I did love how the Palette
's broader scope allowed for contrast like that between the playful jazz of Praha
and the crazed intensity of Ruins
's highlights are different takes on a successful formula rather than strikingly diverse reinterpretations of it. At the end of the day, Pain
is more volatile, heavier and more infectious album that doesn't slack off on the jazz front, and that translates into everything I want to hear from Ephel Duath. I'm going to compromise and say that The Painter's Palette
is a more impressive display of composition and has wider appeal, but I personally prefer Pain Necessary to Know
as a listening experience.
You mean that I should go and check it out right away？