Review Summary: A tour de force of technicality, passion, and intensity.
Playing technical metal music can be a bit of a risky gamble. While it's often fun to showcase your skills in a more complex and intricate setting, the balance between emotion and technicality tends to be incredibly tough to strike effectively. Sure, bands such as Brain Drill and Trigger the Bloodshed could pull you in with their insane levels of musicianship, but how long will it be until you get bored of pure technicality and brutality alone? How about integrating some atmosphere, or maybe some meaningful interludes to offer some breathing room? Well, one band from Norway was able to create a wonderful experience of both mind-boggling technicality and borderline-beautiful moments of progressive rock bliss; they are known as Spiral Architect.
Not to be confused with the Black Sabbath song of the same name, Spiral Architect were (and are, since they somehow haven't disbanded) a progressive metal band with technical elements similar to Watchtower or Psychotic Waltz. While their music is strictly progressive metal, it's interesting to note that (other than Scariot) every band Spiral Architect are associated with members-wise are involved with Norwegian black metal. Anyway, they ended up gracing the world with only one studio album, A Sceptic's Universe
, back in 2000. First of all, I'm not going to beat around the bush with this statement: A Sceptic's Universe
is the most musically technical album I've ever heard. More technical than Necrophagist. Or Watchtower. Or Atheist. Those are not statements to take lightly, but the sheer intricacy and complexity of each composition is absolutely mindblowing. Right from the opening track "Spinning," there's often a sense of chaos and frantic energy despite how calculated each passage is; the guitar/bass interplay of album highlight "Insect" is another fantastic example of this, especially in how the guitar line emulates the unsettling keyboard part in the intro. Then there's the singer Øyvind Hægeland, who brings an almost operatic quality to the experience with his strongly-layered harmonies and use of power metal-esque vibrato. His work is especially well implemented within the more melodic moments of the record, such as in the main verses of "Excessit" and closer "Fountainhead," but it also serves the more intense moments with the more dramatic and even semi-theatrical elements involved.
Beyond the vocals, however, the real shock of the experience is in just how much emotion and beauty it all contains. The typical progressive metal wankery certainly hasn't gone away (is it ever truly absent), but the difference is in how much of the wankery is necessary in fitting the confines of the band's songwriting. The way every instrument fits into the overall product ensures that everyone in the band is essential to how the music plays out, and there's not much genuine musical excess to be heard. "Insect," "Spinning," "Conjuring Collapse," and "Fountainhead" in particular feature some amazingly tight playing and wonderful chemistry, while songs such as "Cloud Constructor" and "Adaptability" allow the musicians to stretch their talents over more expansive arrangements. "Cloud Constructor" is definitely one of the standouts on the album because of this, featuring a slower and more sprawling sound along with beautifully harmonized guitars from Steinar Gundersen and Kaj Gornitzka aside often subdued vocals. It even has a few instances of *gasp* 4/4 time! Believe me, it's pretty surprising when considering the rest of the album. "Occam's Razor" is another instance of breathing room on the record, a slow interlude featuring Hægeland's synthesizer work to a greater degree while Sean Malone (of Cynic) plays a neat little chapman stick solo near the end. But the more emotional elements of the album even make it to the most technical sections; in fact, there's both a sense of chaos and even what sounds like a sense of impending doom in both the lyrics and the atmosphere. This is especially displayed in moments like the unsettling chugging breakdowns of "Insect" or the slow moments of "Cloud Constructor," the latter displaying a lot of bleakness in its subject matter as well. Finally, I have to mention the amazing talents of bassist Lars K. Norberg and drummer Asgeir Mickelson, who are perhaps the most impressive musicians on this thing. Norberg is especially phenomenal: he just rips through bass lines at speeds I've rarely heard in metal, and his level of precision in the process is just ridiculous.
A Sceptic's Universe
, to me, is the route that more progressive metal artists should go in making a record. It's extremely technically impressive, atmospheric, emotional, has plenty of time for thought and intrigue, and is all brought together by quite an underrated frontman (who was also in Arcturus, I might add). The album might occasionally lack in terms of variety, but it's a small price to pay for one of progressive metal's more underrated and overlooked modern gems. If you can handle the ridiculous technicality, you really should try A Sceptic's Universe
; it's a near-perfect mix of complexity, atmosphere, and emotion.