Review Summary: Less Howling, more Wowing.
Considering the members that make up Howling Sycamore, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the band's self-titled debut effort this year is one of the most promising and distinguished releases of its kind for quite some time. After all, the project has been put together by, unsurprisingly, Ephel Duath frontman Davide Tiso. It's questionable why he decided to bring in former Watchtower vocalist Jason McMaster for the *ahem* howling
aspect of the band, but then again it makes more sense when you know that Howling Sycamore was always intended to be a band purely focused on avant-garde and progressive extreme metal. What's even more questionable however, is that Tiso apparently hasn't made a metal album in more than 15 years (according to a recent interview regarding this very band).
Well, it certainly doesn't sound like Tiso's absence from being involved with a metal album has taken its toll. From the get-go we're treated to frenzied guitar lines, technical albeit abrasive drum work and quite unique saxophone harmonies, courtesy of Bruce Lamont. McMaster is really the odd one out in this respect, because virtually none
of his vocal delivery fits the otherwise spectacular musicianship that is on offer here. As powerful as songs such as "Upended" and "Let Fall" are, you just can't shake the feeling that what Howling Sycamore needed was a better choice of vocalist. Even the fully acoustic "Chant of Stillness" is rendered more nonsensical than it should be (not in a good way), simply because McMaster adopts an OTT persona. He may believe he's in his element, but considering the style of metal here, it's simply not the case. To be fair, "Obstinate Pace" is more pleasant because McMaster aims for a more driven, harsher vocal style and "Intermezzo" is an instrumental, so there's at least a break from so-so vocal work for the listener to enjoy.
Let's slide away from the obvious inconsistencies then, and focus on just how excellent the musicianship can get. Whilst obviously front-loaded, Howling Sycamore
instrumentally never fails to impress. Of course, you'd have to be one of those fans who appreciates the progressive, experimental noodling of, say, Watchtower, Atheist and latter Gorguts to really get into the musicianship of this particular record, but the variety and quality on offer is pretty much spot on. The saxophone elements in "Upended" and "Obstinate Pace" are perfectly intertwined with frenzied rhythms and prog metal riff work, and the technical, clean acoustic guitar work of "Chant of Stillness" is thoroughly charming. "Midway" demonstrates Tiso's penchant for melancholic, moody compositions but also explores contrasting elements, I.e. the tranquil, calm nature of the saxophone work against the otherwise abrasive, forceful blastbeat-ridden moments. "Descent into Light" demonstrates Hannes Grossman's impeccable technique, flowing beautifully into a song which progresses and progresses until its triumphant, manic ending.
The components of Howling Sycamore
are certainly unique, there's no doubt about that. The instrumentation itself borders on brilliancy at times and really should please those who focus mainly on progressive and/or avant-garde metal, yet those who have heard anything by Watchtower will undoubtedly be challenged because of the very same reasons: that is, McMaster's exaggerated vocal delivery. Perhaps this aspect isn't so much a nuisance as it is an annoyance, a fly one has to swipe away with their hand. Put aside the divisive vocals, and the listener will likely be in for a treat.