Review Summary: Take a journey through the desert.
Post-rock and Post-metal are a game of “moments”. Not so much a lyrically compelling genre, the best bands have always been able to instill atmosphere primarily through their instruments and conjure up these moments that help the audience visualize scenes or memories that resonate with them as it plays along. Unfortunately, this makes the music fairly binary in some aspects: you either are affected by the piece, or you aren’t. If you aren’t, it’s hard for the average listener to want to take that journey again. Bands without vocals at all, like Toundra or their peers Russian Circles, struggle even harder to create moments and differentiate themselves as they are essentially playing without a key instrument. While those bands earlier works are technically superb from a purely musical standpoint, the moments where I’d feel something were few and far between, with a lot of songs not leading to any kind of destination over their run length. Russian Circles finally fixed this with their stunning album Empros
in 2011, but Toundra’s music maintained this disappointing aimlessness to it as time went on, no matter how explosive the music got on paper.
Which is funny, because when you look at the cover of Toundra’s latest album Vortex
, that’s just the kind of feeling you get. The shadowy nomad traversing through the endless desert has a very aimless, yet adventurous feel to it. That ends up being exactly the kind of sound the band is going for here; the feeling of being on a long journey through the desert with no idea of whether a destination is within reach or is even awaiting you at all. It’s just this time, things click a bit more along the way. The introduction track sets the pace beautifully with a very Western-like vibe to it, as if it could be the soundtrack for an old Clint Eastwood film. It’s an intriguing piece that immediately grabs your attention as something different.
But it’s the three tracks following this that steal the show and introduce a sense of pacing and progression into their sound that Toundra has rarely shown before. “Cobra” races in with furious riffs and energetic drumming. It induces a sense of urgency back into the journey only to pull the rug from under you, not once, but twice by almost coming to a full stop and building things up to where they were before, each time in its own unique way. It’s fresh, vibrant, and exciting and holds that energy for all six-and-a-half minutes before toning down into the even more patient and progressive “Tuareg”. This song employs a multitude of ideas, namely the intense drumming section 1-2 minutes in. This is one of the bands best moments yet, with the guitars and drums perfectly synchronizing to create a truly majestic atmosphere and build-up before exploding into a gritty driving riff that pushes through the second third of the song. The final third settles things down one last time with luscious guitars and more of a post-rock vibe to end the journey on a reflective mood with even some soft piano entering the mix. “Cartavio” then correctly continues this brief respite with some dreamy acoustic vs. electric guitar interplay. It’s the kind of song you could have in the background as you lay down on the grass at night and stare up at the stars, some of Toundra’s best work yet despite being considered an interlude (I suppose). I would’ve personally welcomed another three minutes of whatever is happening on this track, its two-minute runtime made me feel almost cheated.
At this point in the album, Toundra were on pace to not only create the best record of their careers but potentially a genre staple in the process. The final half of the album is unfortunately a mixed bag. The centerpiece of the album, the 11-minute “Mojave” is a song that simply has
to work in order for the album to feel complete and it’s a bit of a blunder (or at least half of it is). It starts decently enough, bringing back that exotic desert vibe again layered with some artificially-mixed drumming in the background. The guitar work here is emotional and beautiful in these first three minutes. Even the transition to the heavy sections of the song is done well. It isn’t brought in too quickly, and has some nice Middle-Eastern sound guitar riffs enter the track over splashy cymbals. It’s the back half of the song where Toundra uninvitingly goes back to what they’ve comfortably offered in the past and cause the song to trip over itself and retread ground we’d already covered. “Roy Neary” also comes off as a pointless interlude, continuing this more electronic route “Mojave”’s intro only hinted at, but ends up a meaningless experiment. Closer “Cruce Oeste” thankfully picks up a bit more after spending its first two minutes in an unremarkable jam resembling more of a B-side Deftones song. It ends up being an ultimately competent post-rock track, but nothing as mind-blowing as what they provided earlier.
Make no mistake though, this is an intriguing and unexpected step in the right direction for these Spaniards who have been in the scene for a while now. There are finally some moments here that push through the sound and stimulate your mind, begging you to come back. It’s when Toundra reverts back to old tendencies like choppy pacing and riffs for the sake of loudness that Vortex
falters. The album, at the very least, could signal a welcome change in the structure of their music, one that could lead to their own Empros
down the road.