Review Summary: Seven pathways to nowhere at all.
When Howling Sycamore released their debut full-length at the beginning of last year, it wasn't exactly to critical acclaim. The few who had heard of its release questioned whether or not Jason McMaster's vocal presence would be an obvious disruption to an otherwise fluent and mostly successful first effort for a progressive metal supergroup. Yet Howling Sycamore
turned out to be a little more than the mere sum of its parts. It wasn't perfect, but it was a nice reminder of how well Watchtower and similar acts twisted extreme progressive metal into their own relative musical mold. Frequent forays into the more extreme side of technical and progressive metal were the order of the day, and the numerous solos-wild and bizarrely placed as they sometimes were-at least managed to maintain some interest keeping the listener from thinking about skipping any track.
Eighteen months later we have a sophomore effort in Seven Pathways to Annihilation
, complete with more guest musicians and song structures without any sort of goalpost. From the get-go, it's clear that all main members of Howling Sycamore know their own particular talents (or in McMaster's case, what they're well known for in the metal world), but what they don't know is the concept of cohesive songwriting. Opener "Mastering Fire" is simply a confusing mess. The guitar work twists and turns with so many different riffs that it's almost exhausting to listen to, and a break is certainly needed. The first half of the song for this reason gives you the impression of a band segregated into different categories rather than collating different elements into one solid idea. Alas, there's little to no focus, and with McMaster rattling at the forefront with his divisive vocal delivery, there's more chance of the listener getting a headache than there is an eargasm. This severe lack of cohesion continues with most of the songs in Seven Pathways...
. "Second Sight" for example is five minutes of quiet, almost acoustic noodling from Marty Friedman, a guest musicians that sounds as if he's completely out of place here. Sure, the work he did with Megadeth and in his own solo material is nothing short of fantastic, but here? It just feels so out of place. The song simply dwindles with no energy and with it being the album's midpoint, you can soon work out why the album seems to have faltered in comparison to its more exciting predecessor.
The thing is with Seven Pathways...
, it does have its golden moments. Hannes Grossman is probably the helping hand when songs such as "Departure" and "Initiation" need him the most. Interestingly enough, these turn out to be the two stand-out tracks of the album as well. "Departure" is a more exhilarating effort, exploding from the start with its frequent usage of blastbeats and mania-inducing drum fills. Thanks to Grossman's work Davide Tiso is able to fluently expand his guitar work and concentrate progressive ideas with seamless musicianship. McMaster's harmonic silhouetting midway even renders his vocal delivery soothing rather than annoying for once, and at this point it's the sound of a collective rather than musicians playing to their own strengths in their own bubble. "Initiation" is a more progressive and tense work, but thankfully not in the same way as "Mastering Fire" and anything from the lacklustre second half of the album. This song takes on more of a technical approach to songwriting, the centre stage obviously left for the more instrumental section of the band, as Grossman and Tiso let rip with some of the most powerful and eccentric rhythms they can come up with. Kevin Hufnagel's guest spot on "Initiation" adds to an outstanding musical presence, tightening up the core of the song's menacing tone, and once again McMaster's vocals are rendered helpful rather than grating.
For a sophomore effort, Seven Pathways
is certainly unfortunate. You'd expect that a mere 18 months after the band's debut would see an improvement in cohesive songwriting, but instead it's almost like a flipside of that expectation. Nothing here is bad, it's just that even with repeated listens only a select audience can get
the songwriting ideas at work here. For everyone else, it's a bit of a confusing mess and as a result, those with shorter attention spans than other will only give it one chance before moving on.