Review Summary: Actually, it IS your grandpa's tech-death album.
In a genre once renowned for its inventiveness and forward-thinking philosophy, it feels ironic that a trip to the past is what provides a breath of fresh air in a struggling scene. The implication is not that technical death metal is devoid of talented players, as the openness of modern music has opened the gate for all kinds of suppliers, but that their primary concerns have fallen out of line with the category’s mission statement: to progress, shooting for the stars, using instruments as conduits for a science fiction odyssey. Never was the intent of the field to be relegated to nothing but soulless demonstrations of virtuosity; the heightened musicianship was a potential added bonus. Listening to an album like In Ancient Contemplation
is an experience not as ostentatious as a blockbuster like Avatar
, which is mechanically glamorous by outward appearances, though it lacks the enduring compositional brilliance that the former possesses. Rather, uncovering the latest full length from Fields of Elysium is similar to retrieving one’s old copy of A New Hope
and watching it for the first time in years. It is not necessarily original—the plot points, character arcs, and iconic visuals are all well entrenched in memory—yet it’s difficult to dismiss that lingering feeling of awe that persists. Those tried-and-true effects, regardless of publication date, are refreshing in their own manner.
Perhaps what’s most shocking about the success of In Ancient Contemplation
is the fact that, for a technical death metal record, it is remarkably straightforward in delivery. Fields of Elysium simply craft the foundation of their songs by doing the basics and doing them exceptionally. In order to truly evoke an atmosphere of a future reality or some other kind of cosmic charade, the band shifts focus from explosive displays and moreso towards restrained, melodic delivery, an emphasis further placed upon dynamic motions instead of incredible solos. Bending time signatures and orchestrating addicting rhythms is where the collective find themselves most comfortable—an endeavor that undoubtedly requires tight coordination amongst contributing members. This is reflected by an even mixture that places drums, guitars, and bass—an instrument that has nearly become obnoxious in its increasingly loud presence—on a level plane, neither factor ever outshining the other but each excelling at their jobs. Polished leads soar in glittering tones reminiscent of Nocturnus, their high notes especially luminous during moments of respite. The heaviness department is left to the management of the percussion kit, whose thunderous low end compliments the darker tone of the bass; adding in the rhythm guitar, such as during one of the disc’s various tempo fluctuations, produces an even heftier result.
Arpeggio leads and tremolo-picking riffs are the dominating thrust of the group’s light speed engine. While the absence of complex plucking and intricate sweeps are noted, Fields of Elysium compensate by constructing passages that are smoothly integrated, each portion memorable due to an evocative melody or equally potent progressive inclusion. Album centerpiece “Alligator Mountain” summarizes the core identity of the band most accurately; following an introduction colored by dueling counters with the guitars and an ominous bass, the near-8-minute opus rushes forward confidently into a series of time-bending incidences, alternating easily between crushing drum pounds and occasions of cymbal-tapping, atmospheric peace. Outside of reoccurring motifs within the instrumental sections, the expansive entry takes a further step by forming an outstanding refrain punctuated by a rare usage of traditional singing—scaled-back and distant, the almost choir-esque quality complimenting supporting acoustic elements. The ability of the Santa Fe crew to change directions on command is exhibited to an even greater extent on “Frogs in the Distance After the Rain” and its liberal implementation of different genres. Ambient chords are struck, their soulful voice lingering above a leading percussion part that promptly collapses into delightful pandemonium, crunching guitars accenting the syncopated rhythm that dictates the proceedings. The chaotic section culminates in a devastating breakdown as if a deathcore album suddenly intercepted the CD’s duration. It is brutal in its unexpected arrival and testifies to how Fields of Elysium can present intrigue without relying on base technical skill.
Individual instances allow album entries to shine per their own merit, simultaneously benefitting from a seamless flow that generally maintains a strong sense of momentum. Numbers akin to the concluding “Abstaining the Hive Mind” elicit feelings of absolute satisfaction; amidst captivating drum fills, imposing guitar riffs and tempo twisting forays, there is an incredibly solid structure of engaging compositions. Fields of Elysium have the capabilities to surprise their audience—definite highlight “The Whip or the Carrot” designs a jazzy interlude in the middle of its existence, a saxophone solo to boot—and to essentially preserve a tall standard worthy of a listener’s attention. What deters the final effort from reaching loftier praise is its unfortunate tendency to meander during quieter portions. Intermission periods, the three instrumental-only tracks being the guiltiest offenders, linger far longer past their lifespan, risking an entire derailing of the usually consistent pace. And as entertaining as that brief sax interruption is, the lovable brass device seems to be metal’s new gimmick to replace the violin. Having any relatively short release—In Ancient Contemplation
rests nicely at only 43 minutes—replete with filler artificially elongates the album’s duration to its detriment. Despite that, Fields of Elysium undeniably pulled off an excellent technical death metal adventure. Originality does not lay down deep roots here, but the brilliance of In Ancient Contemplation
is precisely due to its adherence to fundamentals, and doing those fundamentals justice. In an extra dose of irony, in their goal to shoot for the stars, these gentlemen concoct a sci-fi epic not by wandering aimlessly along multi-stringed fretboards, but keeping their feet firmly planted on the ground.