Review Summary: Sisyphus debunked // Humanity Restored
For a scene revered as the haven of all things extreme, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been struck by just how fucking boring
so much metal manages to be. The ‘extreme’ elements of intensity and delivery aren’t necessarily a turn-off for me, but I’ve become so used to hearing them in association with dysfunctional or underwhelming songwriting models that disengaging from metal albums is virtually a conditioned reflex at this point. It’s tiring to hear clearly talented bands falling down over the same set of pitfalls and clamouring to be taken seriously for it, whether they’re milking deja vu dynamics to oblivion (Tool), firing off brutal cheap shots and self-destructing grooves without any pretence of competent songwriting (Car Bomb), or using quote-unquote atmosphere to cloak a kindergarten grasp of melody (Numenorean). Predictable dynamics, mushy songwriting and facile melody aren’t my only issues with metal, but they’re the ones that come back to haunt it time and time again. At first it’s disappointing, then it’s kind of funny, and the next thing you know it’s plain tedious and you’re instinctively steering clear of anything with a metal tag slapped on it. It makes me think of the Sisyphus myth that conveniently makes up the title and presumable subject matter (lyric sheets when?) of the first track on Nero di Marte’s murky new album Immoto
. Sisyphus’ fate is to roll a rock heavier than Boris’ combined discography up a hill over and over again until the end of time: as far as portraits of the extremity of neverending torture go, this is easily one of the most exceedingly dull, more valuable as an absurdist urtext than as an engaging tale. In the face of these twin scenarios of überstagnancy where actor and object alike are trapped in a seemingly neverending cycle of boring motions, the question for both Sisyphus and the wider scheme of metal seems to be where are the damn stakes?
This is the point at which I’m supposed to hail Nero di Marte and their, uh, stakes as the salvation of contemporary metal and demand we all fall down at their feet for a few seconds or maybe more. Let’s not do that. For many, it’s not as though metal needed saving to begin with, and I’m not a fan of engineering arbitrary questions for the sake of presenting bands as a smug answer. Many of these misgivings are hardly exclusive to my opinion, but at the end of the day they remain just that - personal misgivings. What can
be said for Nero di Marte, then, is that they tick a combination of important boxes uncommon for metal in an invigorating and deeply refreshing way - and not necessarily the ones you’d expect from an Italian post-metal band with pervasive prog/death leanings. Their sound is clamorous, dramatic and atmospheric, and while it comes off as crushing heavy at points, this is less the product of self-serving affections and more the by-product of a deeply complex, frenetic approach to rhythm that steals the show and paves the way for a killer set of shifting dynamics. The album’s atmosphere, a natural best friend to good dynamics, according comes in spades. ‘Lurch’ is very much the word for this one - outside of its creepy downtime, any given moment is off-kilter as hell. There is rarely a rhythm that won’t make clutch the edge of your seat for some vague semblance of stability. This is not necessarily a recipe for great things (hello Car Bomb, nope, still not over you) but similarly to what we heard last year from Liturgy, this attitude to rhythm can make for a smartly directed vehicle for strong songwriting. Nero di Marte have precious little in common with Liturgy beyond this compositional tool and, to some degree, their use of dissonance, but their Lurch is always in aid of a wider movement and gives the listener just enough to hold onto all the while.
Principal case-in-point for all of this, “Sisyphos” is a legitimately terrifying opener that chalks up an impressive high-water mark with every minute of its extensive runtime. Anyone who makes it past its chillingly sparse intro is in for a full gauntlet of rhythmic instability and peripheral dissonance, pulling this way and that like a rabid dog headed in an extant yet ungaugeable direction. It’s warped and fascinating, but you sure as hell wouldn’t like it to come any closer to you - and that’s
what I’m talking about as far as stakes and intrigue are concerned. That’s
what extremity is supposed to feel like. It brings to mind the kind of unhinged experiments you’d hear from the likes of Comity or Cara Neir, though this sound is considerably less scattergun. Anyhow, “Sisyphos”’ lurching fission eventually stabilises at around the halfway mark, at which point drummer Giulio Galati breaks into blastbeat that feels thoroughly earned and thunderously momentous. The blastbeat in general has become analogous to a horror movie jump scare, theoretically potent yet overused to the point of Please Throw The Textbook Away, and so I hope that people polishing their cymbals in their mums’ basements across the world at this present moment will take note of its incorporation here. It’s magnificent, and utterly harrowing.
This interplay between rhythmic fusion and fission is key to Immoto
and surfaces in a pleasantly diverse range of forms throughout its runtime. One of my favourite examples of this is the riff that drives “La Casa del Diavolo” from around the two-minute mark. For the first half of its phrasing, the band go for a straight-up, easily moshable 6/8 time that disappears somewhere in the second half’s tangled syncopation only to emerge again at the start of each repeat. It’s like being repeatedly offered something concrete and digestible that dematerialises as soon as you lay hands and reappears the moment you write it off. Perhaps we’ve moved on from Sisyphus to Tantalus, but Nero di Marte make this engaging rather than frustrating. Taking things to even more compact, intense ends are tracks like “L’Arca” and “La Fuga”, which complement the album’s more expansive fare and put turbulent grooves front and centre. With less focus on more protracted dips and rises, these tracks invite us to look at how the album’s rhythms and dynamics operate on a closer level; the space and suspense between each moment of stress plays out its own microscopic version of post-metal’s peak/valley trope with a nuance and precision that, to this band’s vast credit, become more impressive the closer they’re scrutinised. It’s not just that these guys are good at their schtick - as we’ve seen, that goes for any number of disappointing bands - it’s that every aspect of their sound and songwriting seems tailor-made to thrive off their strengths. Vocalist Sean Worrell is a great example of this; his dramatic tone is a great fit for these uneasy compositions and he only ventures into harsher territory when the rest of the arrangement seems to necessitate it. Good stuff.
As always, there’s a flip side, although in this case it’s a reasonable forgivable one. Immoto
’s overall atmosphere of threat and clamour is consistently upheld in and of itself, yet it doesn’t sustain a sixty-seven minute runtime as resolutely as one might hope. The album’s turbulence and dynamism are much more than shock value, but this does not immunise them from that good ol’ Too Much Of A Good Thing sinkhole. I’m reluctant to go overboard nitpicking this out of respect to the album’s overall consistency, absence of weak links and smart sequencing, but I’m still left with the uneasy sense that, for all its clever permutations, this sound has been protracted slightly
beyond its natural limits here. “Irradia” would be my obligatory pick to throw into the volcano, since it’s a little short on the momentousness accrued to such heights elsewhere on the album, but since it holds up adequately in isolation, it’s probably best to say that listening through this album as a whole feels like a bigger commitment than it really ought to and to leave things there.
All things considered, Immoto
is a success story underscored by excellent writing, through which countless nuances are articulated with the force of a thunderclap. Its flair and intrigue are striking to the extent that that I found myself reminded of some of the more successful experimental bands that hung around on the fringes of metal in the ‘00s; Nero di Marte’s approach to melodramatic clean vocals, rhythmic chaos, and slow, restless builds is evocative of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, while the horrifying where-will-this-go-next tension in many of these tracks brings to mind Choirs of the Eye
’s metal sections. Both these associations are best demonstrated on the more extensive passages of the title track. Nero di Marte are, of course, in a different ballpark to these acts generally, but these tangential similarities are certainly a healthy reflection of creative groundwork that underpins Immoto
’s stormy front. My various dynamic-, songwriting-, and melody- related bugbears are a thing of the past on this record; the strength of its focus and ambition make it a must for any metalheads open to a bumpy ride. Consider a decent portion of my faith in the scene restored.