Review Summary: Going one step forward by taking one step back.
While not necessarily a bad album, The Passenger
was decidedly not a Neck of the Woods album; it was a progressive metal band masquerading as a metalcore collective transported through time from the mid-2000s. That particular genre has always been a cornerstone of the Vancouver group’s sound, but favoring it to excess eliminated the atmosphere and grandiose aesthetic of tracks like the seven-minute escapade “Disavow” from the eponymous 2015 EP. The brief runtime consequently sent a misleading signal, seemingly indicating a desire to discard and bury the fat when, upon inspection, Neck of the Woods
didn’t have much to speak of—it was a relatively concise product. Plenty of deliberation could be conducted over why exactly the allure of the mainstream ensnared the band, yet in the context of The Annex of Ire
, such an inquiry appears moot. Close to three years later and the Canadian gents have decided to retrace their footprints. Previously-constructed works, once relegated to nothing but a memory box buried underground, have been unearthed and brought back into the fold. It’s no different than peering through a time capsule or an old photo album; Neck of the Woods looked at what they were and rediscovered a sense of identity. Tune durations have been noticeably augmented, the progressive riff department is wholly operational, and a certain attempt to construct ambiance sneaks into the artistic output. Metalcore continues to linger in the foreground though it no longer subdues fellow musical elements, with cooperation paving the way forward.
Although The Annex of Ire
is undoubtedly the result of a band reconfiguring their direction by utilizing their back catalogue, it immediately distinguishes itself from preceding efforts due to featuring a bombastic production quality. Whereas The Passenger
retained a stripped-back style—a significant issue considering its instrumentals weren’t much to speak of—this sophomore album sports substantial meat on its bones, which certainly assists in accentuating moments where the crew opt for a heavier approach. What emerges is comparable to the record’s dismal cover: Something violent, primal, held back only by the borders it’s confined to. The crushing tremolo-fronted barrage of “Ambivalence” exemplifies these traits with gusto, bounding ahead at a fast tempo, layered harsh vocals bearing down upon the listener, the low end magnifying the intensity of the riffs. After the refrain comes chance seconds of respite from the massacre—those edges of the canvas—where the song is suddenly deconstructed to only the bass, gradually building itself back up piece by piece, haunting sweeps leading to a trademark guitar solo. The lurid setting this occurs in makes “Ambivalence” both an incredibly addicting, headbanging experience, and one that is simultaneously suffocating; its dark embrace slowly swallows up the listener, guiding them through a journey replete with pounding drums, twisting guitar leads, and the commanding calls of the wolves.
It’s the commitment to atmosphere that reestablishes the captivating aura Neck of the Woods had been regarded for. Admittedly less prevalent in comparison to the days of 2015, the attraction of a shadowy sort of ether prevails. The gentle, despondent acoustics opening the thunderous title track are more than a dance with reminiscence; clean melodies overcome echoing riffs, their renewed strength integrating with the track’s melancholic design. A break in the middle of the tune returns to the acoustic factors as the darkness temporarily fades, the polished tones and bass solo providing breathing room in a manner similar to “Ambivalence.” It allows for “The Annex of Ire” to be explored to its greatest degree and for ideas crafted by the band to flourish, especially given the comparatively large seven-minute period. Such an inclination to expansive forays is repeated in closing number “The Tower,” whose refined melodic tenors act as distinguishing variables from fellow entries. Bouncing along these tantalizing guitar phrases, the song charges forth into an extensive conclusion: A guitar solo erupts amidst distant acoustics, its distinctive wail rising above the dimness until ultimately submitting to the depths as it transforms into a receding tremolo. On the opposite end of the spectrum, “Vision Loser” submits its instrumentals to pure heaviness, the bulk of the group’s metalcore leanings manifesting in an absolutely punishing breakdown that characterizes the beginning of the track. Venturing at a slower pace, the song drags the audience through its unrelenting aggression, technical riffs interspersed between core-approved motifs.
Multiple creations on the disc demonstrate that aforementioned marriage of metalcore and progressive metal, yet it is best displayed within the bedlam of “Crosshairs Will Shift.” The start of the song is straightforward enough—metalcore chugging sparks the rapid stride of the track, frantic drumming compelling the entry to advance—until it begins to evolve, a pummeling breakdown decaying into a shower of acoustics and an expressive guitar solo. An uncharacteristically soothing conclusion develops out of the remaining reverb, graceful strumming replacing pandemonium. That being said, The Annex of Ire
’s brand of chaos is far removed from the madness provided by more extreme acts in the -core sphere of genres, nor is it necessarily original—a term that often plagues modern music discussion. It manages to toe the line between two genres in a merger that is not frequently observed. In doing so, however, it can be stated that atmospheric foundations are not capitalized on to their furthest limit, their presence maintained in a background capacity, the bedrock of the group’s sonic product not entirely centered upon mood. Entirely novel or not, The Annex of Ire
showcases a young and budding cooperative retrieving ambition and redefining themselves by remembering who they were in the first place: Progressive-minded with a metalcore heart and a tendency to form intriguing adventures, not fleeting, simplistic and thin shots at a tired methodology. So long as the intrepid quintet holds onto their recollected individuality, refusing to let it become suppressed underneath, the past will ensure an enchanting future.