Review Summary: An ambitious instrumental album that sends us through an ethereal journey by combining elements of prog, djent, and post rock.
Scaphoid is a one-man solo project written and performed by Matt Hobart. In the years prior to working on Scaphoid, Matt had been a part of two separate bands, Fracture Point and Solar Impulse, which explains why the musicianship and songwriting abilities on this album are as good as they are. It may also explain where the project got its name, as the term “scaphoid” is one of the eight small bones that make up our skeletal wrists and the bone that is most commonly fractured. So, what I’m gathering is either that Matt has some history with scaphoid fractures and/or he simply takes appreciation for this skeletal machine we embody. Either way, the music given as a result of Matt’s Scaphoid is one worthy of our appreciation.
What one will get out of this album is a deep dive into a spacey, ethereal atmosphere, complemented with a complex and ambitious composition. Throughout the album, it is evident that so much time went into every step of its creation process: from composing, to its performing, to its mastering process. Every song hits you with layers of sound that create a tranquil, yet alien world. This is done by juxtaposing silky smooth, shimmering guitar tones on top of hypnotic bass and drum lines. This album is jazzy, progressive, and atmospheric. It’s an all-around engaging album, all without the use of lyrical vocals, which is really a skill of its own.
One thing that is important to talk about is the impact an album cover has on the listening experience. One, it reflects the quality and care that the band puts into the album. If the album cover is very low effort, then it is likely that the music will be low effort as well. Two, that the artwork that we look at while listening to an album helps us fit the music into a certain setting and an atmosphere. It creates a context for the sounds and emotions that are portrayed in the music. And little to say, this album does exactly that. When one looks at this shadowy, yellow-stained canyon, and sees an unknown planet looming ever so bulbous in their horizon, it feels like the music makes a depiction of some lost reality that this world has forgotten. Which gives it an ethereal, ghostly atmosphere, and brushes the listening experience with a shifting coldness.
As far as the influences that make up Scaphoid’s sound, Opeth-esque instrumental songwriting seems to be a primary component. In Absent Passages, Mikael Åkerfeldt’s signature style is present throughout many of the riffs and guitar tones, both distorted and acoustic. The album’s overall aesthetic, however, does not sound overly Opethian as it is mostly made up of a sort of hypnotic and somewhat psychedelic sound. It sort of reminds me in a way of Leprous in Bilateral or Malina. These elements are all combined tastefully with a few down-tuned, djenty sections that pay off nicely when the songs build up to a big riff.
The production quality of this album is very solid as well, partly because the album was mixed by Jamie King, who seems to have a part in a quarter of all the great progressive metal albums that have been coming out the past few years. He is responsible for mixing and/or engineering all of the Between the Buried and Me albums, as well having a hand in The Contortionist, Native Construct, Scale the Summit, and tons more. What is also enjoyable is how progressive the song compositions are. For example, “Celestial Ego” builds up to a dense combination of all of its instruments in harmony but does not end after its climax. Rather, it shares a couple more minutes with us to shift into a smooth and mellow transition for the next song: “The Coldness of Clarity”. Where it picks up from the tangent that the last song left off on.
As criticisms go, part of the experience I get with this album is that it tends to meander a bit. As much as it is fun to get lost in the music, there needs to be a worth-while purpose for each minute of the listener’s time. Some of the songs could probably be trimmed a bit in length; either because they can be a bit repetitive, that they don’t lead to any payoffs, or that they do not serve to unify the album. For instance, on the track “Infrastricken”, it does not feel like there is a build-up or a satisfying payoff to justify its 14-minute time span. And I have no qualms with longer songs in general, I like to see longer songs in progressive music because they are able to demonstrate higher level of creativity and ambition. Unfortunately, this song seems more like a compilation of Scaphoid bonus tracks, rather than the epic and climactic closer to the album I was looking for. Still, it is packed with guitar solos and interesting riffs which redeem the song to a degree. But Absent Passages would not lose too much if a lot of the song was changed or trimmed up, even though it is filled with a lot of impressive guitar stuff.
Overall, this is an album that succeeds when it stays focused on its strengths and does not waste time. What I want to see in the future is if Scaphoid can incorporate its songs into a larger more unified concept where each song has a specific purpose. This would make the overall album more indivisible and take it from ‘great’ to a ‘classic’. Nonetheless, It’s a very respectable progressive instrumental metal album and it’s made me intrigued to see where Scaphoid goes from here.