Review Summary: A surprisingly progressive album about the struggles of urban life. This is heavy metal done right.
What Lies Ahead Of Us is the debut album of the Brazilian progressive heavy metal trio Pentral, the Latin word for "soul". The overall context of the time and place this album was written is significant to the messages that Pentral conveys lyrically. It is a concept album about indigenous natives who get signs from the trees that they should leave the jungles where they have lived their entire lives because the destruction of their home was looming right around the corner. They have a child then search for new land until they suddenly come across a bustling urban development. Throughout the album, they are subjected to greed, urban heartlessness, racism, and social isolation. This is one of the first albums I have reviewed that had been made during the COVID-19 quarantine, and themes about the social isolation of developed nations are part of the theme of the album. In addition, the relatively recent destruction of the Amazon rainforest is also a contributing factor to the themes of this album, and coming from Brazil, Pentral have seen this firsthand. This is essentially a very political-minded album.
Pentral takes most of their compositional influences from the wave of late 70s and early 80s heavy metal with Metallica, Rush, and Black Sabbath as some of their influencers. This sound is combined with fairly technical riffs and a prog metal style use of odd time signatures which makes the comparison to most other conventional heavy metal bands a bit comical. I would personally categorize the sound of this album to be of 80s heavy metal revival with a fusion of prog metal. This album takes from old genres of music but does so in a way that still sounds somewhat modern. Though this album does have its faults, it succeeds in the areas where most the most effort is placed: in its compelling lyrical themes and memorable songwriting.
For the first six tracks, you can expect a somewhat stereotypically heavy metal sound, with a vocalist that reminds me a lot of Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden. Aside from the track “Disconnected”, I’d say there are no bad songs on the album, every song is written well, and with that nice progressive edge. There is a frequent alternation between softer acoustic sections and the more metal sections with distorted guitars and intense vocal melodies. This is implemented well to make the listening experience dynamic and keep it from becoming samey. One song that is especially a highlight during the first half is “Letters From Nowhere”. It begins with softer vocals, minimal instrumentals, and acoustic guitar sections to lead us into a distorted riff. The music builds more with increased tempo with great use of bass & drums until you are hit with, more or less, the catchiest chorus on the album.
One thing I feel I must mention about the mixing and production of this album is that it is co-produced by Tim Palmer who is one of the primary producers of David Bowie and Ozzy Osbourne. This made a lot of sense to me when I had discovered this because I had noticed it is not produced like the average metal album is; everything is mixed a bit lower and more distant sounding. I think this is a special case where the music benefits or faulters depending on what kind of hardware one is listening to the album on. In my car and through speakers, this album sounds very poorly mixed, and it feels very compressed. However, when listening through headphones, this distant compression of the mix adds to the atmosphere a bit as you don’t have to try as hard to hear the individual instruments. When thinking about this in particular I was conflicted; maybe I was being too picky or too harsh on the mix. But when comparing What Lies Ahead Of Us to other popular heavy metal albums, Somewhere in Time by Iron Maiden, for instance, everything was so much more upfront and clear; the difference is very noticeable. It became obvious that the album would benefit a good bit from a remaster.
Moving onto the second half of the album, what I would define as tracks 7-10, Pentral saved most of their more ambitious and progressive songwriting for the end, and the album pays off in a big way. I wonder if this was an intentional artistic aesthetic choice from the artists. To make an auditory duality between the more calm and simple songwriting, living in the forest, to the more aggressive and complicated songwriting, living in the city. I’d like to think this was done to contrast the more organic, simple life of a tribal person living with nature, and the overly complicated, artificial life of city dwellers.
In the end, this is a fairly exceptional album that provides a lot more to the ears than your average heavy metal album. This is a good album for fans of an older style of metal but wants something more artistic and technical. Though the album has a hit-or-miss production, it excels in what makes it stand out amongst the crowd in its excellent songwriting and performances that convey passion and care.