Review Summary: I cannot think of a better example of a "hit or miss" album than this. Fans of Katatonia and Agalloch should check this one out.
I find it interesting that a band like Sculptured is so unknown, given that three of their lifetime members are also members of Agalloch. I mean, Agalloch is such a beloved band in metal that one would think that the attention would seep into their side projects; Khôrada for instance has gotten its fair share of fandom by proxy. One reason why many people may have forgotten about Sculptured is that they have not released an album in 13 years; as Agalloch gained critical acclaim, the band focused on that more and put Sculptured on the backburner. Sculptured‘s first three albums I will say, are quite good, revolving around progressive/avant-garde death metal which utilize some very atmospheric and artsy ideas. Each album has its own flavor of this style, but there was a clear sense of consistency and continuity; that is until The Liminal Phase dropped.
Opeth fans everywhere understand the consequences of going cold-turkey on progressive death metal, and the reception is never pretty. Likewise, The Liminal Phase came off the woodwork with a really different kind of approach, now with a new drummer and vocalist, their style substantially changed into something that can be approximately described as prog metal with modern gothic rock tendencies. But as you will read, the complaints are not only limited to a change in style, but a drastic change in the quality of the album’s mix and production can leave many fans with a sour aftertaste. I do think that there is a lot of good, salvageable material that Sculptured has presented here for us. And in the right mood, some of the album’s strong points can begin to resonate with the listener, even with the obvious downfalls that are immediately present.
I want to point out that this album is thankfully only five songs, which show a level of restraint and maturity on the songwriters’ part. Major gripes and downfalls of albums are very often exacerbated by a lack of restraint of an album’s time length (this is something I am ironically also working on as a reviewer).
In this review, I am going to do something a bit different and address the downfalls of the album before the goods. Now, the most talked-about aspect in which Sculptured has apparently offended the ears of many is in its mix and production. I have even read one person say: “Genuinely one of the worst production jobs I’ve heard”, now, I wouldn’t go that far as I am regularly finding carelessly produced albums on the underground of Metal-Archives. But it is true that the way that this thing is mixed is questionable, at best. The guitars are really low in the mix, and everything besides the vocals often just sound very compressed, then really vivid in other times. This makes a lot of otherwise adequate performances come off awkwardly. You are just listening to this album, and you can’t really tell if a guitar solo is starting until it’s already halfway through the solo when you realize “Yep, looks like this is some sort of solo”.
With all of this in mind, I believe that this was probably intentional. Why is this? Well, firstly, you would think that musicians as experienced as the bassist and lead guitarist of Agalloch would know how to mix and produce an album. This is produced the way it is because it goes along well with the album’s theme. Really? Yes. Look at the album art. The way that the album art focuses well on a small circular section in the middle of a blurry messy fog; that ocular focus is very contingent, liminal even. The way the instruments are all compressed with the synths, bass, drums, and guitars occasionally peaking in and out of focus creates the liminal phases in the listening experience. I know that this might be me jumping to conclusions, but I think that this is a way of looking at this product in a way that makes sense as the album is about phases, opportunities passing by, and contingencies between shifting states.
Okay, so let’s assume that the mix is bad on purpose. So, why should we listen to this? I found that in the right environment, some of the peaks of this album can hit pretty well. The synths have this special shade of introspective depression that I have not heard in prog metal often. I can also say that the new vocalist is very good at creating a hypnotizing atmosphere as I have found myself being lulled by his voice, particularly on “Dead Wall Reveries”. The mixing decisions do hurt a lot of the instrumental performances, but there are some real peaks on this thing that hit hard when they do; including the gothic, almost post rock, interludes like on the title track. I think that when one gives this album a chance, it can leave an impact as a lot of the songwriting is fairly memorable.
From such elite-level musicians, this is a mixed bag, for sure (unintended pun). However, the bad parts are not so bad that they are unforgivable, and it has a lot to offer the way of redeeming qualities that make the album last. I’d say that this even has enough unique qualities about it to say that it leaves an impact on the scene (whatever that may be). The Liminal Phase went out of its way to do something really different, even though for many people, it did not land. In the end, I appreciate the risks and creative thought process that went behind this album’s purpose and I might even find myself coming back to this from time to time.