Review Summary: Portrait of the artist as a toothpaste shill
The, uh, phenomenon
known as djent has been so polarising for so long that in most contexts it hardly warrants an introduction. God, that would be lovely. Unfortunately, Periphery’s latest record raises enough questions (yes
, beyond the titular one) about what exactly djent is and ain’t in 2023 that we are gonna take that plunge. Select your difficulty, etcetc.. Starting at baby-level, djent on its most basic level is a word for (usually) droptuned/extra-strung metal guitars that (always) go d-d-d-djent
. Neither the “d” nor the “j” is truly silent; one or the other is simply bludgeoned into submission depending on the djent
in question, in a similar fashion to any good palm-muting. This phonological tie-in is probably coincidental, but nonetheless cogent because it has to do with competing visions of loudness and requires at least rudimentary understanding of how a guitar works to parse for nuance or conceivable appeal. That is djent.
Anyhow, if it ain’t a genre, djent is probably best considered a particular kind of aesthetic licence for digitised novelty in traditionally analogue places, the techheaded guitarist’s equivalent to the miasmic days of the 2010 brostep eruption. A cynic would correlate a perceived decline in the not-a-genre with the short shelf life endemic to selling distasteful kitsch as cutting edge wizardry, but that isn’t quite it - djent and djent-offshoots are still out there enjoying growth and life and artistry on a range of forms. Frontierer’s uncompromising take on djent’s most abrasive, glitch-addled edge remains one of the most invigorating sounds in heavy music, while Kardashev have built upon Cloudkicker’s atmospheric subversion of the style’s lab-rat default, combining this with blackened and deathcore aesthetics. The pastiched approach to traditional djent aesthetics that Ada Rook took just last year was equally striking, both as a pathway for ferocious ventings of inner tumult, and as one cogent part among many of her citational meta-commentary on qu’est-ce que c’est que heaviness
? Upshot? Not only is djent seemingly alive, but many of its lives are fresh.
Now, for all the critique they have attracted, Periphery have always been quite savvy at sharpening and repurposing that all-important cutting edge, held against djent’s forthcoming bloodline by the rest of the world by way of a natal pulse check. To a certain extent, there is no ‘djent’ without Periphery - the band’s footprint has been instrumental in legitimising the thing-called-djent outside the long shadows cast by forefathers Sikth and Meshuggah, and as its most recognisable, not to mention profitable, institution. It follows that Periphery would have the most to gain by maintaining djent's edge; their strategies as such have varied in style and success from outing to outing, but are at least consistent in their boldness: back on 2019’s Periphery IV: Hail Stan
, this constituted a tightly gauged balance of provocative self-awareness (opening your long
record with a 16-minute opus about some lizard people apocalypse sci-fi bollocks) and vindicated self-assurance (landing said opener as one of the most impressive and disarmingly cohesive pieces of your career). The rest of that album unfolded in such a way that, if unlikely to convert any long standing sceptics, at least played relentlessly to the band’s strengths. Confident, clever stuff - the kind of stuff an audience has a right to expect from leaders in their field.
All of which is to say how unfortunate it is that Periphery V: Djent Is Not A Genre
almost entirely mistakes this previously grounded confidence as an excuse for one of the most hysterically dysfunctional barrages of jank I have ever had the displeasure of hearing. The fact that “Wildfire”, a disjointed mockery of good songwriting that switches gears between token-heaviness, shoehorned-anthem and elevator-jazz with all the refinement of a slaughterhouse cattle gun, was deemed fit to open the record, let alone introduce it as a single, was warning enough. The rest of the record pans out as a glorified mapping of this track’s inner mechanics, which is to say that inter-track dialogue is almost entirely absent and that the album is relegated to the kind of episodic
deeply undercut by that word’s morphological parallels with epileptic
. Any potential for sequential fluidity is dynamited by umpteen codas’ worth of amateurish MIDI-fellatio, which has the caustic side-effect of engorging the record’s already considerable runtime far beyond the point of casual inconvenience.
The stretch of “Everything is Fine!” (the gratuitously brutal one), “Silhouette” (the quiet pop-cheese one) and “Dying Star” (the loud pop-metal one) goes some way to remedying this, in part because the tracks naturally complement one another, but mainly because they are the three most succinct (/least overborne) pieces here and maintain enough wider resonance to inform each other’s opening moments. This benefit is endearing, but don’t get too excited: these are among the weakest songs here on their own terms and their run is putrid. “Everything is Fine!” scans as a somewhat streamlined take on Frontierer’s chaotic meltdowns, but its corny chorus melody and belaboured technical flourishes do little to dispel the question marks over whether Periphery can actually command genuine grit. On the other hand, “Silhouette”’s whinge-riddled rehash of all the most insufferable parts of ‘80s cheese suits vocalist Spencer Sotelo’s tone not one bit and, with guitar pyrotechnics out of the mix, puts every sketchy facet of the band’s threadbare songwriting firmly in the spotlight. It is without exaggeration among the most embarrassing pop songs this sugar-hoarding, pop-devouring latte attack of reviewer has heard in his life. “Dying Star” at least offers a moment of comic relief insofar as it a) contains the record’s strongest vocal hook, and b) this is ported directly from the Taylor Swift textbook (“State of Grace” fans, rejoice/despair as appropriate). Sweet Jesus, what a run.
As far as the remaining songs are concerned, both “Wax Wings” and, in particular, “Atropos” are acceptable showings from the band’s high-energy Disneyfied artillery, which all extends to the initially boilerplate-heavy “Zagreus”, once it settles into its climactic series of Coheed and Cambria-style singalongs. These are hardly redemptively excellent, but they are at least tenable for what they go for. The sickly-sweet “Thanks Nobuo” almost joins their company, but Sotelo’s vocal inflections over Final Fantasy interpolations is yet another spite marriage from bitterest hell, and the track’s overwrought postulations of carpeing some sweet ol’ diem feel quite frankly insulting, coming as they do at the end of an album so full of wasted space. Sotelo may be a marmite vocalist on the whole, but he does prove he can navigate a decent hook on the rare occasions that he’s afforded one to work with (as per “Atropos” and “Zagreus”); however, the man’s long-infamous toothpaste-clean enunciation doubles as a hapless spotlight for his incorrigible failure to pen a single stomachable lyric over the entirety of an album he hardly shuts up on. It’s telling to this end that the album highlight “Dracul Gras” is perhaps the best band
showcase here, its songwriting focused on technicality and fuelled by largely appealing cheap thrills, its ‘epic’ structure too sequential and instrumentally driven to put too much strain on Sotelo’s wavering capacity to hold the floor. Whatever you would actively choose to listen to Periphery for, this track has it. Praise be.
Is this enough? Ha. If the entire album were made up of nothing but saving graces, these would still be strung together with such vile inelegance that it would only do to call it a gigantic hot mess. These kinds of writing, sequencing and stylisation blunders would be forgivable for a debut act, but coming from a band who are seemingly learning to indulge in their own least appealing qualities, they are well beyond the scope of sympathy. Periphery V
’s stubborn insistence on pairing pop sensibilities with poor songwriting should be taken as an ill portent for ‘mainstream’ djent as a whole. It’s a parodical relapse into all the ugly facets Periphery had seemingly learned to camouflage, fated to coast by on their general popularity and change absolutely nothing at all about djent in or out of whichsoever genre parameters you feel compelled to impose on it. Djent’s most exciting developments will continue to come from splinter acts unless either Periphery and all their turgid followers get their act together, or a djent-centric wave of new talent hotwires kicks off an unforeseen second wave. For now, the mothership is bunk. Lucrative djentlemen (ew) across the world, do better; the rest of you, sit back and ponder the fact that Periphery III: Select Difficulty
is somehow still worse than this horseshit.