Since 2009 Godsticks have steadily been building an impressive catalogue of releases but with Emergence they take their sound to a new level of intensity whilst still incorporating most of the elements that made the band special in the first place. They have also developed into a formidable band in both writing and live delivery, which makes the recent announcement that drummer Steve Roberts has departed particularly unfortunate.
The currently used description of Godsticks as a “Progressive Heavy Trio” is pretty accurate and this third full album release follows in the footsteps of some very impressive predecessors, building on the heaviness added to 2013’s The Envisage Conundrum. The complexity of their music to date is retained but the heaviness button has been seriously pushed for this one with the role of the keyboards, including trademark piano, markedly reduced.
But don’t go thinking that this is a prog metal album pure and simple because it isn’t. The traditional Godsticks sound is still present but assembled with a different outlook that incorporates a heavier perspective within a slightly stripped down environment. There is still soul and emotion at the heart of it all, math rock, prog, jazz and metal flavouring the stew that holds the hugely accessible melodies and choruses, the cornerstone to the success of Godsticks’ music.
As usual the album artwork is a striking affair, Eric Lacombe’s image capturing the darker tone of the new material, the ‘emergence’ of the mummified figure from a wall probably influencing the album title but also illustrating the emergence of a mature and focused writing style that suits the band well. Conciseness has always been central – no 20-minute epics for these guys – the songs generally remaining in the 4 to 6 minute zone, although pushing slightly past this more than previously. These songs are not difficult to like in their barest forms but once put through the Godsticks maelstrom they become intoxicating with the intensity of the musical skills. There are addictive grooves too which are taken on a high energy ride, punishing passages counterbalanced by supremely melodic choruses as the band develop their sound once again. Guitarist and singer Darran Charles says:
“A conscious effort was made only to select songs for the album that maintained a stylistically consistent theme throughout. The original premise of Godsticks, to ensure that a song remains interesting from start to finish, was still intact but our live shows seemed to have an overarching influence on every new song written – the more we play live, the heavier our sound seems to get. Guitar pretty much shared duties with keyboards on the early Godsticks releases but lately it has become the driving force, and this is epitomized in Emergence. So in essence: we’re the same, but different. I can’t wait for people to hear it!”
And in a manner reminiscent of its title, Below The Belt bursts into life and hammers you in the nuts with metallic intensity. Immediately the movement of the instruments is interesting, never resting for a moment, the melody and rhythm lines very fluid. The listener can be thrown off balance initially but this is genuinely affecting stuff when you familiarise yourself and once again Godsticks have moved towards uncharted waters. Charles’ vocal is still rich and warm and unlike anyone else I can think of, his tone turning the unusual lines and cadences into things of immense beauty. The guitar lines are startling and the soloing, although not often the focal point, particularly interesting, Darran appearing to have approached this in a different way for Emergence that has served him well. Likewise the rhythm track has a life of its own and Steve Roberts excels, keeping the momentum and accentuating the changes whilst adding all manner of additional twists and turns.
Ruin maintains the heaviness with shades of Zappa in Charles’ vocal delivery, unorthodox melodies continuing throughout an album which appears to have emerged (sorry!) fully formed. This is not a cautious development, there is intent and authority in the delivery, a massive sound with interesting rhythmic and melodic constructs that collide and spin off in all manner of directions. Although completely different I am drawn to the last two releases from Leprous for comparison. Both bands have hit on a methodology that works, the whole album an off-kilter affair that sounds unusual and difficult initially whilst retaining the melody and drive that becomes infectious on subsequent spins. I think the results have been more successful in Godsticks’ case and James Loughrey’s production spreads the soundstage to allow the necessary depth to give space to the instruments within a framework that could have been very dense.
A drawn out bluesy twang expands into a choppy guitar line that accentuates the laid back rhythm of Much Sinister, imploring the pace to pick up and giving an unusual cadence with both an urgency and slow rhythms at the same time. Exit Stage Right (a Rush allusion?) is sometimes tech metal, sometimes math rock but always the delivery system for a fantastically realised melody. There’s masses of momentum to it but as usual the actual song is at the heart rather than tagged on to the riffing dexterity.
There’s a change of tack with the lilting acoustic All That Remains, Darran’s beautiful delivery of the charged lyric adding the necessary emotion. Roberts’ jazz influences come through in the background with female vocals and strings adding to the seductive mixture as the energy builds, Charles sticking to his acoustic for this one. Maybe it’s almost time for a Godsticks acoustic album that would no doubt underline the undoubted quality of their quirky songs.
The pummelling rhythm attack of Hopeless Situation breaks out on an unorthodox guitar riff at odds with the vocal in classic Godsticks style. Charles’ voice continues to get stronger, a wonderful mix of power, depth and emotion with the range to vary the melody. This song is almost two fused together with the vocal at a slower tempo to the backing but it works supremely well and the instrumental section at the end is a Roberts masterclass in how to move the rhythm around with some seriously sinuous soloing from Charles.
With most of the songs written by Darran Charles, the only co-write is with Roberts on One Per Cent, another unusual melody that is made all the more compelling by the setting, a pounding backdrop with masses of energy that is just fascinating. There are some riffy stabs to separate the verses and the whole is beautifully assembled in a way that keeps the energy high whilst enabling the emotion to draw the listener in. This is no mean feat and the guys deserve praise. The mellow and understated keys and voice interlude near the end is chased out of the room and battered by a scalding power trio finale.
The title track slows the pace with a pounding rhythm upon which Charles’ guitar surfs in classic heavy metal style – this could almost be Dio. The head-banging intensity continues but the lead into the chorus takes things in a new direction. A brief yet sinister instrumental preludes Lack Of Scrutiny, the longest track on the album and a fine way to close, vibrantly energetic and absurdly dextrous with hyperactive guitar buzzing around Charles’ words. When it comes, the chorus is colossal, also used to good effect during the play out with serpentine soloing from Charles over a locked in rhythm, keys and brass opening out the sound into epic for a big and bold finish.
Godsticks must surely now have developed into one of the most impressive bands currently working in Britain and the fact that you can still get to see them play in tiny halls is simply nonsensical, the chops are second to none. Steve Roberts just grows in stature with every release and his partnership with Dan Nelson is nothing short of telepathic, their role in Godsticks a very different beast to the work they do with Magenta. All three instruments combine to build a complex rhythmic framework through which Charles’ vocals and soloing can weave. This is not an album for shredding enthusiasts as the songs are still central but each member underlines what a superb player he is and you underestimate them at your peril.
It would be fantastic and completely justified if Emergence were to see Godsticks make a breakthrough, maybe with a slightly different audience given the added heaviness of this release. The more metallic elements will no doubt put off some listeners but that is a shame as this is not a prog metal album. It uses some of the same mindset and dynamics but with a quite breathtaking melodic capability, the heaviness and power additional colours in the palette that Godsticks use to fine effect. Personally, while metal does not have the appeal for me that it once did I thoroughly enjoy the heavy moments and Godsticks have developed it into their sound with a skill that certainly benefits their writing. It isn’t all ‘smack the listener over the head as hard as possible’, the melodic delivery remaining central to what Godsticks are out to achieve.
The music is not an immediately easy listen but once you acclimatise you’re in for one hell of a ride with stellar musicianship built into a captivating set of songs. Nothing short of brilliant.
01. Below The Belt (6:21)
02. Ruin (3:59)
03. Much Sinister (4:30)
04. Exit Stage Right (5:42)
05. All That Remains (4:37)
06. Hopeless Situation (4:30)
07. One Percent (6:29)
08. Emergence (6:11)
09. Leave Or Be Left (1:07)
10. Lack Of Scrutiny (7:00)
Total time – 50:26
Darran Charles – Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards
Steve Roberts: Drums, Keyboards
Dan Nelson: Bass
Bruce Soord – Backing Vocals (tracks 2 & 4)
Rick Musallam – Backing Vocals (track 2)
Moray MacDonald – Keyboards (track 3), String & Horn Arrangements (tracks 5 & 10)
Kaysha Louvain – Backing Vocals (track 5)
Jessica Moncrieff – Violin (track 5)
Triona Milna – Viola (track 5)
Rory Simmons – Trumpet (track 10)
Barnaby Dickinson – Trombone (track 10)
Country of Origin: U.K.
Year of Release: 2015