The signs were all there: forward-thinking music, a vocalist who can both scream and sing, a dedicated keyboardist, and 2014’s Language was already moving in that direction anyway. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that The Contortionist have almost entirely left behind their heavy tech-death-core sound in favour of a softer, proggier one, as so many progressive metal bands eventually do. What is a surprise is how well it has turned out. Clairvoyant loses the growling and the uptempo djent in favour of more layers and nuance, but the band loses none of their vitality in the process – no mean feat, and the result is one of the most exciting progressive metal albums of the year.
The key is that the new album is every bit as adventurous as previous albums, even if it is a little more subtle. Listen carefully to how many times the groove (and even the tempo) changes in the short Godspeed. The rhythmic play of drummer Joey Baca is as tightly locked in as ever with bassist Jordan Eberhardt, who are as good a pair as any in the genre. However, in Godspeed the guitars shift with them, with layered clean parts, chords, and leads morphing continuously to match their abstractions on the song’s durational canvasses. And almost all of the album has this constant shifting quality. Meters are never quite stable, though they often give the illusion of being so – see the subtly irregular metric shifts in the chorus of Reimagined. Subdivisions and tempi are not stable either, as in Godspeed but also in the opener Monochrome (Passive). Each new layer turns a 2 into a 3 or vice versa, pulses are continuously regrouped and re-subdivided. Harmonies are similarly mercurial, as in the utterly surprising major chord that starts the beginning of the chorus of Relapse. Not even moods are quite safe – the dark, submerged opening of Reimagined bubbles up quickly into the full sunlight of its chorus.
But none of this is as jarring as these descriptions might make it seem. The changes are subtle and so cleverly orchestrated that they are often hard to even recognise – how many separate sections are there in the title track, for example? I was shocked when I started paying attention to its form. Its complexity does not call attention to itself, and is even more interesting because of it. Everything is well tied together, even if the atmosphere is highly variable. Maybe it’s the hypnotic clean ostinatos that lend the album its coherence – the ones that persist maddeningly through The Center, the ones that appear to drag Reimagined out of the dark (at 0:32), the ones that weave throughout album closer Monochrome (Pensive). In any case, it works, and the album is coherent while being dizzyingly variable.
Not everything about this album sits right with me straight away. Michael Lessard is a great singer, but a few of his melodies on this album feel too much like sugary pop songs for comfort – I’m thinking specifically of the synth section at 1:44 of Return to Earth, as well as a few other places. I respect it as an artistic choice, if for no other reason than because in the world of transgression that is progressive metal there is perhaps nothing as startling as conventional pop melodies. And I really like the hook (“and keep on building…”) that gets heavier and heavier throughout the song; I like his use of the voice as a layer among many, as on Monochrome (Pensive), I like his voice in the hooks of Godspeed and Reimagined, and I of course miss his growling. But a few of the melodies on Clairvoyant have given me negative reactions that have been slow to dissipate. Whether these more harmonically simple, repetitive lines grow on me remains to be seen.
There is always some nostalgia for older albums when a well-loved band offers up their latest, especially here when The Contortionist has left big parts of their sound behind. Besides the growling and the heaviness, I also miss the band’s trademark technical obtusity, showcased quintessentially on Flourish but carried consistently all the way through most of Language. On Clairvoyant, there is no doubt that the band is still made up of exceptional musicians, but the overt displays of virtuosity, while still thrilling, seem almost like throwaway gestures between the longer stretches of hypnotic layering. If you pay attention to them, they’re cool and just as dazzling as the examples that were all over their earlier albums – the two that stick out to me are the short, tight, whiplash-inducing ascending riff at 2:37 of Clairvoyant and the quick transition run that leads into the chorus of Relapse, starting at 1:12. As often happens as bands of this type mature, instrumental virtuosity has taken a back seat to performance and compositional finesse.
But Clairvoyant does not erase Exoplanet or any other of the band’s albums – I can still listen to both. And if the first albums displayed the contortions of acrobatics, Clairvoyant marks the transition into meditative, yoga-like contortions – and the album is ultimately equally mind-bending and well worth a listen.
Clairvoyant is out Friday, September 15th, on Good Fight Records, and the band’s tour of the U.S. as support for Between the Buried and Me’s Colors tour begins the week after, though good luck getting tickets if you didn’t get them early.
01. Monochrome (Passive) (4:58)
02. Godspeed (3:48)
03. Reimagined (3:22)
04. Clairvoyant (7:37)
05. The Center (7:13)
06. Absolve (5:20)
07. Relapse (6:18)
08. Return to Earth (6:16)
09. Monochrome (Pensive) (9:24)
Total Time – 54:16
Robby Baca – Guitar
Cameron Maynard – Guitar
Joey Baca – Drums
Mike Lessard – Vocals
Jordan Eberhardt – Bass
Eric Guenther – Keyboards
Record Label: Good Fight Music
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 15th September 2017