White Moth Black Butterfly – Atone – Album Review

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Artist: White Moth Black Butterfly

Album Title: Atone

Label: Kscope

Date Of Release: 1 September 2017

Before reading this review, you might like to take a look outside. In so doing, you might notice a few flying pigs, a blue moon or even the beginning of the end of the Universe as we know it. For the Man Of Much Metal is reviewing an album that isn’t metal. ‘So what, he’s done that before’, I hear you cry. Yes, but the furthest I’ve previously ventured is into the realms of melodic rock, AOR or pastoral progressive rock. Never before have I reviewed an album that explores such experimental realms, encompassing ambient sounds, classical music, cinematic soundscapes and even…breathe…pop.

But here I am, faced with such a recording in the form of the sophomore release from White Moth Black Butterfly entitled ‘Atone’.

Truth be told, had I not been sent this unsolicited, I may never have ever heard of the name White Moth Black Butterfly. And, if I’m being even more honest, had the name Daniel Tompkins not featured, I probably wouldn’t have given this a second thought. For a fan of progressive music, the TesseracT vocalist is too much of a draw to ignore; if he’s involved, I have to check it out. That’s not to say that I don’t like certain ambient and film score music, because I’m a sucker for the works of Sigur Ros and Craig Armstrong respectively to name just a couple. However, metal is where my heart lies and when I’m already drowning under copious amounts of new music within this genre, I haven’t the time to go searching in other directions.

The simple truth though, is that a cursory late night listen to this gorgeously-presented album hit me right in the feels like I was never expecting. I was exhausted and about to call it a night but something made me keep the headphones on a little longer and give this a quick go. Forty minutes later, I picked my jaw up off the floor, waited for the goosebumps to subside and very nearly pressed play again despite the late hour. The only adjective I could think off as I drifted off to sleep that night was ‘exquisite’.

Knowing nothing of White Moth Black Butterfly previously, I cannot comment on the debut album ‘One Thousand Wings’. But to be honest, that might be a good thing because I just want to talk about ‘Atone’ and its many, many incredibly powerful charms.

White Moth Black Butterfly consists of Tompkins alongside his Skyharbor colleagues Jordan Turner (vocals) and guitarist/programmer Keshav Dhar as well as keyboardist/programmer Randy Slaugh and drummer Mac Christensen. Together, they have managed to move me, open my mind a little further and essentially stolen my heart.

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Within seconds of opening track ‘I: Incarnate’ beginning, I felt the magic and realised that my mouth was hanging wide open. I simply wasn’t expecting to hear something so delicate and so intensely beautiful. It lasts less than two minutes but in that time, I get chills aplenty every time I hear it. The rich orchestration speaks to my soul and the simple, uncluttered construction speaks more eloquently than most compositions twice its length. Tompkin’s voice is tentative, fragile and emotional, a wonderful counterpoint to the sumptuous, yet melancholy soundscape that envelops him.

By contrast, ‘Rising Sun’ is a little more upbeat in tone and ever so slightly progressive in nature. Christensen’s drums enter the fray for the first time, delivering an understated yet important heartbeat, whilst the guitars shyly add their voice. Again, the lush keys bathe me in a warm glow, whilst Jordan Turner’s angelic soft vocals that duet with Tompkins offers both a contemporary edge and an irresistibly ethereal beauty to the highly melodic and memorable piece.

The striking simplicity of the piano that ushers in ‘Tempest’ carry echoes of Anathema but these thoughts are quickly forgotten as Tompkins treats us to a masterclass of intense emotional singing. In this form, I could happily listen to him all day and, to some extent, that’s been true over the last 72 hours. The multi-layered textures at work as well as the clever ebb and flow between minimalism and controlled exuberance mean that this is easily a personal favourite.

‘An Ocean Away’ maintains the incredibly high quality of ‘Atone’ almost effortlessly. The sombre strings that bring it to life are superseded by a simple but bold programmed beat, the kind of thing I’d normally shy well away from under normal circumstances. But rather, it acts as a hypnotic heartbeat around which further lush orchestration and strange modern sounds and samples draw me in like a moth to the proverbial flame. And as superb as Tompkins sounds at the outset, it is Turner that then steals the show with a sensual and breathy performance that washes away all my cares in the world.

I earlier mentioned the work of Craig Armstrong and ‘Symmetry’ could easily have been penned by the film score maestro. The dark and evocative cinematic drama is stunning, a theme that is carried into ‘II: Penitence’ which ends with the sounds of shouting, gunfire and aircraft, an intriguing juxtaposition to the delicate and soothing sounds of plucked strings that initially brought it to life.

The melodies that feature throughout ‘Atone’ are gorgeous but ‘The Sage’ offers some of the best. The vocals of Tompkins have to be heard to be believed, whilst the Oriental flavour at the midpoint is a masterstroke. If this song is playing, be it in the car or on headphones late at night, I stop what I am doing, close my eyes and revel in its indescribable beauty.

The title track offers another opportunity for Jordan Turner to unleash her devastating hushed tones, whilst Tompkins in contrast delivers some of his most powerful and commanding vocals, all atop more dramatic cinematic textures that are a genuine delight.

And then, once the ambient and occasionally unsettling tribal-sounding minimalism of ‘III: Deep Earth’ departs having left an indelible mark on the listener, ‘Atone’ closes with ‘Evelyn’. Complete with operatic vocals and plenty of inter-song diversity, it rounds out the album in suitably rich and striking fashion – a satisfyingly deep and diverse conclusion to a wonderfully diverse record.

And yet, in spite of the variation and contrasts at work within ‘Atone’, this record feels remarkably fluent and cohesive. It is the hallmark of great musicians if something like this can be achieved. It is the hallmark of near-genius when such experimentation sounds so utterly beautiful and soul-enriching as is the case here. Take a bow White Moth Black Butterfly because genres be damned, you have unquestionably delivered one of the very best albums of the year.

The Score Of Much Metal: 9.75

If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from previous years and for 2017 right here:

2015 reviews
2016 reviews

Jag Panzer – The Deviant Chord
Vulture Industries – Stranger Times
Anubis Gate – Covered In Black
Protean Collective – Collapse
Cradle Of Filth – Cryproriana – The Seductiveness of Decay
TDW & Dreamwalkers Inc. – The Antithetic Affiliation
Caligula’s Horse – In Contact
Nocturnal Rites – Phoenix
Arch Enemy – Will To Power
Threshold – Legends Of The Shires
H.E.A.T – Into The Great Unknown
Dyscarnate – With All Their Might
Subterranean Masquerade – Vagabond
Adagio – Life
Paradise Lost – Medusa
The Haunted – Strength In Numbers
Serious Black – Magic
Leprous – Malina
The Lurking Fear – Out of the Voiceless Grave
Prospekt – The Illuminated Sky
Wintersun – The Forest Seasons
Witherfall – Nocturnes And Requiems
Tuesday The Sky – Drift
Anthriel – Transcendence
Decapitated – Anticult
Cosmograf – The Hay-Man Dreams
Orden Ogan – Gunmen
Iced Earth – Incorruptible
Anathema – The Optimist
Solstafir – Berdreyminn
Dream Evil – Six
Avatarium – Hurricanes And Halos
Ayreon – The Source
Until Rain – Inure
MindMaze – Resolve
God Dethroned – The World Ablaze
Bjorn Riis – Forever Comes To An End
Voyager – Ghost Mile
Big Big Train – Grimspound
Lonely Robot – The Big Dream
Firespawn – The Reprobate
Ancient Ascendant
Pyramaze – Contingent
Shores Of Null – Black Drapes For Tomorrow
Asira – Efference
Hologram Earth – Black Cell Program
Damnations Day – A World Awakens
Memoriam – For The Fallen
Pallbearer – Heartless
Sleepmakeswaves – Made of Breath Only
Ghost Ship Octavius – Ghost Ship Octavius
Vangough – Warpaint
Telepathy – Tempest
Obituary – Obituary
Fen – Winter
Havok – Conformicide
Wolfheart – Tyhjyys
Svart Crown – Abreaction
Nova Collective – The Further Side
Immolation – Atonement
The Mute Gods – Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth
Ex Deo – The Immortal Wars
Pyogenesis – A Kingdom To Disappear
My Soliloquy – Engines of Gravity
Nailed To Obscurity – King Delusion
Helion Prime – Helion Prime
Battle Beast – Bringer Of Pain
Persefone – Aathma
Soen – Lykaia
Exquirla – Para Quienes Aun Viven
Odd Logic – Effigy
Mors Principium Est – Embers Of A Dying World
Firewind – Immortals
Slyde – Back Again EP
Sepultura – Machine Messiah
Deserted Fear – Dead Shores Rising
Kreator – Gods Of Violence
Borealis – World of Silence MMXVII
Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day

Earthside – Interview – “we don’t write something with the idea of making it easy to play live”

Photo Credit: Ian Christmann http://ianchristmann.com/ Ian Christmann, Photographer
Photo Credit: Ian Christmann http://ianchristmann.com/
Ian Christmann, Photographer

‘A Dream In Static’, the debut album from US progressive metal band Earthside ended up as my favourite album of 2015. I wasn’t expecting this to be the case at the start of the year but if you’ve heard it, you’ll not be surprised as to why it attained such a lofty place in my affections. Want to know more, here’s my review.

So when the opportunity presented itself to witness some of this music live on stage at the band’s debut UK gig, I couldn’t turn it down. Neither could I refuse the chance to sit down with the band and fire a few questions their way. I explored the background to Earthside and ‘A Dream In Static’ in some detail with drummer Ben Shanbrom prior to its release last year. If you’re after the Earthside back story, read part 1 and part 2 here.

I therefore thought it would be a good idea to probe the band regarding the feedback they’ve received since the album was released at the tail end of 2015 and find out how on Earth they have managed to replicate their fiendishly complicated and multi-layered music on stage.

“Let me start by saying that if I need a confidence boost, I’ll just google ‘Matt Spall’”, jokes guitarist Jamie van Dyck to much warm laughter. He is sitting across the room to me on a battered leather sofa in a ramshackle room that is somewhat misleadingly referred to as a dressing room, high up in the Camden Barfly building and he has a big smile on his face.

“But I think it has gone over really well’, he continues more seriously. “We’ve been surprised how many people in Europe know who we are, it’s stunning. It has been really cool to meet people who are really passionate about the record and are having the chance to experience it live and give us their feedback. Generally these people have been very happy about how we present it live. Also it is a fun challenge to win over people who have never heard of us and don’t know what to expect from us.’

earthside coverIt’s a big question and a very subjective one but, given how much effort, not to mention blood, sweat and tears went into this record, I’m eager to find out whether the response to ‘A Dream In Static’ has met their hopes and expectations. It is keyboardist Frank Sacramone who, perched on a table beside me, replies first.

“It differs for each person and you’re going to get a different answer from each of us. For me personally, I wish this album had reached more people, for the amount of work to reward, as far as popularity is concerned. The people who have heard it and love it, their love is very deep and that’s amazing. But in terms of how far I thought this record would go, I thought it would reach more people. I get a little down on myself, thinking ‘why don’t people know about us? What have we done wrong?”

“I don’t negate what Frank said”, Jamie weighs in. “Anyone who has lent a hand, in whatever way, they have all done a really good job and we’re grateful. When you put so much ‘blood, sweat and tears’ to use your words, I don’t think there’s any amount of success that would live up to our wildest hopes and dreams.”

“I think there is a number, I disagree”, interjects Frank to more laughter around the room.

“But I also think that once you get that new number, it becomes a moving target’, Jamie counters. “You have a new baseline and the dopamine addict in you feels like it isn’t enough; you always want more. You can view it as ‘why don’t more people know about us’ or, if you wake in a positive state of mind, it could be viewed as ‘wow, look at all those people who had no idea who we were five months ago and how passionate they are.’ As humans, we are so vulnerable to our own internal emotional states. The actual factors outside might be very different but that won’t matter. At the end of the day, we’re volatile, we’re artists.”

At this point, bassist Ryan Griffin chips in for the first time. Until now, he has been sitting on a really uncomfortable-looking seat beneath a grimy window apparently deep in thought, almost as if deliberately psyching himself up for the show ahead. In keeping with the rest of the band, Ryan is highly articulate and extremely focused.

“I would agree with these two guys but I would also add that these days in the music industry, there is more of an emphasis on churning out content rather than producing something that stands the test of time or has real weight behind it. All four of us, we’re not the kind of people who just want to get the music out there. We’re hyper-obsessives. Whoever we talk to, there’s always that question ‘What’s next?’ or ‘is there another album somewhere in there somewhere?’ We are definitely working on some new material but we’re in no way ready to close the book on the first album yet. There are so many more people that we feel need to hear this. Plus, as you said, given the blood, sweat and tears that went into this, we owe it to ourselves and to those that have supported us to continue with this album for the time being.”

Credit: Ian Christmann Photography ( http://catalystphotography.com/ )
Credit: Ian Christmann Photography ( http://catalystphotography.com/ )

If you’ve heard ‘A Dream In Static’, you’ll be aware just how complex this record is. Not just in terms of the arrangements and the intricacies of the music, but also by virtue of the guest musicians involved. Not only do Earthside employ a plethora of vocalists including Bjorn ‘Speed’ Strid (Soilwork) and Lajon Witherspoon (Sevendust), but there’s also the small matter of a full Russian orchestra being involved at times. I ask the guys how difficult it was to pull it all together and replicate the music in a live setting. Initially, the response is very jovial and light-hearted.

“On a scale from one to ten’, Frank pauses dramatically for effect, before breaking out into a grin, “thirteen or fourteen.”

“I think the scale is arbitrary”, smiles Jamie wickedly, “but it must be above ten”. Cue more raucous laughter from all corners of the room, before Jamie, today’s primary spokesman offers a more in-depth analysis.

“I think the biggest thing is that we have this collaborative spirit and when we’re composing, we’re envisioning the greater picture of the record and the songs. We enjoy the idea of working with other people with very different gifts that complement our talents. We feel that if someone is coming to see us live, this needs to be part of that live experience, especially if they have never heard of us. If they see us live and we don’t show them that, they are missing such a huge part of the story. That’s the hardest part I think.”

“Also”, he continues, “we have so many sounds among Frank’s keyboards and my guitars that are very specific and particular. There are so many different sounds we use on the record in terms of amplifiers and guitars, plus I play in so many different tunings. So there are lots things that we need to think about live. But we don’t write something with the idea of making it easy to play live or for a live setting.”

So it’s fair to say that you’ve made it difficult for yourselves then?

“It’s a bit of an aside”, Jamie explains whilst knowing looks pass between the band members, “but there are two ways that we write songs, songs we write individually and songs we write together in rehearsals. The songs we write together, by virtue of the process of being together in a room jamming them, those songs tend to be easier to pull off live. They tend to be the instrumentals and because we played them together in rehearsal, we’re able to play them from beginning to end with the technology that we have available. With the other songs, we had to kinda develop the technology to be able to pull them off. I think we’ve gotten a lot better at it.”

Although the subject of new material would appear to be unwelcome at the current time, I’m still interested to find out whether going out on tour has changed Earthside’s perception and approach in terms of future song writing. Frank is first to reply and his answer is typically vehement and honest.

“For me personally, no. The music has to be true to yourself so if I write something personally for me, I’m going to write what’s good for me and I’m not going to look any further than that.”

“I am a very firm believer”, adds Ryan equally intensely, “that whatever music we write and whatever we decide to do, there is a solution that we will be able to find to make it work live. Arguably, the reason we have a live show that so many people seem to be enthralled by is because we wrote these songs that are unplayable live”, he laughs as do the others, “and we have found a way to play them live. Sometimes it does feel bad when you have to find a solution that feels completely unattainable but when we succeed, I believe it is for the better in the long run.”

These comments are met with universal nodding around the room before Jamie adds a little practical context.

“To take a slightly alternate position, whilst I don’t think it will affect our writing in a dramatic way, but we are now writing and rehearsing using the equipment that we use live. It’s not in an intentional or conscious way but my conjecture would be that by virtue of using the same technology in rehearsals and live, from a technological standpoint, the music might translate better on stage. But ultimately, I agree with these guys that we’re going to write what we love; that’s what’s going to matter.”

“I don’t actually get any full thoughts when I’m on stage”, admits Ryan in response to my query about how it feels to pull off a live show in light of all the hurdles that have had to be overcome. “To me, when we have a really good show, it just feels really amazing. But there are no words in my brain, because I don’t work that way.”

Credit: Ray Hearne / Haken
Credit: Ray Hearne / Haken

“It really depends on the show”, adds the previously quiet Ben, obviously happy to let the other guys chat with me after our marathon Skype chat last year. “But being very emotionally attuned people, we are very hard on ourselves. So if something goes wrong or if one of us individually doesn’t feel like we gave the best performance, we have a hard time filing that away and thinking instead that the show was 90% awesome.”

Rather fittingly, not only is the last word from Jamie, but it is a very measured and positive set of comments on which to end the interview.

“One thing that we have to keep in perspective is that we are about to play our 25th show as Earthside. I think I’ve counted that right. So, to have this kind of big stage production with that limited show experience is important to remember and we’re learning on the fly all the time. We’ve been on tour twice, so we’re learning what a tour is like, what gear is reliable, what the headline band requires from us. The only way to learn this is to live it. The more shows we play, the more knowledgeable and confident we will become. Being on tour means you can learn from other bands that have done this many times and have learned from their nightmare scenarios. They can give you a great insight. Einar and Tor of Leprous both offered their suggestions, as did Danny of Voyager. Some of which we will definitely take and it’s another valuable resource for us. We are learning and we will continue to get even better.”

The rumble that suddenly erupts from the floor below indicates that Brutai have hit the stage and so, with that, both the band and I hurtle out of the room for another dose of quality live music.

Naturally, later that night, Earthside back up their words with a superbly intense live show, full of energy, emotion and technically adept musicianship. Want to know more, check out my live review here.

And for those of you who are either unfamiliar with Earthside or have yet to witness them live on stage, I urge you to amend this heinous oversight as quickly as possible.

Live gig review: Earthside, Toska, Brutai, Voices from the Fuselage – Camden Barfly 10/04/16

Credit: Ray Hearne / Haken
Credit: Ray Hearne / Haken

The following gig review comes with an apology for the quality of the photos – I’m no photographer and so, coupled with a poorly-equipped camera and a level of entertainment that meant I didn’t want to ruin my enjoyment by staring through a lens all night, they are not the best. In fact, if there was an award for ‘worst ever gig photography’, I’d surely be in the running! But hopefully, the words make up for it.

And with that, on to the review…

The chance to attend the debut UK show, an exclusive show no less on these fair shores from US metal band Earthside was just too good an opportunity to miss. I had to be there. And so it was that I set out from Suffolk and headed to ‘the big smoke’, to the Camden Barfly, on a Sunday afternoon to witness what I hoped would be a great evening’s entertainment.

This wish became ever more fervent as I found myself snarled up in heavy traffic as my Sat Nav sadistically took me within a few hundred yards of White Hart Lane, the home Tottenham Hotspur, on a day when they were due to play Manchester United in the Premier League. As a Spurs fan, I couldn’t moan too much but when added to the difficulty I had in parking my car, I arrived in Camden seriously regretting my decision not to get the Underground train from the outskirts of the city. Never mind, Spurs won and I finally located a free parking spot within walking distance of the venue.

Things only got better from there too. After meeting Lulu of Incendia Music for the first time and a quick drink in the bar, I headed upstairs to hear a little of the soundcheck but not before being greeted by with a warm hug from a beaming Frank Sacramone, keyboardist with Earthside.

My next task was to interview the lads from Brutai, so it was up to the dressing rooms next for me. I say ‘dressing rooms’ but to be honest, I have been in a lot more salubrious surroundings in my time. Bare floor boards, tatty walls, minimal furniture that had clearly seen better days and grimy windows made up the setting for my first journalistic task for the day.

Somewhat unbelievably given the number of gigs I’ve attended over the years in the capital, this was my first visit to this particular venue but I rather liked the experience. I missed the first song of openers Voices From the Fuselage but upon entering the small and intimate Barfly venue, I was immediately struck by the sounds coming from the stage.

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Voices From The Fuselage

In Ashe O’Hara, Voices From The Fuselage are blessed with a very talented singer, able to hit those high notes and add a demonstrable amount of emotion into his performance. Behind him, the music was powerful, muscular and well performed, not to mention subtle and melodic too when the need arose. The whole thing reminded me a little of the likes of TesseracT. Untried by me before this evening, these guys now need some further exploration as soon as possible.

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Brutai

Next up, a return to the dressing rooms to interview Earthside and before I knew it, the floor started to shake to signal to us all that Brutai were just starting their set. I’d heard a little of Brutai prior to the gig and I was very interested to see how the band would come across on stage. The answer was ‘very well indeed’.

I would have preferred a better defined mix in order to allow more clarity for the guitar solos and the keyboards but aside from this, Brutai put on a great show that only served to heighten my excitement for the forthcoming debut full-length. I have likened their output to a blend of Soilwork, Voyager, metalcore and pop and I think, on balance, as a brief reference point, I’d stick with this description. On stage though, coupled with a high energy, professional delivery, they certainly offer a lot more in the live arena and justifiably won over the decent-sized crowd, many of whom had not heard of them before this evening.

Brutai
Bruta

Normally, I get very bored during the set changeovers but on this particular evening, it was a lot of fun. Chatting with friends in the audience and then enjoying a long conversation with Mr Ray Hearne, drummer with Haken, it seemed like no time at all had passed before Earthside took to the stage.

Oh. My. Word. It is not often these days that I go to a live show and am absolutely blown away but tonight was one of these rare occasions. Knowing how technical, multi-layered and ambitious the music on Earthside’s debut album, ‘A Dream In Static’ is, I was intrigued to find out how the quartet would be able to pull it off. But pull it off they did and then some.

Tight as a drum, the music was performed almost flawlessly from start to finish, with the kind of intensity that I’ve rarely witnessed. But more than that, alongside the steely determination, there was a genuine sense of enjoyment from the band. Guitarist Jamie van Dyck constantly had a smile on his face and you simply had to see keyboardist Frank Sacramone in action to believe it. Air drumming, expansive arm gestures, singing along, alternating between keytar, standard synths and a guitar; he was a bundle of energy and a real joy to watch. At one point, he even stopped the music to admit that the experience had brought him to tears, something that you could clearly see was true even half-way back in the crowd.

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Earthside

In terms of the voices, Earthside employed the interesting and unusual tactic of projecting the vocals of the guest singers on a giant screen at the back of the stage. As such, you got to hear Bjorn ‘Speed’ Strid (Soilwork) in all his glory on the emotionally-charged ‘Crater’, my personal favourite track. Then there was an ‘appearance’ by vocalist Daniel Tompkins (TesseracT) on ‘A Dream In Static’ as well as Lajon Witherspoon on the epic and visually stunning ‘Mob Mentality’. It isn’t an approach to suit everyone. Yes the interludes between songs was a little protracted and minimised spontaneity and yes, in years to come it would be amazing to have these guests on stage with Earthside. But for now, for this particular performance, it did the job very well indeed.

And what’s more, the crowd lapped it up. A quick glance at those around me witnessed many that were full-on headbanging, several mouths were wide open and the remainder either were appreciatively nodding along or wrapt and ensconced in what they were witnessing. At the end of each song, the response was effusive and by the close of the set, the crowd roared their approval to almost disbelieving looks from the band. It was a crackling atmosphere and Earthside were worth every ounce of it.

toska
Toska

Brighton’s Toska followed albeit with a significantly truncated set and a slightly thinner crowd, mainly due to the inadequacies of public transport at weekends in this country. Nevertheless, those that remained were treated to some instrumental technical metal of a very high quality. Led by the imposing Rabea Massaad on guitar, the trio introduced a faint air of psychedelia and a little sludge to their repertoire meaning that Toska rounded off the impressive bill very handsomely indeed.

If I’m honest though, for all the strengths of the other bands, this night belonged to Earthside. They were incredible and the electricity between the audience and the band was something special to be a part of. After the show, Frank admitted to me that in terms of atmosphere and the feeling he got, it was a 10/10 show for him. He did qualify the statement to say that technically he could improve but overall, from such a perfectionist, this was quite the statement. I just hope that other parts of the UK and indeed the world get to witness this band. They are this good after only their 25th show? Wow. They are, quite simply, a force to be reckoned with.

Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 1

So, here we are. I’ve made it. One month and over 30,000 words later, my ‘Album Of The Year 2015’ Top 30 countdown comes to an end. It has been challenging, tiring and occasionally frustrating but well worth the effort. I have enjoyed the banter, the more serious conversations, the arguments and the positive comments that this series has created. But best of all are the comments from people who say that they have discovered or re-discovered a particular band thanks to one of my posts. This is exactly why I do this.

People ask me why I don’t just write a simple list and put it out there on the Internet. It would be simpler I admit but then, those that know me know that this isn’t the Man Of Much Metal’s way. And it certainly isn’t the Blog Of Much Metal way either. Each and every band that features in this list has spent months creating great music for us all to enjoy. Therefore, the least I can do is spend a decent amount of time giving credit where it’s due and explaining why I feel so passionately about these albums. Giving something back to the music that has given me so much is what I and this blog is all about.

If you’ve stuck with me throughout this series, I offer one last heartfelt thanks to each and every one of you. If you’re new and like what you read here, be sure to spread the word and check out the other 29 albums in my list via the links at the end of this post.

But enough of all that. Let’s get down to business. Ladies, gentlemen and children of all ages and of discerning taste, I give you my gold medal choice for 2015, the best album of a strong year for the music I love…

Number 1

earthside coverEarthside
‘A Dream In Static
Independent Release

I thought long and hard before awarding this album the title of ‘best album of 2015’. I mean, could I really award the title to a debut album from an unsigned band? But then I came to my senses, severely chastised myself and here we are.

Earthside, from New Haven, Connecticut, are comprised of drummer Ben Shanbrom, keyboardist Frank Sacramone, guitarist Jamie van Dyck and bassist Ryan Griffin. And together, they have put together a stunning album that is an utter delight and one that arguably breathes new life into the genre of heavy metal. Not content to plough one narrow musical furrow, instead the quartet have made it their mission to explore numerous different styles across the rock/metal spectrum and beyond all the while managing to keep the end product cohesive and, above all, enjoyable. You could call Earthside’s music progressive metal, djent, cinematic and symphonic or experimental…personally, I just call it damn good music.

Earthside have proved with this release that you can be ambitious, challenging to yourself, challenging to the listener and yet manage to emerge from the other side triumphant. There isn’t a moment on ‘A Dream In Static’ that is messy or clunky or even ill-advised. It all fits perfectly in spite of the myriad of influences at play and what’s more, the end product is absorbing, memorable and extremely addictive.

Photo Credit: Ian Christmann http://ianchristmann.com/
Photo Credit: Ian Christmann http://ianchristmann.com/

One of the elements of Earthside’s success is undoubtedly the unwillingness to rush the end product and to compromise in any real way. As I discovered when I interviewed Ben Shanbrom prior to the album’s release, Earthside have been around for a number of years, working away in the background to hone their craft and perfect their music away from prying ears and the lure of the limelight. In this day and age, it is all too easy to produce music, put it out on the internet and wait for the world to love you or loathe you. Very little thought often goes into the detail; the detail of learning to play your chosen instrument properly for example. And, even for those who are wizards at playing, the detail of honing song writing skills and having a clear vision for the band can be overlooked. This isn’t the case with Earthside – they’ve seemingly thought of everything. The result is ‘A Dream In Static’.

I knew from the moment that I heard ‘The Closest I’ve Come’ that something special was brewing. I had to wait what seemed an inordinately long time before I was finally able to hear the album in it’s entirety but believe me, it was worth the wait. In fact, for those of you familiar with my presence on social media, this choice won’t be the biggest surprise of your lives. I have waxed lyrical about the record over the past few months and I don’t see any reason for that stance to change any time soon.

If you’re after a really detailed look into the individual songs on ‘A Dream In Static’, please check out the review that I wrote for it around the time of it’s release. In addition, for more background about the band, check out my 2-part interview. Links to all three are as follows:

‘A Dream In Static’ Album review
Earthside Interview – Part 1
Earthside Interview – Part 2

For now, for this post, I’ll try to keep things brief. Note the word ‘try’ in that last sentence.

The album kicks off in stunning fashion with ‘The Closest I’ve Come’. In keeping with much of the album, it is an instrumental track but it oozes class and keeps things interesting by frequently altering the tempo, toying with differing levels of complexity and adding an urgent sense of drama via an inspired use of light and shade. One minute it’s heavy, the next it’s quiet and gentle. And, at the 1:30 mark, it explodes with the most gloriously epic melody you’re likely to hear for a while. Spine-tingling stuff indeed.

The title track follows and, featuring TesseracT’s Daniel Tomkins on vocals, it is equally as good as the opener. It is a groovy, djent-heavy beast that features more sumptuous melodies that are impossible to resist. ‘Mob Mentality’ which features Sevendust’s Lajon Witherspoon behind the microphone also boasts the talents of the Moscow Studio Symphony Orchestra and if you’re looking for a complex and moody film score-like feel to it, this is the song you’ve been dreaming of. Gargantuan and bruising, yet precise and subtle, it is a composition that has to be heard to be believed.

‘Entering The Light’ is the shortest track on the album but is also one of the most striking given its demonstrable urgency and the inspired inclusion of a hammered dulcimer courtesy of Max ZT to provide the song’s central melody. Then there are other compositions like ‘Crater’ featuring Soilwork’s Bjorn ‘Speed’ Strid, one of my all-time favourite metal vocalists, ‘The Undergrounding’ with its Meshuggah-like chugging riffs and ‘Contemplation Of The Beautiful’ which is an epic track full of highs and lows that ends with the mother of all crescendos, enhanced by an emotional and committed performance from the final guest vocalist, Eric Zirlinger (Face The King, ex-Seer). Hell, who am I trying to kid, every single track on ‘A Dream In Static’ is a killer and deserving of all the praise that is bestowed upon them.

Going back to my opening paragraph, it belatedly occurs to me that one of the reasons why this record is so exciting is absolutely because this is Earthside’s debut album. Prior to this album, the name ‘Earthside’ was known only to a select few but, given the staggering quality of ‘A Dream In Static’, it is a name that is being talked about more and more with each passing day. Enlisting the services of a full orchestra, convincing the likes of Daniel Tomkins and Bjorn ‘Speed’ Strid to participate and then to be able to have the whole thing mixed by David Castillo (Katatonia, Opeth) means that Earthside must be doing something right.

The mind boggles at what on Earth the band will deliver next time out. However, that’s for another day. For now, let us revel in the sounds, the textures, the emotions and the atmospheres of ‘A Dream In Static’.

In closing, I’d like to quote my original review, as the sentiment remains as true now as it did then: ‘‘A Dream In Static’ is not perfect but it is very close. It is one of the most intense, challenging and ambitious recordings I have heard in a very long time. I’m not a gifted musician, so I prefer to reflect on how albums make me feel; Earthside’s music elates me, excites me and delivers something new on each and every listen. On that basis alone, mark my words, Earthside are going to be huge. A band of this talent, dedication and focus that has produced something as jaw-dropping as ‘A Dream In Static’ as a mere introduction to the metal world cannot possibly be anything else. And you know what? They thoroughly and unequivocally deserve everything coming their way. Bravo gents, bravo.

Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 2
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Album of the Year 2015 – Number 30

And from previous years:

Album of the Year 2014
Album of the Year 2013
Album of the Year 2012

Earthside – A Dream In Static – Album Review

earthside cover

Artist: Earthside

Album Title: A Dream In Static

Label: Independent Release

Year Of Release: 2015

The buzz of being an early discoverer of a new band is one of the best on Earth, at least for me anyway. I first became aware of a band called Earthside when I was given the heads-up by their UK publicist about a track that had just been released on Youtube. I listened almost immediately and, perhaps as much as 5 seconds later, I was picking my jaw up off the floor. Throughout the following eight minutes as the song, entitled ‘The Closest I’ve Come’ developed, I had to frequently repeat the process as well as battle goosebumps, shivers and a goofy grin that seemed to affix itself to my face for the entirety of the composition.

From that moment on, I knew that I had to keep my focus on this new band and chart their progress carefully. The next, exciting step was to interview drummer Ben Shanbrom at the behest of the aforementioned publicist, despite only hearing two tracks at that point. It turned into an epic interview that required two blog posts to publish it in its entirety. During the conversation, I became instantly aware of just how focused, driven and disciplined Earthside are, something that shines through in their music without a shadow of doubt.

I have since been privileged to have access to the entire debut album, entitled ‘A Dream In Static’ and it is everything that I had hoped for and more. Earthside, from New Haven, Connecticut, are comprised of drummer Ben Shanbrom, keyboardist Frank Sacramone, guitarist Jamie van Dyck and bassist Ryan Griffin. And each member needs to take a bow because together, they have brought the metal world something truly brilliant.

Credit: Ian Christmann Photography ( http://catalystphotography.com/ )
Credit: Ian Christmann Photography ( http://catalystphotography.com/ )

The album kicks off with the track that I alluded to above, ‘The Closest I’ve Come’. In keeping with a good proportion of the album, it is an instrumental track. Now, I’m not always the biggest fan of instrumental-only music but this is an entirely different beast. The composition weaves its way through a plethora of clever and engaging ideas at once both instantly melodic and complicated. It begins quietly with a captivating melody and is soon joined by some striking drumming before it explodes with real intent via a modern djent-esque guitar tone and powerful rhythm section. I actually get a little emotional listening to it now as it has had such a profound impact upon me over the last few months.

However, the best is reserved for around the 1:30 mark when an epic-sounding melody to end all melodies kicks in with spine-tingling results. The song soon markedly shifts direction with the entire central segment exploring a more classically progressive instrumental blueprint full of wickedly precise and complex ideas, off-kilter timings and subtle keyboard embellishments. Despite its intricate nature, the music never strays into pointless overindulgence; every note has been thought out and keeps one eye on the melodies, texture and atmosphere which for several reasons calls to mind a sci-fi soundtrack. The song then closes via that opening melody which comes back bigger and bolder than ever, leaving an indelible mark on my brain. What a way to open your debut album.

Up next is the track entitled ‘Mob Mentality’ and is the ‘other’ track that Earthside have already unleashed on the metal community to almost entirely positive and effusive praise. It’s not hard to see why because it’s an absolute behemoth of a song. Front and centre of the composition sits Lajon Witherspoon, vocalist with Sevendust and who is the first of a small handful of guest vocalists to grace the record. The choice is typically brave and adventurous from Earthside, but Witherspoon puts in a huge performance, flitting masterfully and with consummate ease between soft and soothing and all-out aggression and power.

Not content to leave it there, Earthside have also enlisted the help of the Moscow Studio Symphony Orchestra to add yet another dimension to the near ten-minute bruising prog metal composition. If Earthside were after a song with the vibe of a movie score, it has been achieved here, with stylish aplomb. The changes in tempo, the movement shifts as well as the frequent alternation between light and shade and from subtle restraint to all-out aggression means that ‘Mob Mentality’ is imbued with a thoroughly believable and intense sense of drama and theatre throughout. All at once, the song sounds rich, ambitious, muscular, fragile and above all, completely and utterly compelling. In short, it is progressive metal genius.

Track three is the title track and features another guest vocalist in the shape of TesseracT’s Daniel Tompkins. It’s impossible to say that this is one of my favourite tracks on the album because as you might have guessed by now, they’re all nothing short of exquisite. That said, I love the more overt groove and unsurprising djent leanings on ‘A Dream In Static’ that are beautifully and seamlessly blended with some sumptuous melodies that are wonderfully accentuated by Tompkins’ stunning vocal performance. When he belts out the big notes, you can’t help but listen and get drawn into the music that little bit more, to the point that I find myself living the track rather than simply listening to it. The fact that I’m not generally-speaking the biggest djent fan in the world just serves to underline how sickeningly good the song writing must be to draw me in in the way that it does.

As a brief aside, there are certain points when the ‘djent’ tag is justified but make no mistake, ‘A Dream In Static’ is not a djent album. The influences are far too varied, the tones, the textures, the atmospheres, the styles and the overall execution call to mind a myriad of different genres and sub-genres, everything from soul and jazz through to classic prog and even melodic death metal. But crucially, Earthside take all these elements and blend it into something that is quite unique and very much their own.

Back to the tracks themselves and ‘Entering the Light’ returns Earthside to their instrumental surroundings whilst also being the shortest track on the record at a mere 5:27 in length. It is nevertheless another dramatic track that again has more than a passing resemblance to a piece of movie soundtrack music, albeit very different to what has gone before. I adore the central melody courtesy of a hammered dulcimer played by guest Max ZT as it offers a stunning counterpoint to the returning Moscow Studio Symphony Orchesta and the more traditional rock/metal instrumentation around it, both of which inject urgency and drama, wrapped up in a gorgeous piece of song-writing. It may be a Graeco-Roman instrument but to these ears, the dulcimer lends a slightly oriental feel to the delightful composition. The booming and shuddering bass that erupts somewhere in the centre of the track is great too, but to pick out any one performance does all the others a real disservice.

‘Skyline’ is, as far as it’s possible for Earthside, more of a straightforward instrumental metal track. That said, it’s still insanely complex, challenging and full of clever ideas with the bass guitar catching my ear most of all. However, it has more of an all-out jam feel to it, as if each member of the band is given the freedom to cut loose. That is until the half-way mark where everything falls away to be replaced by a tentative piano melody whilst the song rebuilds itself, like a phoenix rising from the ashes in a blaze of glory. The lead guitar line is spine tingling and around it is the sense that the composition is building towards something. That ‘something’ turns out to be a massive crescendo in the best post rock/metal tradition, full of elegant atmosphere and a deceptive, brooding heaviness.

Hot on the heels is ‘Crater’, which features one of my all-time favourite metal vocalists, Soilwork’s Bjorn ‘Speed’ Strid. The guy is a monster and he fully demonstrates that here. To begin with, he’s offered the opportunity to really explore his softer, more melodic side before he launches into the chorus of sorts with some of his best work to date in any band or project. It helps that the track behind him is satisfyingly powerful of course. It’s suitably urgent, with equal parts quiet restraint and all-out metal aggression and epic melody, the perfect foil to the many facets of Strid’s voice. Frankly, the result is beyond stunning. The composition is flawless and Strid is God-like; note perfect and his voice drips with emotion and bucket-loads of sincerity, particularly when he cuts loose and calls to the heavens with his rough and gravelly timbre.

Credit: Travis Smith - Seempieces ( http://www.seempieces.com/ )
Credit: Travis Smith – Seempieces ( http://www.seempieces.com/ )

‘The Undergrounding’ is the final instrumental piece on ‘A Dream In Static’. It features some inspired synth sounds that create the track’s U.S.P. and help offer something different to what has gone before. Those Meshuggah-inspired riffs return but all the while accented with plenty of other ideas meaning that all-too-soon, the relatively short track is at an end, albeit via a riff that’d be right at home on a classic doom metal record thanks to its pace and earth-shuddering heaviness.

And that leaves the final track, ‘Contemplation Of The Beautiful’ to close out the record. It begins with some sampled sounds that lend it a theatrical bent. The chosen vocalist for what is the longest track on the album is the less well-known Eric Zirlinger (Face The King, ex-Seer). What’s most ear catching about this piece of music is the pronounced light and shade. At times, the track is beautifully quiet and introspective with softly-sung passages. At others, out of nowhere, the music explodes with the power of an unstoppable force with Zirlinger screaming his lungs out in savage, uncontrolled fury. Around half-way, the track descends into more adventurous and quirky post-rock territory before beginning the gradual ascent towards another indescribably monumental peak of musical majesty; the agonised screams return alongside the most grandiose of melodic crescendos imaginable, leading to one of the most epic compositions I’ve heard in a very long time.

As the album draws to a close, I’m left stunned. How can this be a debut album? Where the hell have Earthside come from? Where can they possibly go from here? ‘A Dream In Static’ is not perfect but it is very close. It is one of the most intense, challenging and ambitious recordings I have heard in a very long time. It is also flawlessly executed and produced with the help of David Castillo in a way that allows every instrument and every subtle nuance to shine through.

I’m not a gifted musician, so I prefer to reflect on how albums make me feel; Earthside’s music elates me, excites me and delivers something new on each and every listen. On that basis alone, mark my words, Earthside are going to be huge. A band of this talent, dedication and focus that has produced something as jaw-dropping as ‘A Dream In Static’ as a mere introduction to the metal world cannot possibly be anything else. And you know what? They thoroughly and unequivocally deserve everything coming their way. Bravo gents, bravo.

‘A Dream In Static’ is out on 23rd October 2015.

The Score Of Much Metal: 9.8

If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:

Caligula’s Horse – Bloom
Teramaze – Her Halo
Amorphis – Under The Red Cloud
Spock’s Beard – The Oblivion Particle
Agent Fresco – Destrier
Cattle Decapitation – The Anthropocene Extinction
Between The Buried And Me – Coma Ecliptic
Cradle Of Filth – Hammer Of The Witches
Disarmonia Mundi – Cold Inferno
District 97 – In Vaults
Progoctopus – Transcendence
Big Big Train – Wassail
NightMare World – In The Fullness Of Time
Helloween – My God-Given Right
Triaxis – Zero Hour
Isurus – Logocharya
Arcturus – Arcturian
Kamelot – Haven
Native Construct – Quiet World
Sigh – Graveward
Pantommind – Searching For Eternity
Subterranean Masquerade – The Great Bazaar
Klone – Here Comes The Sun
The Gentle Storm – The Diary
Melechesh – Enki
Enslaved – In Times
Keep Of Kalessin – Epistemology
Lonely Robot – Please Come Home
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld

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