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The Contortionist - Language CD (album) cover


The Contortionist

Tech/Extreme Prog Metal

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2 stars Djent is dying.

Thank. God.

Even if I can't fully say I enjoy the Contortionist's Language as a musical entity, I certainly enjoy what it and Altered State and Guiding Lights represent as a new stage in progressive metal. Over the last few years djent has risen up and flooded the prog scene, even though the prog badge it claimed so boldly to have was always up for debate from the progheads of old. But let's face it - was djent really ever a progressive movement? The fans sure like to claim it is to collect their precious 'cred', but everyone else in the world saw it for what it was, a (slightly better) continuation of the "scene" movement of the mid-2000's, complete with a new, equally ridiculous fashion style, generic, heavy, shinily polished and oh so formulaic music, and filled to the brim with 15-year-olds. Don't get me wrong, I'm not hating on it (completely), I'm just trying to describe it as what it is. No matter how many times the djentkids would explain to you that "IT DOESN'T HAVE BREAKDOWNS IT'S NOT METALCORE" or "DUDE THOSE POLYRHYTHMS ARE SO PROG", the truth was simply there in how plain awful the music was - it was metalcore. (or if it wasn't metalcore, it was 350-note-per-second ""jazz-influenced"" hyper-technical wankery, but I won't touch on that right now)

But like with any teenage-oriented phenomenon, what we get, after a few years of trash, is something remarkable, known as "growing up". Not only are the bands themselves getting tired of writing formulaic, amelodic trite, but the fans are growing up and growing out of childish, angsty music. No one wants to hear how fast you can play or how hard you can chug or how close you can get your tone to the sound of a duck being stabbed, they want to hear music with actual quality, actual compositions, and actual merit. And although Language is far from good, this is just another step to quality. Give them five years, and Skyharbor, TesseracT, The Contortionist, and even some non-djent bands like Chaos Divine and Existem, will be the next Porcupine Trees and Anathemas and Opeths.

The Contortionist were one of the djent bands who never really denied the fact that they were also metalcore, and while that gets some respect for me for embracing it rather than hiding behind a barrier of "m..muh polyrhythms" like so many bands in this area, it didn't exactly make their music good. Both Intrinsic and Exoplanet were embarrassing abominations of messy riffs, disgusting metalcore vocals, br00tal riffs and chug-core breakdowns. Sure, every few minutes they'd break into a post-rock interlude that sounded like glorious brilliance when compared to what was around it, but if you isolated those short, nice sections and played them alone, you realise that they're not too hot, either. And that's basically what we have here, with Language. A 49-minute long, clean-sung post-rock interlude. The roles have been flipped, and we have pretty much all sugary tones and clean vocals, with the heavy, metalcore chugfests being used as interludes as the clean parts were on the previous albums. And sometimes, not very often, The Contortionist hit stuff that shows potential.

People have been comparing this album a bit to Cynic's rather legendary comeback album, Traced in Air, and album that I admire and respect, but can't quite enjoy fully. Cynic's vocoder and electronic-heavy style of clean singing and angular riffing has certainly been an inspiration to the non-metalcore side of djent since the beginning, but it always seemed that above the bands' aims to create melodically and harmonically interesting music to contrast the chugging and screaming, their aims to make their atmosphere as lifeless and cheap-sounding as possible always got in the way. There is a sheen over this album; a glittering, shining envelope of sparkling synths and dreamy ambience that all sounds like it was recorded on a casio in someone's basement. It's been a problem for a while, really ever since Uneven Structure popularised it on Februus, the ambience and atmosphere created by the keyboardist has to sound as slick and cheap as possible, with no exceptions. Listen to the opening of "Integration" (bonus shoutout to the ridiculously stupid song titles on this album), and ignore the guitars playing random notes - that for sure is just the sugariest synth setting on the cheapest keyboard you can buy, how did anyone ever think it was a good idea to actually put that on an album? In concept, the ambience that so band of these bands aim for is a great idea, adding melody to an often amelodic genre, but it is always done in such an average way that, in combination with the reverb on the clean vocals and guitars, just ends up as a muddy soup of dreamy sounds that never mesh with each other in any way.

So what does this album have going for it, aside from the "not being terrible" part? Well, even if the way they are presented is weak and soggy, the melodies here are very pretty and often quite good. Sure, every time he sings it feels like he's whispering meaningless new age-isms with absolutely no correlation to the rest of the music, but he regularly hits some dreamy and sweet melodies, particularly during the rather not-awful "Primordial Sound". This song really feels like something Devin Townsend could put as a softer section, and although there is plenty wrong with the drum tones and vocal delivery and guitar tones and everything else, the song's core melodies and progressions are actually alright. Apart from that, I guess the clean guitars get some nice runs every now and then, but the star of this is really the vocalist, whenever he starts singing as opposed to whispering.

But above everything, the biggest problem with this album is how poorly everything meshes together. It's like there was absolutely no mixing on this at all - the keyboards are there and the vocals are here being all dreamy, then the guitars are off over the side playing awkward chords in some unrelated time signature, and the drums are on the other side trying to be complex and stuff. And when the band needs to go heavy, they do it in such a weak and unremarkable way with guitars never locking into any form of groove, just playing aimless and unrelated notes. Listen to the intro of "Language II: Conspire" and tell me that isn't one of the most embarrassing attempts at playing a guitar you have ever heard. And these heavy sections are made even worse by the gross harsh vocals and the fact that the bloody keyboards are still playing off the side, as if nothing happened. There is absolutely no relation between the parts on this record, it just sounds like an ocean of wimpy, slightly damp porridge. As much as I want to love this album, everything about it is done so poorly and shoved together so haphazardly that I'm having trouble defending it even to myself.

The Contortionist are certainly on the right direction, but they have a way to go. The idea behind this album is good in concept, but the timbres, production and delivery are so weak and poorly executed that it really doesn't make good listening, despite the fact that this is literally gold compared to their first two albums. It might take them some time to get up to where their new contemporaries Skyharbor and Tesseract are up to, but I think they can get there. Don't give up now, little recovering djentcore band, you can make good music soon.


Originally written for my Facebook page/blog:

Report this review (#1317750)
Posted Sunday, November 30, 2014 | Review Permalink
Andy Webb
Retired Admin
4 stars The source of a prog metal era

The Contortionist is one of a slew of tech prog metal bands that came out in the mid-2000s as a solution to the believed lack of Meshuggah impersonators. It turns out that all along, no one really wanted a bunch of neu- Meshuggah bands, but nevertheless, dozens upon dozens of 'djent' bands as they were called emerged onto the scene. Some of these bands, such as Periphery and TesseracT, did good with the style and furthered the prog metal genre by taking after Meshuggah's signature sound. Many (many) other bands, however, such as Volumes, Monuments, and others, simply made a mockery of themselves by producing immature, flat music that never wavered in style, timbre, or direction. For half a decade, these bands churned out album after album of this music, and eventually, the market for djent more or less closed.

The bands which understood djent had to be dynamic in order to be sustained, such as the aforementioned Periphery, TesseracT, and others, added new elements to their music, such as ambience, melody, and other styles to make it more interesting and sustainable. The Contortionist, which started originally based in deathcore djent more than anything else with their first album Exoplanet, picked up on this very quickly and more or less abandoned the djent sound with their second album Intrinsic in 2012. While they still had the heavy djenty sound on much of the album, it was clear the band was headed in a much more ambient and atmospheric sound culture than a djent one. Their music still contained elements of riffy djent and death metal, but after the addition of Mike Lessard on vocals, whose strength is in clean vocals rather than screams, the band's music lightened significantly.

With the release of Language in 2014, it was clear The Contortionist had made a stylistic shift. The band released the first part of the self-titled track as a single several months before the release of the album, and just from there, I knew I was hooked. The song is airy, gentle, and ambient in the beginning, with dreamy, almost psychedelic guitars that still maintain the almost robotic precision that was present in the technicality of their previous work. From there, the vocals come in, adding an even dreamier quality to the music. Mike's melodies are soft on this track, giving the song a remarkable flow (purposefully, I assume, as a motif of the album is the ebb and flow of life). The song builds and builds and builds, until it breaks into an absolutely infectious groove which, on the full album, leads perfectly in the clearly much heavier second part.

The entire album acts like this. It (again) ebbs and flows into periods of dreamy atmospheres and then into moments of progressive death metal that still has an ambient and dreamy feel to it. Never on the album do the moods seem over the top, however, and when it feels like they've gone too far with a heavy bit, they transition effortlessly into a softer passage.

The album, however, is not without flaws. At times the album can seem to lose direction, with a guitar riff seeming a little loopy or amelodious, very rarely does a passage sound out of place. Take the beginning of "Integration," for instance, where the entire intro is a steady buildup to a grooving riff-based song. Almost the entire first two minutes, however, has little to no melodic direction or structure. While the song is not bad in any way, it's just a little awkward to listen to, especially after the perfectly executed title track that plays before it. It isn't until almost halfway through the song does the track really gets going in terms of groove and syncopation. The lyrics at many points on the album seem half-baked at best. While it's understandable that they were written when the band was completely baked, at times they don't seem to make any sense at all.

Even with these few flaws, though, the entire album is blissful to listen to. For a primarily death metal based band, the band knows how to perfectly balance their more atmospheric passages with their heavier ones to make an absolutely heavenly listening experience. The mix doesn't make any one element overpowering or underappreciated, so on a nice stereo system, the entire experience is enveloping and pleasant. The warm guitar tones used throughout the album blend nicely and give the entire album a great tone, and Mike's vocal melodies round out the band's sound very nicely. Overall, the album shows a remarkable evolution for a band that was originally almost exclusively a deathcore band, and it shows just what can truly be done with the prog metal genre. 4+ stars.

Report this review (#1327401)
Posted Monday, December 22, 2014 | Review Permalink
4 stars 4/5 An excellent album, one that is actually worth instead of intrinsic and a good continuation from exoplanet.

Finally we see a djent album that is actually worth it. the source was a good opening to Language 1 and 2, Language 1 with melody and extreme atmosphere, really hit me hard. While Language 2 surprised me that the Contortionist are actually keeping some of their djent roots. Then songs like Thrive remind me of Expire back in Exoplanet album while Primordial sound is completely new.

This is actually one of the Contortionists best works and should not be missed by any djent fan.

Report this review (#2023145)
Posted Saturday, September 8, 2018 | Review Permalink

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