Monday, June 24, 2013

Absent/Minded - Earthtone (2013)

They are Absent/Minded, though they are far from absent minded. This German four piece have no mental defects, and no lack of directional focus in their music, despite what their name suggests. Qite the opposite, in fact. Having started the move away from the death/doom style of earlier efforts, and into a more streamlined and organic sludge output, Bamberg's own native sons have given in to the ways of evolution. By no means have they abandoned the horse that brought them to the party; you can still hear some of that early fervor sprinkled liberally throughout everything they do. But this isn't a sequel to 2011's "Pulsar." This is the next logical progression for a band that isn't content to sit back and let the world move them. On their new full length, they may fall short of reinventing themselves, but they do put a fresh coat of dark, oily paint on the familiar sound of German post metal. And while the results of "Earthtone" may be mixed, they are never dull.

As the light tapping of drums on "To Unsnare" gives way to an expansive wave of distortion, there is a very distinct mixture of styles that emerges. With the heavy grooves of sludge being at the forefront, it might seem all too easy to ignore everything happening behind it. Rather than coming off as one dimensional and flat, they create a fairly good depth, thanks in part to the subtle bass work. There are small interlude breaks scattered through the track, which both help and hinder its development. On one hand, you have a great black and white contrast. But on the other, they seem to chime in at times when momentum is at a premium. Luckily, a well played riff can be the perfect set-up for what comes next. While the opening to "Ghosttower" harkens back to some of the glory days of Tool, the deeply growled vocals would be enough for Maynard James Keenan to cower in a corner. The chorus is simplified, but not in a bad way; it maintains a level of heaviness without overreaching. Whether the track is more hit than miss is hard to say, with the final minute embodying everything the band has at their disposal, in both sound and intensity. And though it may seem that they've lost their direction on "Arktic," they have certainly found their groove. It flexes the doom muscles they though to have left behind, at times both evil and downtempo. Each down stroke is followed closely by a growing shockwave, building over the seven and a half minute time frame.

Like a small cut, that sound bleeds into the rest of the album, coloring each following track with a slight tinge of red. That isn't to say "The Lesser Evil" abandons the sludgy undertones the album demands; to the contrary, the injections of darting guitars and thunderous drum rolls reinforce it. This is a perfect example of the track length being justified by the weight of an instrumental, with seven minutes barely being enough to contain it all. On the flip side of that coin, comes the short "Greed Has Poisoned Mens Souls," comprised of a single sound byte as the centerpiece of a light guitar melody. Perhaps the conclusion to the spoken word piece, "liberty will never perish," comes as a set up to the almost spacey "Reborn." Whether the two are intended to go hand in hand is unclear, but intentionally or not, they seem like parts of the same whole. The vocals sound pained, exhausted, and drained. This is a bare bones effort, stripped down to the beams and delivered honestly and without fanfare. But it is the platform for the title track, "Earthtone," to stand on. Out of everything on the album, this may be the most balanced mix of the intended styles. What you get is one third doom metal, one third harsh sludge, and one third airy post metal atmospheres. It's a shaky concoction at times, wobbly in one direction or another, but it does stand as a beacon for what the direction could be going forward. 

When the good outweighs the bad, an album is a success, no matter how you slice it. Absent/Minded have accomplished that here, with very little doubt. Their musicianship is top notch, and their concept of who they are and what they do well is crystal clear. That alone makes for an album worth hearing. The downside, though, is in the lack of separation between what they're doing, and some of the current bands who inhabit their genre. This isn't necessarily their fault; they are just doing what they know how to. But as the arena becomes more saturated, you often have to leave your comfort zone to find open spaces to grow. For it's part, "Earthtone" does give some indication as to where things could go from here, something that should help to create that needed distance between the band and the ground below. But now, it is all in their choice of direction. Full speed ahead, stand still, or throw it in reverse. The choice may seem like an easy one, but it could decide whether their career arc is on the rise, or already beyond the peak.


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