There’s something to be said for longevity. Unified Past apparently has more than two decades of experience under their collective belt, though my only connection with them is via their brand new lead singer, Mr. Phil Naro, whose various projects have frequently come across my playlists (Druckfarben, Backhand, The Phil & John Show). Hailing from upstate New York, the neo-symphonic metal band recently released Shifting the Equilibrium (15 September), their seventh studio album – the first since 2013’s Spots. The band’s formation – a joint venture between Stephen Speelman (vocals, guitar & keys on Equilibrium) and Victor Tassone (drums) – dates back to a previous incarnation in 1991, under the moniker Labyrinth, and was eventually reproduced as a studio-only project in 2009. Gradually, the band evolved into a more traditional act, adding Dave Mickelson on the bass after 2011’s Observations, and now Phil Naro for Equilibrium.
Anytime I stumble upon a group with this kind of back catalogue makes me wonder if I’ve just not been paying attention, or if there’s a good reason I haven’t come across them sooner. And if I can just be perfectly blunt up front on that issue… I dislike this album. I don’t necessarily dislike the band itself, but Equilibrium was a disappointing first introduction. Frankly, I think the songs are boring, the compositions stale, and the overall presentation dated. There’s neat technique and a handful of quality musical ideas represented here. But altogether, it didn’t capture my attention. Furthermore, the album’s overall mixing is weighted far too heavily in favor of synth and vocals, and on a handful of tracks, the levels are cranked to the very edge of breakup: Phil’s vocal performance, stellar as always, seems to always be one tiny decibel away from peaking.
There are good things about Equilibrium, sure. “Erasure Principle” is a good song. It’s a strong, forthright album-opener that highlights the band’s sound and technique: Aryeon-esque space combined with Dream Theater-esque metal. The melody is catchy and the composition is interesting. Unfortunately, I start to lose interest immediately into “Smile (In the Face of Adversity).” This tune is a very long 9:00+ minutes, which for prog/metal shouldn’t be the eternity that it is. The handful of tunes comprising the heart of the album are a mundane blur of elongated instrumentals and weak, song-oriented sections where Phil Naro’s lyrics feel plastered overtop a pre-existing sonic bed with no real give-and-take between them. The anthemic “Today is the Day,” the album’s final track, continues the weary trend of trying to do something but ultimately drags itself out to its own disappointing conclusion.
I hate to be overwhelmingly negative or appear dismissive. I spent a long time listening to this album – often over long car rides, after taking long breaks from it for evaluation, and back-to-back with other albums that I find particularly inspiring. It’s been in my various stereos since October. Simply put, I could not bring myself to like it. Part of that is probably due to personal preference, I’ll freely admit, because this kind of metal is not really my thing. However, there are plenty of bands with strong metal influences that I do enjoy – Pain of Salvation; Bader Nana; Days Between Stations; the brand-new, Connecticut-based Earthside. The point is not that Unified Past should strive to be more like any of those bands, but that metal can be engaging even to people like me who prefer more melodic compositions and don’t immediately gravitate toward the genre. What Unified Past has done is what an unfortunate number of metal bands tend to do: substitute key songwriting components for genre-based tendencies and unnecessary filler.
What “Shifting the Equilibrium” lacks is clear vision and structure. And that’s a problem on a compositional level: songs that maybe have themes but don’t seem to go anywhere with them; songs that boast musical technicality, but don’t do anything truly interesting. It’s not merely a matter of mixing or technique or experience, but a problem with the core songwriting. Again, this isn’t necessarily reflective of the band itself – just of their most recent release. And maybe, for their next release, Phil Naro’s addition will help sort out some of these oversights.
All that said, allow me to point to a few highlights. Phil Naro’s vocals are precise and sharp. His voice is as distinct as ever, and well-suited to the genre. Unified Past’s musicians are undeniably talented: Speelman has chops and his technique is refined; Tassone keeps time and fills with the best of them; Mickelson holds down the low end well, blending and vocalizing as is appropriate. “Equilibrium” is the seventh album milestone in a band’s impressive career. Unfortunately, all of these things don’t compensate for the core problems of an uninspired release.
I look forward to giving this band another try in the future.