Last month I reviewed Odyssey to the Gallows, Slice the Cake’s unique prequel EP to their long-awaited sophomore album, and found a great deal of enjoyment out of what was essentially an ultra-dramatic spoken word reading played over tense and moody ambience. I elected to listen and absorb that release, a 28-minute slab of grandeur the band termed an “initiator”, on its own, before coming into this full-length album. My entire review of that EP is without having heard a single note of this. I did this weird reviewing experiment for a number of reasons – the first being that obviously I am an incredibly special snowflake and that I need to do everything differently. But in addition to that, I did feel as if this main disc, particularly with Slice the Cake’s tags of “metalcore”, “deathcore” and “technical death metal” coming as baggage, may not be to my taste at all.
Try as I do, I just cannot get into metalcore, or its edgier, more intense bastard child, deathcore. Any albums (and there are a handful) that I enjoy or praise within the genre are the kinds that aren’t really in it in the first place – The Human Abstract’s neo-classical infused Digital Veil, Hope for the Dying’s Opethian Alethia and Dillinger Escape Plan’s hyperreal One of Us is The Killer spring to mind, but none are true metalcore records. Even Between the Buried and Me, frequently lauded by prog critics as “the only bearable metalcore band” are totally unbearable to me; any moments of progressive quality they find are frequently nullified by needlessly inane bursts of chugs, screaming and breakdowns. The very building blocks that make up the genre are things that I dislike in music, so naturally it would take something out of this world to impress me.
Regardless of my opinion of how much I enjoy it, Odyssey to the West is without a doubt one of the most important metal records of the year, particularly in progressive metal. The simple fact that we’ve known about this album for a few years now points to how much effort has gone into it. I remember this being first mentioned over two years ago, and I used it as a reason to never bother to check out their debut, The Man With No Face, because I was always telling myself “the new one will be out soon”. There has evidently been some tense internal drama between the members of the band (who are all located in different countries apparently) that added to the time, and you can definitely tell that a record with this kind of ambition is not one to go without baggage. This takes some serious vision and dedication.
This is not a record to be taken lightly. The scope here is gigantic, even for the most progressive of artists. Out of all the many dozens of albums I’ve reviewed this year, this is by far the one I’ve spent the longest sitting with. Not only is it bulky in length at 78 minutes, but it spans various moods, themes, genres and styles within that time, and plays out a concept in the most dramatic and elaborate fashion. I personally haven’t bothered to sit too much and analyse the lyrical and thematic concepts of this record, but I’m sure if I did it would be even more impressive.
What struck me about the prequel EP, Odyssey to the Gallows, was the enormity of it. “Shakespearean” is an adjective that gets thrown around a lot with any sort of overblown piece of conceptual art, but throughout both the EP and the album Slice the Cake pull dozens of references to tragedy, both Greek and Middle-English. There’s a laughable sense of melodrama to the way that the spoken word segments that dot the album are delivered, but there’s also a romance to it – Slice the Cake have clearly outlined the atmosphere that they want this album to have – towering, grandiose, epic and incredibly melodramatic, and nailed it to a t. It may depend on your tolerance levels for such preposterous melodrama; I can see many people being unable to sit through this without laughing their heads off, but for me personally, the theatricality of it is perfectly balanced, creating brilliant tension that captivates you for the entire 78 minute runtime. It’s melodramatic in the same way that Shakespeare’s best tragedies are – they may be overblown but they are reinforced with true, genuine emotion that twists the overblown nature from laughable to impressive.
A lot of this is undeniably down to the music that backs it. The spoken vocal segments swing between passionately delivered Shakespearean soliloquies to violent deathcore multi-tracked chaos. The standard multi-layered deathcore scream has been a staple of the genre for many years to come, and most of the time I find it frankly repulsive, but this is why I feel like Odyssey to the West is such an important record. There are moments here in which I truly get those vocals, and it’s all to do with the background. Chugs and breakdowns do find their way into this record at times, but when the vocals are underneath swirling synthesisers and cymbal crashes, you can really hear the demonic nature of them that so many bands try to create. “From Shell to Shell”, coming straight out of the mostly spoken word “Unending Waltz”, is probably the best example of the good side of these tortured and demonic vocals, but there are unfortunately several examples of the bad side here too.
I’d love to call this “the best deathcore album of all time”, and I’m sure many people will give it that accolade, but personally I don’t really think there’s enough deathcore here to be considered primarily a deathcore album. And that is where it goes from good to excellent. This is a progressive metal album, through and through, and Slice the Cake have perfectly utilised a combination of classic progressive metal structuring along with some pointers from their ever-present Shakespearean tragedy influence to create a record that flows beautifully in and out of a number of moods. It may be my bias against overly repetitive heavy music, but I seriously admire the use of several different vocal and drumming styles here, particularly when they mix them up – heavy parts with no double kick, growls with no guitar, clean vocals over furious death metal riffs, and even in “The Horned God”, they shove insane tech death drumming under acoustic guitar and spoken word – it’s just refreshing to hear, and really helps keep the album flowing beautifully.
There’s an awful lot of soft-spoken and clean-sung parts here. Honestly, there had to be, because there’s absolutely no way you can tell a story without exposition, and no way you can create a captivating 78-minute concept album without setting up for the climaxes. Right from the start of the record they nail it – “The Razor’s Edge” sets up for a brilliant second half with some gorgeous Opethian acoustic noodling, and the sludge riffs and strained vocals that tear into the second half are all the better because of it. Pieces like “The Lantern” follow a similar strain, but the handful of one-off tracks here are excellent in terms of breaking the flow. “Pieces of Ruins” is a reasonably standard ballad, but in the context of the record it does such a great job of creating a calm before the final storm, particularly in conjunction with “Unending Waltz”, which is the closest to the prequel EP in terms of tone on the album.
But my bias against that which is core does come back into this a few times, though there is so much good about this record that I can frequently ignore it. For the vast majority of the record the band know exactly how long to run each section for – there are few that overstay their welcome or fluff around without contributing to the narrative. Again it is the influence from theatre here that assists them in being able to judge this. But a couple of times I do feel that the deathcore takes over and buries a lot of subtlety and intricacy. The best of the heavier songs, like the tech-death monster “The City of Destruction”, are tastefully littered with quick breaks in furious blasting to incorporate melodic guitars or different vocal styles (the second half of that song features some wonderful chanting choir), but a couple of pieces lack that diversity and begin to tread water a bit. The band suffers from Between the Buried and Me syndrome for several sections of the record as well, with a couple of stretches of music, like the second half of the 17-minute “Stone and Silver” suite, or the bulk of “The Dark Carnival”, it just seems like they’re loosely pulling things together rather than reaching a specific destination. It’s these sort of “aimless” sections that ultimately prevent me from calling this an amazing album, even though it undeniably has the ambition and grandeur to become one.
But to go back to one of my original points – this is undeniably an incredibly important record, regardless of its overall quality, because it has bridged the modern “class” of progressive metal with ambitious songwriting and intricate detail. This modern “class” – the 2010’s artists that follow Animals as Leaders or Periphery, scarcely sound like progressive metal at all with the impossibly polished production and cookie-cutter vocals. Odyssey to the West is undeniably cut from the same cloth – many of the riffs and melodies come from that same school of thought, but it has been done here with such vision and style that nearly all of the parts I despise about those artists have vanished. The production here is dense, emotional and powerful – there are no saccharine pop punk melodies or Avenged Sevenfold clean-shaven guitar tones. There are no uber-djeneric Axe-FX tones or cliched Casio synth pads filling up space here. As condescending as this may sound, Odyssey to the West sounds like a modern progressive metal album, with an emphasis on the modern, made by someone with matured and educated taste in art.
Before this, it was Uneven Structure’s Februus, an album with a lot of similarities to this, that was the “shining beacon” within djent and the new movement of progressive metal that proved that it could, if made by the right people, be truly excellent. But no one had really done it. Even that album had plenty of flaws – the constant obsession with the high-pitched atmospheric whining guitar, as well as the ambient track that never really seemed to fit with the rest of the music at all pulled it down to just “good” in my mind, but I enjoyed it as a piece of evidence. It was proof that djent wasn’t just Periphery’s pop punk, or Animals as Leaders’ wank, or Between the Buried and Me’s utter garbage, but it could be truly great. Odyssey to the West is the album that takes that mantle. Regardless of where it ultimately sits in my album of the year rankings, this is an album that has proven to me, amongst other things, that there is power and life and emotion within this new movement of progressive metal. It truly is a game-changer for the entirety of progressive music. The undeniable ambition of the record will prove to the naysayers that there is serious artistic value in djent and deathcore, and the quality of songwriting in the softer sections will prove that it’s not just style over substance. This is a truly great record. It finally happened. Bravo Slice the Cake.