Full disclosure: This is not a technical, song-by-song review. I cover generalities and feelings, not compositional intricacies. Deal with it.
This week, I learned about the djent scene that’s been cropping up in metal lately. The name “djent” is an onomatopoeia for the super low palm-mute sound typically of the music for which Wikipedia credits Meshuggah as coining, which is probably correct in that I can’t remember listening to a band that predates Meshuggah that uses such an extremely heavy bottom guitar tone. A quick overview of the music, also from Wikipedia:
Djent as a style has been described as featuring heavily distorted, palm-muted guitar chords alongside virtuoso soloing, and is characterized by its progressive, rhythmic, and technical complexity, often interwoven with polyrhythms.
Yes, all of my research came from Wikipedia. Doesn’t matter. I’ve listened to several bands that have gained momentum under the “djent” label, including the aforementioned Meshuggah, Veil of Maya, and Animals as Leaders, so I’ve been able to hear for myself how the established bands have defined and molded the genre. That being said, my personal synopsis of these bands is remarkably close to the above definition. I haven’t reviewed an album in some time as I’ve been busy in my personal life, so I’ve had the chance to spin Forces at Work’s “Straight” nearly a half-dozen times, walk away from it for a few months, and then listen to it again several times in the past few days.
Let’s cut to the chase.
The bottom line is that this album never really grabbed and sustained my attention for more than a few minutes at a time. The musicians are skilled, true, but skill doesn’t always translate to compelling music. For me, Forces at Work stands at the intersection of technical death metal, a sub-genre of heavy music that is sometimes mistakenly seen as the essence of progressive extreme metal, and modern heavy metal, where the so-called “djent” scene resides, and where deeper and heavier sounds are requisite for any sort of legitimacy.
Is this a problem? Not necessarily. But where I’m left wanting seems to be that I wish they had just picked a side instead of riding the musical genre fence. Are they a djent band? Kinda. Are they an innovative new progressive metal band? Sorta.
I’ll explain. If they chose to go “full djent”, or let’s say even “full hardcore”, they could have added some new technical elements to a relatively established arena. This isn’t a group of schmuck musicians — believe me, they have the skill to compete in a technically-driven genre. Granted, “Straight” then probably wouldn’t have been reviewed on this site, but would have been prime, fresh meat for some hardcore music review outlet. They probably wouldn’t have reinvented the wheel, but they would have helped to pioneer the underground segment of what newer metal has become. The lead singer brings the right combination of vocal style and energy, and the rest of the band follows suit. Maybe you’d have seen them at the next New England Metal & Hardcore Festival. I don’t know, because I don’t damn listen to hardcore music.
If they would have gone full progressive? The possibilities are endless. One thing about this album is that is started very, very strong, and the first track (“The Mind Slavery”) was incredibly compelling. Harsh vocals were mixed with other vocal styles, guitar tones were varied, and they even break out into a swing feel for a second at around the 40 second mark. This combines with an aggressive metal attack that hits you before one minute of the track has gone by. The chorus is catchy; the solo section is unique and even rock n’ roll at times; the production and performance are mostly clean, a difficult thing to do with music this technical, and on what I can only imagine is a modest budget. Honestly, the opening track to “Straight” represents the hope I had for the album: a new, progressive take on metal that incorporates new trends in heavy metal.
Let me say a few things before I reach my verdict. First: although it seems like I just lied to you about hearing the FULL album more than a handful of times, I have indeed done just that. The fact that the first track is the best track is probably less coincidence and more “putting your best foot forward”. And that’s not to say the rest of the album is awful: each track has an interesting moment (or two, or three, or even five). Second: we’re talking about a lot of skill inside each of these musicians. This is a young band, it’s only their fourth album, and music is different than it was in the 1970’s — bands tend to get better these days, not worse (ever hear the 1980’s albums of great Italian bands?).
My verdict: it’s good music. All reviews are biased, and I might be cheating Forces at Work of a half-star due to my vision of extreme progressive metal being different than theirs, but my conclusion is that there will be many listeners who appreciate the technical aspects of metal who will be honored to have this album grace their CD cabinet. Or iPhone, or whatever the hell else you’re into.