REVIEW: The Contortionist – ‘Language’

the contortionist

Artist: The Contortionist
Album: Language
Label: eOne Music
Genre: Progressive / Experimental / Metal

Like a swift jab to the jaw, The Contortionist mercilessly broke into center stage with 2010’s Exoplanet, a 50-minute arrangement that encompassed a wealth of genres, and displayed a level of musicianship unmatched by their peers. A fluid blend of heavy, atmospheric, and everything in between, the album’s unpredictability and avant-garde approach was praised by critics, and quickly became the standard by which progressive metal was judged.

The Indiana outfit’s follow-up attempt, Intrinsic, was considerably less brazen, further pushing the boundaries set forth by its predecessor with mixed results. Though equally impressive from a musical standpoint, structurally the 10-song effort struggled to find its footing, alternating between various styles with less competence.

This leads us to Language, the band’s third full-length studio album, and the first to feature frontman Michael Lessard, who joined the ranks after Jonathan Carpenter’s departure in early 2013. With the former Last Chance to Reason vocalist at the helm, the outfit has continued to progress their sound into uncharted territories, exchanging the dizzying time-signatures and bone crushing breakdowns of yesteryear for more calculated soundscapes.

This change is apparent within the first seconds of the opener, “The Source.” Without hesitation, Lessard delivers a haunting hymn amidst mounting synth and subtle guitar work, and very quickly, one realizes that public expectation has taken a backseat to sincere discourse. This is, without a doubt, a band making music for themselves, and no one else.

A beautifully unexpected introduction, the cascading vocals of this initial offering are soon replaced by a more intimate closing sentiment, and with the flip of a switch, the album’s first single, “Language I: Intuition,” takes over. A moody delay pedal sets the scene, and is soon joined by a pulsing bass line and more tasteful atmosphere provided by Eric Geunther, another new addition to the group. Following a jazzy break towards the songs midpoint, the stellar guitar work of Robby Baca and Cameron Maynard is finally allowed to take the wheel. Within the track’s closing seconds, the duo races to a towering climax, before diving headlong into “Language II: Conspire,” which, for longtime fans, will undoubtedly conjure fond memories of the outfit’s freshman outing. Less restrained and delightfully devastating, this track is also the first true glimpse we are given of Lessard’s underutilized growl, which is unfortunate, as it is ferocious in all the right ways.

This divergence from set standards is present throughout Language. Though admirable and unique, it is equally a mixed blessing, allowing for certain passages to drag on and drift into disregard. For example, once past the brooding opening of “Integration,” listeners are whitewashed by drawn-out melodies and repetitious riffs. Similarly, “Ebb & Flow” comes complete with some phenomenal finger magic reminiscent of Tosin Abasi, but these positives are downplayed by forgettable vocal lines, which are, unfortunately, somewhat common across the album’s nine tracks. This is not to say that Lessard is a poor vocalist, but with the exception of a few standout moments, his delivery isn’t particularly diverse, which in turn devalues the group’s stronger reliance on clean vocals. Progression is great when it’s natural, but progression for the sake of progression is less enticing. Plain and simple, I miss the heavy.

However, to say that The Contortionist’s latest attempt is poorly written would not only be inaccurate, but exceedingly foolish. “Arise” and the previously referenced “Language II: Conspire” finds the sextet balancing their trademark duality with the same finesse that first put them on the map four years ago. Jaw-dropping licks soar high overhead and flow fluidly between one another as Lessard showcases what he is truly capable of, all while Joey Baca somehow manages to keep time with machine-like precision. “Thrive” demands listeners’ attention from the word go, and manages to maintain that same sense of urgency even during its softer moments, and while “The Parable” takes a bit to get going, its eventual peak is marvelously striking.

Though Language continues to lack the reckless abandon I missed so much on Intrinsic, as a whole, it still has a lot to offer. From a musical standpoint, it is daunting, and though there are times where the outfit overreaches, the undeniable quality of the final product makes these slip-ups, for the most part, excusable. Like their namesake, the men of The Contortionist have once again twisted their trade into a nearly unrecognizable knot. One which, despite its faults, deserves to be unraveled. If you think you’re up for the challenge, pick up Language when it drops today, September 16, via eOne Music.

SCORE: 8/10
Review written by Kyle Florence

Kyle Florence

Kyle Florence is a proud Wisconsinite, a dinosaur enthusiast, and a lover of all things weird and whacky.
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