Thursday, 7 December 2017

ALBUM REVIEW: Rosetta - "Utopioid"

By: Mark Ambrose

Album Type: Full Length
Date Released: 01/09/2017 | 12/01/2018
Label: The Anaesthete (CD//CS//DD) |
Pelagic Records (LP)


“Utopioid” is beautiful, challenging, at times catchy, and more emotionally resonant that a great deal of music I hear in a given year.  But if you’re measuring for sheer heaviness – aural, conceptual, even spiritual – “Utopioid” is heavy as a dying star, and just as terrifying in its beauty.

“Utopioid” CS//CD//DD//LP track listing

1. Amnion
2. Intrapartum
3. Neophyte Visionary
4. King Ivory Tower
5. 54543
6. D├ętente
7. Hypnagogic
8. Qohelet
9. Intramortem

The Review:

We’ve all heard that anecdote that the Eskimo have a huge number of words for “snow”, supposedly for each subtle variation only people surrounded by frozen tundra would notice on a regular basis.  If only there was a similar glossary for types of “heaviness” that could serve as a sort of musical Esperanto for metal enthusiasts.  We tend to flatten out the term so much that it becomes kind of meaningless – the tri-tone opening of “Black Sabbath”, the breakneck shred of Converge’sConcubine”, and the menacing rainfall of Slayer’sRaining Blood” are all quintessentially “heavy” moments in metal music.  It can be an easy shorthand in some cases, denoting dissonance, harsh vocals, or low end guitar riffing, but by boxing “heavy” or “metal” into some confined structure, we’d eliminate some truly haunting, melodic, beautiful, but undeniably heavy outliers.  Case in point: Philadelphia’s Rosetta, who have been crafting “metal for astronauts” for over a decade.  On their sixth release, “Utopioid”, Rosetta push the emotional limits of melodic post-metal without abandoning their heavy bona fides, albeit in ways that may be so alien to some metalheads that they’ll flatly reject the metal tag whatsoever.
               
Make no mistake, Rosetta lurks at the periphery of metal orthodoxy.  Interludes and codas like “Amnion”, “54543” and “Intramortem” are more Sigur Ros than Neurosis.  The clean vocals, in both their register and placement in the mix, almost subsumed by mirrored guitar harmonies at some points, are akin to the earlier waves of emo – I was consistently thinking of Christie Front Drive, Mineral, and Sunny Day Real Estate.  But just when the pathos threatens to turn sour or twee, the progressions often turn sour, introducing dissonance, minor chords, or gut-wrenching screamed vocals.  “Intrapartum”, in particular, vacillates between ethereal and eerie, with a gang vocal closing that is intense and triumphant.
               
The prevalence of vocals on “post” anything can be a barrier to entry for some enthusiasts, but the members of Rosetta seem to be keenly aware of economy and the qualities of a voice as an instrument – the majority of the hour-plus album is dominated by guitars and effects, while even the screamed vocals seem precisely “composed” within the strictures of each track.  Each ragged syllable seems a part of a symphonic whole, while the guitars often track the clean vocal progressions, especially in verses.
               
The whole “metal for astronauts” tag feels kind of silly, but it’s remarkably apt.  The reverb-laden, echoey feel of everything screams “space”, while the emotional heft feels outside of temporal concerns – there’s something almost spiritual (I found myself writing down “cinematically cosmic”) at work in the balance between angelic singing and primitive shouts.  Maybe it’s just the sheer amount of time and exploratory leeway Rosetta grants their respective components that feels untethered from gravity.  Occasionally the explorations veer off unsuccessfully, like the meandering ambient coda of “Hypnagogic” that is begging for a triumphant reprise.  But then a track like “Qohelet” crashes through a finale as effective and thrilling as any I’ve heard in 2017 and the whole experiment works.  Particular praise has to be given to the rhythm section of Dave Grossman and Bruce McMurtrie Jr., whose precise bass work and drumming, respectively, anchors the band through numerous space rock outbursts.  Without steady hands at the wheel, the dual guitar lines of Eric Jernigan and Matt Weed could meander into incoherence – instead of the near transcendence they achieve on track after track.
               
Of course, the drawback to any “post-metal” album is the tendency to overstay its welcome, and “Utopioid” does that for exactly seven minutes and fifty-three seconds on the final track, “Intramortem”.  It isn’t a bad number, per se, but has the distinct disadvantage of following the natural climax of the record, “Qohelet”.  The resulting ambience and repeated builds has a lot of potential but never has that moment of resolution that makes the piece worth sticking around for.  Rather, it feels like a neat bonus track that should be absorbed well after you’ve caught your breath from the remarkable ending of “Qohelet”.
               
So is “Utopioid” a “metal” release?  I can’t say for certain.  It’s beautiful, challenging, at times catchy, and more emotionally resonant that a great deal of music I hear in a given year.  But if you’re measuring for sheer heaviness – aural, conceptual, even spiritual – “Utopioid” is heavy as a dying star, and just as terrifying in its beauty.

“Utopioid” is available digitally here via bandcamp (CS//DD//CD) here and LP here



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