California’s The Faceless hit the ground running with their 2006 debut, Akeldama, a frenetic mish-mash of technical death metal and ingrained metalcore influences. Despite the dearth of creativity that genre tag generally indicates, though, it was a strong effort, containing a lot of impressive, memorable passages, including clean singing and light progressive influences. Overall, it had a very distinct personality, and perhaps most telling of all, I still listen to it. Their sophomore, Planetary Duality, upped the ante even higher, expanding on the scintillating juxtaposition of technical ferocity and psychedelic progressive instances, strengthening both and bringing a new plateau of songwriting to the table. After 4 years and some line-up changes, they’re back with their most diverse, exciting offering by far, Autotheism.
Make no mistake, The Faceless are now planted firmly in the realm of progressive metal, a bold step that often ends in disaster for many bands, as it takes serious compositional chops to enter this realm with any impact. Not only does Autotheism make an impact, it veritably blows a crater into the side of the metal world. Indeed, the smorgasbord of competing influences could have easily spiraled off into incredulity and disaster, but it spins its genre-blending vortex with incredible grace. Not only is each individual passage unique and inspired, the whole becomes something even more than the sum of its parts.
One foot is still planted firmly in the realm of roiling, pounding tech death, and passages of resounding speed and brutality are prevalent throughout, spaced in roughly even increments with the more outlandish sections. This is a pretty thorough, ballsy evolution, and one that will not appeal to everybody, granted. There are influences that can be traced to other oft-maligned, yet inarguably unique artists such as Ihsahn, Opeth, Devin Townsend, and Between the Buried and Me. However, though redolent of these bands, it in no way succumbs to plagiarism or mockery, wrapping subtle tributes into its own distinct web. Everything is inspired by something else, but that does nothing to diminish its value. I can sympathize with the jarring sensation of a band you enjoy crossing streams with waters you tend to stay away from, but to condemn them simply for the action alone is just petty, and if that alienates you, then good fucking riddance. At length, the soundscapes within truly are akin to the above metaphor, a blending of seemingly disparate rivers, creating something diverse and yet intrinsically blended. The lines between death and prog in this album are as not clearly defined as you might think, and this is truly what makes Autotheism so fucking astounding. Nobody has ever achieved a sound quite like this before.
The inaugural trio of tracks comprising the Autotheist Movement display without restraint the slant the record will take, blurring the lines of creativity and brutality with a back and forth between strong, well-ranged cleans and obligatory growls, as the riffing itself floats through dense, relaxing cosmic clouds of melody and epileptic, blasting sprints of fretwork. The innate elemental meshing would mean nothing if the music within was not strong in and of itself, and I truly cannot note a moment within that does not have me completely involved. To be punished so completely one minute, and philosophically roaming some warm, hallucinogenic cosmos the next, without ever feeling the slightest vertigo in transition, is an unbelievable sensation. The scattered, artful use of keyboards also adds a nice sense of theater. Some sections feel like nothing less than excursions into a hypnotic alien carnival, so interesting and off-kilter is the atmosphere. No matter the pace, there’s a huge amount of stuff going on, never boring, but never feeling like too much. It’s crafted as to be enjoyable casually, but with many delicious layers to be extracted over repeated listens. After 20 or so spins, it’s only grown on me. I also really enjoy the lyrics, which I imagine emanating from a sort of shrouded, ambiguous demigod consciousness, championing individuality while parsing out bags of good mushrooms.
Autotheism is true evolution in sound that should be applauded. Of course, any band daring to improve and differentiate their art is going to run into detractors, of whom I have a few subtle thoughts to impart. To those of you who keep parroting 'this isn't the same The Faceless as before!', or lines to that effect… well, I feel I must point out, though I really shouldn’t need to, that they only had two albums before this, the second of which built upon the first with the inclusion of many new elements. Of course it’s not the same, why would it be? I understand the concept of change frightens and angers the more deeply inbred among you, but the band does not need to cease evolution almost immediately in its life cycle to please your lame incestuous tendencies.
Another puzzling, downright laughable accusation I’ve read, and one that every artist making music the least bit avant-garde runs into, is one pertaining to ‘pretention.’ I apologize in advance for getting off-topic in a review, a practice I’m not fond of, but I feel an overwhelming need to address this. While in a few cases a call of pretention rings true, this is 99% of the time an attempt by individuals of base intellect to guard against their own overwhelming (often subconscious) sense of mental inadequacy by judging anything beyond their innate comprehension as flawed, without overtly saying so. It is the most resoundingly hollow criticism possible, about as legitimate as saying something ‘sucks’ because it’s ‘gay’. It only serves to paint the individual who uses it as someone worthy of mockery, with so little weight behind the argument you might as well let fly your true douche-bro nature and use the term ‘art-fag’. Is it at all possible the band just wanted to write music that is outside the proverbial box because they thought it would sound awesome? Because they were legitimately inspired to do so based on a creative drive? What exactly is the pretense you refer to? Do you even understand the meaning of the words you use? If you don’t like it, that’s fine, I hold nothing against you, we all have differing opinions, and I accept that progressive metal is not to everyone’s tastes. But if the act of evolving beyond simple brutality makes The Faceless pretentious, if choosing to expand beyond borders you deem acceptable makes for pretension, then you might as well go back to the stone age, because you’re calling out the entire concept of innovation. Get over yourself.
Here in Autotheism, The Faceless have transcended the tag of technical death metal, and are now something more, something fresh and exhilarating. It's incredibly exciting, a sound that very few bands have attempted, and The Faceless have shown that this could be the start of an unforeseen dynasty. Autotheism is the dawn of a new era for the band, a collection of brilliant, forward-thinking songs that portrays a young, highly inspired group sending out feelers into a vast musical universe. That's right, it's no longer simply death metal, and if that's all you want, it may not be up your alley. However, it straddles its chosen realms with stunning ease, and marks the most pleasant surprise of 2012 thus far. I won’t go as far as calling it a masterpiece, but it’s pretty damn close. I’d love to hear them run even further, perhaps create a lengthy, even more experimental release. If they can expand upon this sound, they could be one of the most important, boundary-smashing bands of this generation.