REVIEW: HOWLING SYCAMORE – “Howling Sycamore”
The world of progressive, and experimental metal has its share of madmen; musicians who move from project to project; all the while bringing their own unique vision of the genre along with them, in their continued aim to push themselves, and the genre onward. In the progressive world you have people like Mike Portnoy who have so many projects it’s nearly impossible to keep up with them. In experimental music you have Mike Patton who likewise is about as busy as any musician out there. But there are also those who are sadly always under the radar, and of those one of my favorites is Italy’s Davide Tiso. Tiso is best known for his Ephal Duath project, who I have written about before in my “Introduction To Experimental and Avant Garde Metal” article. Now he has a new extreme prog metal project Howling Sycamore self titled album due out late January of next year, and it’s an album to be taken note of.
From the ashes of an abandoned project, Tiso created Howling Sycamore into its own formidable beast. Combing the technical, extreme drumming of Hannes Grossmann (Obscura, Blotted Science) with his own guitar, and bass work Tiso formed the basis of the band. Opting for traditional prog metal vocals (rather than the harsh vocals usually associated with the style of music) Tiso brought in ex-Watchtower vocalist Jason McMaster to finish the core of the band. Rounding off the lineup for the album are guest musicians Kevin Hufnagel (Dysrhythmia, Gorguts) and, Fester (Burials, Humorous) on guitars, and perhaps more importantly for the overall sound, Bruce Lamont (Yakuza, Brain Tentacles) on baritone saxophone. The lineup complete they set out to record the heavy, often schizophrenic music that Tiso had written.
The album begins with the pummeling drums of “Upended” and from the very beginning it is clear this is not a typical prog metal album. The drums scream death metal, but the guitar work is suggestive of a warped version of traditional prog metal meeting jazz fusion. Then the vocals begin; not screams, or mellow vocals, but the high end style of Iron Maiden. This is immediately followed by frenzied, screaming sax work over the top of it. By this point I was hooked and had bought into the unusual chaos coming from my speakers. And this is the general sound of the album: an extremely complex and brutal approach to drumming, combined with technical guitar work, frequently combining jazz styling with the more typical riff approach of metal. The sax work is not constant, but appears often enough to make it essential to the music, as well as not overstating its welcome. The style; and madcap combination of course screams John Zorn to me, which is never a bad thing.
I’m not always a huge fan of very high ranged vocals, and in extreme and technically driven music, the vocals are very often the weak link in the band. And the juxtaposition of this vocal style with very heavy music was a bit jarring at first, as it is not common. However it works exceptionally well; and I found myself thoroughly enjoying McMaster’s vocals throughout the album. And on the very mellow, acoustic driven “Chant of Stillness” his vocals are essential to carrying the track all together. I should also add that throughout the album he occasionally goes into the upper regions of his range and contributes some legitimate and serious screams as well, which adds another effective element to his style.
It is not all chaos and thundering music however. Halfway through “Decent to Light” the music gets very jazzy, and mellow, carried by the vocals and mellow sax, before the drums kick it up again in a frenzy of double kicks, and guitar distortion, complete with some of the more effective examples of McMaster’s screams. The album is closed by the instrumental “Dysphoria” which is dominated by delicate acoustic guitar playing, although accompanied by the more aggressive drumming. As with the rest of the album, nothing is standard about it, and as he has done throughout his career, Tiso perfectly blends opposing styles into a union that closes the album nicely.
The album is rather short, only 37 minutes in length, which certainly left me wanting more. However there is so much going on in this amount of time the listener will still likely feel drained after they are done with it. It is a very dense album, and each listen will bring out more details that you hadn’t noticed before. Grossmann’s drumming especially opens up with repeated listens, as the lighter fills become clearer and more intricate the closer you listen. This is an album that begs to be played loudly, or with a good set of headphones.
With Howling Sycamore, Davide Tiso and company have crafted an unusual, and near perfect example of extreme progressive, and experimental metal that will satisfy fans of either genre. It is a heavy, jazzy, assault on the ears, and a marriage of Zorn worthy experimentation with the accessibility of classic early 90’s prog metal. For fans of truly forward thinking metal, who want something fresh, and unusual, that’s being played and created by true masters, look no further. This comes out three days before my next birthday; I know what I’ll be asking for.