REVIEW: FALLUJAH – “Undying Light”
Every band who strives to live up to the moniker of “progressive metal” or “technical metal” either tries their best to add elements off the beaten path to carve their own niche into the genre or sharpen various staples of the genre into a fine blade. The Californian wizards in Fallujah succeeded in quickly becoming a household name in the technical death metal and progressive death metal scenes by creating a distinct enough sound that they are now the torchbearers that many newer artists are compared against. Is their newest record, Undying Light yet another lethal arrow in their quiver?
Fallujah started off as a death metal band with deathcore elements like breakdowns and diminished riffs on their debut EP Leper Colony, which they tailored into something closer to a more straightforward riff-a-minute debut full-length album, The Harvest Wombs. It wasn’t until their next EP, Nomadic that they truly experimented with wider soundscapes and played with atmospheric elements and created a three-track effort that would forever change their sound and become something unique in a crowded genre. Fully committing to widening their aesthetic to expansive, almost bombastic and grandiose auditory proclamations, 2014’s The Flesh Prevails was the record that made everyone in the scene, fans and labels alike, stand up and take notice of the genius that was Fallujah. Tracks like Sapphire and Carved from Stone have become industry-standards when audiences talk about death metal fused with lush resonant drawn-out ambient sections that provide lush poetry to the brutality of the genre. Dreamless further pushed the envelope adding large keyboard arrangements and stellar female vocal performances increasing the emphasis on creating the widest spaces possible while still being considered a death metal band. Critics of Dreamless feared that Fallujah were careening too far away from the death metal sound and feared an almost Opeth-like descent into something that could barely even be called metal.
There are several ways in which Undying Light carries on the story and sound that is most associated with Fallujah, and many changes are quickly identifiable on this record, which could possibly be attributed to change in personnel. The first shriek on opener Glass House announces that new vocalist Antonio Palermo has decided to move sharply away from the lower-register yet monotonous growls that were famously associated with Fallujah’s ex-vocalist Alex Hoffmann. Even though many fans will bristle at this change, the versatility that Palermo brings to the overall sound seems rather fitting. His throaty almost hardcore barks, shrieks, and fry-vocals add to the ferocity of many of the more aggressive sections of this record, while simultaneously giving many of the wide ambient and atmospheric sections a rather blackened vibe, more similar to bands like Harakiri For The Sky and even as tortured to delve into Advent Sorrow territory. Tracks like Dopamine also feature clean vocal sections, which are not new to the Fallujah repertoire. Though Palermo makes a solid effort, it simply does not compare to the otherworldly ambient vocal sections present on Dreamless courtesy of Katie Thompson and Tori Letzler who truly added something fresh to the sound.
The drums on Undying Light are easily one of the two crowning achievements. Drummer Andrew Baird shows us once again that he is an unstoppable force showing unbridled, almost frenetic energy on tracks like Eyes Like The Sun yet remains in total control of his chaos on tracks like Last Light choosing his moments to go from mature restraint to all-out assault making it one of the best parts of the entire record. Bassist Robert Morey is the other crown that shines brightest on Undying Light. The bass lines and production that adorns the entire record is remarkable and adds yet never distracts from the overall sound, achieving near-perfection.
Guitarwork has always been the cornerstone of the Fallujah sound. We have come to associate the reverb-rich larger than life leads soaring over tight-rope riffs and dreamy open chorded sections, to a point that many other bands forever chase that magic. Much of that magic is attributed to Scott Carstairs who has made a name for himself in the technical death metal community for his beauty-within-chaos approach to songwriting. We get more of what we expect from Carstairs on Undying Light, yet with much more restraint and over-reliance of mid-paced chord-stop sections, which tend to tire quickly and add weight without substance to the entire length. An exception to this is Distant and Cold which is perfectly named with its morose drone and sullen tones and could easily be mistaken to be a doom metal track, and almost refreshing. Tracks like single Ultraviolet, Last Light, and Eyes like the Sun, do have faster sections of more tech-death elements, but they are few and far between and are sorely missed. Notably absent from Undying Light is rhythm guitarist Brian James who departed the band shortly before this record. It is immediately evident that Fallujah is a two-guitar band that relies heavily on multiple layers in a studio and live performances. There is a definite loss in the density of the songwriting because of James’ departure.
The production on Undying Light were two hits and a miss for me. The drums and bass were absolutely blistering in every sense: crisp and discernable, yet unquestionably bludgeoning, fully allowing the musical talent of Baird and Morey to shine brightest and at its high points is so satisfying! The vocals were also refreshingly well placed in the space, not crowding or overpowering any of the instruments, yet drawing focus every time it was needed. In contrast, the guitar mixes on the entire record were a particular disappointment; the rhythm tones, in particular, lacked punch and weight and sound overly washed out in the wider arrangements and muddy in the sections with faster-paced staccato riffs taking away a lot of its teeth. The ambient guitar sections also seemed rather subdued compared to previous releases.
One of my major gripes with Undying Light was that no one song was particularly memorable. Sadly, there are no Sapphire, Carved From Stone, The Void Alone like anthems that become instant earworms because of that one ultra-memorable riff or section that sticks with you days after listening to it. The track lengths were also so similar, all ranging in the upper four-minute mark, that the tracks blended into one another, forcing monotony and fatigue. Tracks like Sanctuary, Hollow, and The Ocean Above have something to say, but take so long to say it, and say it so often, that it begins to lose impact, and then all meaning. These tracks and the entire record would have been better served with a harsher editorial eye to trim off a lot of the unnecessary bloat to display a much sharper product. With bands like Rivers of Nihil hitting gold with a very similar sound with their latest release and Aversion’s Crown latest single veering dangerously into Fallujah territory, it is a little disheartening to not have the masters school the competition.
Undying Light is an undeniably proficient record, made by musicians that have absolute mastery over their sound and the stories they are trying to tell. Yet, for all its heft and maturity it lacks the Oomph! that many fans yearn for with every release and makes us come back salivating for more. Whether this is the price that Fallujah pays for quickly becoming the genre-giants with an early-rise to fame that sours just as quickly or simply a near impossibility to ever reach audiences’ expectations is still left to be seen.