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Subterranean Masquerade "Suspended Animation Dreams" CD

Subterranean Masquerade - Suspended Animation Dreams

Very curious. This full-length follow-up to the band's debut two-track EP clocks in just short of an hour with eight tracks of extremely adventurous material that's not quite metal, not quite progressive rock, and not quite jazz - though the end result is an avant-garde affair that does draw heavily from all such influences, and then some. This time out the lineup sees chief visionary Tomer Pink (guitars, dulcimer, and harmonica) joined once again by Paul Kuhr of Novembers Doom on vocals and Jake Depolitte on guitar and bass - though the scope of instrumentation has been massively widened here, including a slew of essential guest contributions on Hammond organ, Rhoads piano, strings, mandolin, trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, flute, additional percussion, additional vocals, and even electronics/sound manipulation. So, believe me, the big picture on this outing sounds pretty lofty, and certainly presents itself as a bit of an incredible undertaking right from the start. Things open up strangely right away, as the succinct title track shifts from glitchy electronics and thin, distant, somber acoustic chords to a lightly melancholic slab of morning talk show TV sounding jazz that quickly gives way to swells of guitar drones behind singing and another surge into a flute and percussion backed chorus; when "Wolf Among Sheep (Or Maybe the Other Way Around?)" takes control and slides back into some Opeth-esque acoustic riffing and a little more of an energetic metal sensibility that possesses a really solid undercurrent of emotion. After that more of a crisp progressive rock vibe takes hold, making this one of the more fluid and powerful tracks as a whole. Eight-minute "No Place Like Home" uses lots of additional percussion, not to mention some chant-like vocals towards the final few minutes that lend more of a "world music" vibe to the composition, and some of the vocal work has more of a narrative feel in this one as well. And the instrumental, "Kind of a Blur"? "Candle in the Wind"? Anyone? I'm talking a total Elton John sounding piano intro that gradually slides into on off-kilter prog passage accompanied by orchestral strings, horns, and choral vocals. Totally weird, but somehow not at all out of context!? "Six Strings to Cover Fear" is one of the only "metallic" tracks in general, even going so far as to throw in some tremolo picking and the more dominant presence of Kuhr's forceful growl (granted there are plenty of restrained moments herein as well), though the heavier realm is actually not where the band succeeds the most. In fact, despite being fairly well written (some of the lead work is absolutely excellent), this selection actually highlights most of the issues that I have with the production (which I'll get to more thoroughly later), as the distorted guitars are a little choppy and thin, and the double bass drumming sounds pretty machinated and weak, so the song as a whole feels somewhat distant and a touch rugged compared to the fluidity of the more progressive and diverse atmospheres heard elsewhere. "Awake" is the monstrous epic of the disc, developing over the course of 14+ minutes through some of the more aggressive tremolo picking and melodic power chords heard in "Six Strings to Cover Fear", as well as lush acoustic guitars, piano, and strings with superb female lead vocals and shitloads of choral backups to contrast the growling. The string arrangements are much louder and more active in this piece, which really ends up taking much more of a dynamic and theatrical sort of road that sort of conjures the imagery a little more than some of the other tracks - which could be good or could be a bit of a distraction, depending on how you look at it. Personally it's not my favorite piece herein, but I totally admire what they've achieved with it, and the stronger moments are an incredible indication of what kind of creativity this band has under its collective belt. But "The Rock 'n' Roll Preacher" is the only track that I don't really care for, not only because the song title absolutely rubs me the wrong way (I can overlook much of the strangely "quirky" elements elsewhere within the release), more importantly because I don't particularly care for the writing. The horns and piano just past the seven-minute mark are too upbeat and cheesy for me, while the heavier riffs that spring up in scarce positions throughout this passage are a little too forced. Meanwhile, closer "X" is an amazing piece of work, using gorgeous acoustic guitars and female singing against some of the most emotional and moving organ work on the entire disc, while subdued percussion lurks in the distance with strings to add color when necessary. Excellent, excellent material. I love it. For the most part the recording's pretty nice. It's a shame these guys don't have the budget to really go wild with this stuff, because there's a hell of a lot going on, and it's clear that there are so many ideas and intricacies involved that I can only imagine how amazing the outcome would be were the band awarded the opportunity to really explore more in the studio. But nonetheless, despite minor shortcomings they've done incredibly well for such a colossal journey. The only elements that feel somewhat lacking to me are the distorted guitars (which are rare anyway) and a few scarce bits of the percussion, as the distorted guitars don't quite feel heavy enough to really offer the proper amount of contrast to all of the lush clean and acoustic work, while for the most part the drums sound quite good, but on occasion the snare feels rigid and unnatural, and the kicks can follow suit with a bit of a flat presence, and I also feel like the percussion leans forward in the mix too often. There are so many layers of musicality in place that I'd like to hear the mix given a little more of a boost in terms of clarity and overall balance, because it is clear, but as a result some of the more intriguing instrumentation can take a back seat, and that space leaves a minimal void. I'd basically like to hear everything come across as thick and warm, without any real gaps to be found (sans a few areas where such approaches are of course entirely logical and intentional). But these complaints are pretty minor in the grand scheme of things, as most everything signifies a definite level of quality, so... there's nothing about the sound quality that even comes close to truly hindering the record, but were a few improvements made they would expand the experience as a whole. Visually I'm a little torn on things because I don't care for the cover's color scheme and some of the illustrations are too childlike, though that does tie into a lot of the odd imagery manipulated within the lyrical content, so it makes sense, and a few areas of the illustrations are endearing in that regard. And hell, there are some nice lyrics, too: "Those eyes have seen the best of days, Turning the countdown clock, A salty taste of waterfall, thick colored fog, Bathing in the gaze of a sacred desire under the warmth of the sun, Senseless we adored the freedom, we danced for kingdom come..." I'm still not totally floored by this outfit yet, but they're coming damn close, as masterpieces like "Wolf Among Sheep (Or Maybe the Other Way Around?)" and "X" are simply incredible pieces of music. And above all I do want to make clear that as critical as I can be, I really appreciate what these folks are doing from a creativity standpoint. There's a lot to digest here and this is a very intriguing listen, so I remain a Subterranean Masquerade fan and anxiously look forward to hearing more, because I sincerely believe they're going to create something monumental in the future. Nicely done, thus far. (7/10)
[The End]
Running time - 54:49, Tracks: 8
[Notable tracks: Suspended Animation Dreams, Wolf Among Sheep (Or Maybe the Other Way Around?), X]
The End Records - http://www.theendrecords.com

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Other "Subterranean Masquerade" releases reviewed (1):
Subterranean Masquerade "Temporary Psychotic State" CD [The End] (June 01, 2004)

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