Instrumental bands never really had a fair shake in metal. We’ve moved from the guitar histrionics of the 80s and 90s (Satriani and Vai maintaining a steady popularity, though your own mileage may vary) to ultra-technical progression with the likes of Animals as Leaders and Scale the Summit. But the majority of press, accolades, and recognition always seem to heavily favor bands with vocals, which is more than a little ironic considering so much of vocals in extreme metal is often unintelligible without a lyrics sheet.
I’ve always been partial to instrumental bands who skirt the mainstream trends of the genre, focusing on melding genres and structures in an effort to put the emphasis on composition over technicality. Stinking Lizaveta have been leading the charge when it comes to this brand of music for over 20 years, and new record Journey to the Underworld continues charting new ground for striking, adventurous music.
Back in 1996 the Philadelphia trio (Yanni and Alexi Papadopoulos on guitar and bass, Cheshire Augusta on drums) blasted out of the gate with the Steve Albini-recorded and mixed Hopelessness and Shame. Taking elements of metal, hardcore and the indie dissonant noise of bands like Sonic Youth and Slint, it was a crazed anomaly in a sea of bands sticking to a template, and showed how much you can wring out of a trio format (note to ed.: we need to do a feature on amazing trios in metal). All the earmarks of Stinking Lizaveta’s sound can be found right in opening track “Some Go To Hell” — angular bass lines that mimic the guitar, only to fall away and launch into odd times with the drums. Serpentine melodies fight against tonality, opting for a dissonant aggression that recall avant garde jazz more than modern metal. Subsequent releases like Screams of the Iron Iconoclast and 2012’s The 7th Direction displayed a growing willingness to work within more traditional rock structures even as their music began to inhabit darker corners.
This direction is solidified on Journey to the Underworld. More than ever the music feels like something you almost but can’t quite recognize, a left of center Clutch meeting Nothingface-era Voivod. Those diminished fifths and tritones run rampant on opener “Witches and Pigs” mixing with a driving bass line and wah-laden solos that dive into screeching blues only to jump out into a stoner sludge that rumbles in feedback. There’s a call and response element to “Chorus of Shades” that’s almost playful until the sinister undertones begin to shine through. Throughout it all it’s impossible to underplay how incredible the musical telepathy is between the brothers Papadopoulos and Augusta. Working in the trio format is a double-edged sword: it gives each member a chance to shine, but can very easily show who may not be pulling their weight in a given tune. That’s not an issue here, as each member amply displays how to throttle the ever loving shit out of your instrument in service to the song. I could talk all day about the guitar heroics Yanni routinely displays on tracks like “A Stranger’s Welcome,” how Alexi beautifully carries the riffs and melodies on the title track, and how Cheshire absolutely kills it on every song, but especially on “Six Fangs” but the point is never the singular performance, it’s the interaction between members and the way said interaction guides the direction of each song.
It’s been five years since Stinking Lizaveta last graced us with new music. Journey to the Underworld is ripe with enough musical ideas to last another five, but I really hope it isn’t that long. Moving to Translation Loss for the newest LP will hopefully expose the ridiculous gifts the band has to a broader audience, and show that there’s an alternative to the “riff, rinse and repeat” formula that seems to pervade the higher profile instrumental bands out there today.