Whenever someone mentions the term supergroup, I can’t help but think of massive ones, like Ayreon or Avantasia, and the way they are able to create stories while incorporating a revolving door of vocalists and musicians that play major parts as characters. However, supergroups don’t need a huge group of people to be considered as such, which brings us to the band Howling Sycamore, whose members have various degrees of expertise across the metal spectrum, making this one of the more ambitious groups I’ve encountered. But, that doesn’t mean that Seven Pathways to Annihilation works like a total charm.
This is an album that hits the ground running, with first track “Mastering Fire” jumping straight into the absurd vocal stratosphere and this emotive falsetto sets the music aflame. Vocalist Jason McMaster is impressive on a technical level; his voice puts together a myriad of influences and tones. I’ve seen him coined as ‘channeling the late Ronnie James Dio,’ but I want to compare him to Berti Barbera of Crossing Eternity, whose dynamic voice also borders on emotive and dramatic which successfully ties Crossing Eternity’s music together. Although McMaster’s voice can be overbearing at times, it actually works within the context here. After all, the otherworldly nature of his voice doesn’t belong on your standard progressive metal album.
Then, again, this isn’t your standard progressive metal album.
Speaking of the music, it’s impressive that they managed to make some of it work, especially considering where the membership draws from. For example, Hannes Grossman – of Obscura and Alkaloid fame – plays drums on this record, which may hint at something tech death inspired, but that’s not the case. Grossman’s drumming is consistent yet variable and not about how fast he can play a piece, but how well he can play a piece despite the numerous sounds and textures embedded into the musical structure. Lastly on the formal line-up is Davide Tiso, whose handling of guitar and bass parts adds an interesting and weird tonality to the music. While it does fall on the more avant-garde side of progressive metal – the experimental side, that is – it isn’t a complete turn-off.
Also, a quick shout out to all of the other people who played on this album, particularly the saxophone on the track “Sorcerer” – it was one of the most unexpected things here that reminds me of the weirdness that is Ved Buens Ende’s Written in Waters. However, unlike the sinister tones in Written, the tones on Seven Pathways add to the avant-garde appeal of it all.
However, despite all of this, Seven Pathways does suffer from being overindulgent. There are moments where it can become overbearing and a lot of it feels repetitive. The album could’ve been improved by cutting some of the musical passages down and by doing this, it wouldn’t suffer from being a bit masturbatory at times. Although the runtime is appropriate, variance is key in progressive metal and some aspects of it just don’t fit well enough together to have that kind of variance. This also calls into question whether Howling Sycamore hoped that their various influences and elements would work together in the long run, but having fantastic vocals doesn’t minimize the fact that the music needs to work and flow better.
All in all, Seven Pathways in Annihilation is worth listening to if you are into the safe side of avant-garde. Although it suffers from overindulgence, the album is still fun to listen to, and I actually enjoyed it a lot more than I originally thought. Perhaps Howling Sycamore needs to slow their output and work out exactly what they want to be as a band before committing to a sound. And I hope they have those details down by the time their third full length album is released.