Where does an album get their genre descriptor from? And who has the authority to give an album, and the band who created the album in the first place, said genre descriptor? If anyone has listened to both prog death and tech death long enough, you’ll notice there is a fine line between both genres, especially when their descriptions become subjective to the listener. Casting the finer points of metal music vernacular aside, the reason for this thought was that Contrarian’s fifth album, Sage of Shekhinah, straddles the line between the experimental nature of prog death and the technical instrumentation of tech death. Let’s discuss.
When I first listened heard of the band Contrarian, they were described as a progressive death metal band, one that has continually evolved since their first proper release, 2015’s Polemic. However, in lieu of their prog death sound, they also employ a technical playing style, and that’s immediately evident on the opening title track. It has a Mediterranean flair, evident with the usage of an acoustic guitar at the start and later usage of the bouzouki. What I like about it is that it basically tells what the band’s intent is from the get-go: to present a mind-melting affair of florid guitar passages, extensive, melodic drumming (courtesy of Alex Cohen), and instrumental mastery that rivals even the most technical of bands who have made it a point to highlight their mastery of instrumentation. Even at their most experimental, Contrarian does not drag things out – they stick to a theme they want to explore for a track, and they keep their music as concise as possible. However, underneath the overt, bombastic elements of their songwriting, the album also has a distinct air of wisdom and scholarship. This is not an album that can be consumed within the span of its runtime; this is an album that demands your attention and your patience. It challenges you to continue listening, asking you to simultaneously pick up on its shifting musical passages and understand what is occurring here.
Even with their technical mastery and experimentation, Contrarian manages to create beautiful, almost ethereal passages of music. For example, third track “Ibn al Rawandi” has what sounds like distorted synths backed by guitars throughout its runtime, allowing for brief moments of levity before instrumental chaos and vocals kick in. It’s almost serene; for a brief moment, these melodic passages are the only things that tide you over, that keep you from losing yourself in the madness. Another example is on the sixth track, “Apollonius of Tyana,” which has a small, melodic solo embedded throughout its runtime that gives the song an air of reverence. Unlike those moments of levity from “Ibn al Rawandi,” “Apollonius of Tyana” sounds like a funeral dirge, one that asks the listener to both pay their respects and accept what is happening. Whether those respects are for Apollonius himself or to someone else, that remains up to the listener. These ethereal thematic codas are sprinkled throughout Sage of Shekhinah, all cued by the ever-present backing bassline that keeps rhythm while the remaining instruments do as they seemingly please. I would not be surprised to learn that, outside of the lyrics and the vocals, the instrumentation was completely ad-libbed and recorded as such to keep things as unpredictable as possible. Of course, that’s what keeps the band interesting: their inherently unpredictable nature gives us something to look forward to, something that makes this challenging album so compelling to pick up again and again.
I hesitate to call an album cerebral, but there’s no better descriptor for an album of Sage of Shekhinah’s caliber – and I mean that as a compliment to the band’s ever-evolving sound. While this is challenging on a first listen, what kept me coming back to Sage of Shekhinah was its unpredictability and the inherent need to know where this album falls in the prog-tech death spectrum. All in all, it is a brilliant, consistent album that will continue to straddle these genre descriptors, and I, for one, will enjoy the nous that it offers.
Sage of Shekhinah will be available March 17 on Willowtip Records. For more information on Contrarian, visit their Facebook page.