Friday, January 29, 2016

Mastery - VALIS

Sometimes with music that’s on the “different” side, it’s easy to get distracted by those differences and fail to see what’s really going on. Mastery’s VALIS is a good example of this problem, because at the surface this album is a chaotic mess of adult ADHD, the Las Vegas Strip of metal. When you get past VALIS’ superficially dazzling lights however, you have what is fundamentally a metal album, no matter how noisy or chaotic it may seem. More importantly, this is a fairly good album if you aren’t disgusted by things out of far left field. Generally speaking, the release is in the same ballpark as music you may hear from a Mories project (imagine De Magia Veterum reinterpreting Reign in Blood) because of how the low strumming noisy bits are often broken up with light speed digital trills and massive melodic jumps into high-pitched dissonant intervals or chords.

Unlike a lot of music that dips its toes into chaos, VALIS has a huge amount of metal riffs. However, they’re delivered like an unrelenting artillery assault. One explosive melody blasts after another so quickly that you almost can’t discern any particular moment, due to the stunning afterglow of each riff. This is the key to what makes the whole album such a spectacle, the sheer speed of the delivery of every instrument rather than any one moment standing out. Despite taking obvious musical cues from black/noise, there is also quite a warm low-end, and when you factor in the speed, it makes the chaos all the more global. All of this makes sense too, given that this 2015 release is Mastery’s first full-length while the project’s first demo was in 2005! VALIS is clearly the result of a well refined vision.

There are a fair amount of breathers throughout the album that make it easier to appreciate the tumultuous cascade of notes elsewhere. In these calmer moments, you can also better appreciate the evenness of the throaty dry vocals; and the breaks are the only times where the drum’s pancakes compression is particularly noticeable. Structurally, the album is broken up by two ambient pieces, their short length contrasting the massive other three tracks (one is 17:53.) But, since the longer tracks already have breaks built in, the ambient tracks seem a tad gratuitous. Especially with L.O.R.E.S.E.E.K.E.R. in the center of the album’s run time. It’s relatively tame tempo changes and controlled melodic jumps (by Mastery’s standards at least) obviate the need for other interludes. It also makes some sense to think of the album as one song, but the main tracks are still self contained and defined enough to not rely on one another entirely.

Sometimes really experimental stuff can feel like the entire creation was done by an outsider to metal, who is co-opting only the genre’s most superficial aspects. Despite what could be described as mathcore inclinations, Mastery comes across as authentic because of its riffiness and you can also hear blatant traditional Norwegian influences bleeding through (e.g., the second half of S.T.A.R.S.E.E.K.E.R., where one riff feels familiar enough to have been from a classic album.) It’s a good indicator of how VALIS’ insanity is often reigned in and contrasted with normal bits that seem to make it even crazier, instead of just a forgettable wash of nonsense. After all, pure chaos eventually becomes white noise. The percussion helps a great deal in this regard because the walls of blast beats provide a comfortingly consistent aspect to the mix.

In all of the hyperspeed riffing punctuated by frenzied high pitched flourishes, you almost lose the sense that the guitar here is a physical instrument rather than something programmed (and maybe it is programmed.) The digital tone is part of this, but it’s really the performance that makes it seem outside of the instrument’s typical confines. Not necessarily better or worse than how guitar is usually used, but when you have slides punching in from nowhere and all sorts of pitches used in rapid sequence it feels like an aggregation of samples instead of a human performance. It all works though. For example, how can you not love the nice twangy slides towards the end of L.O.R.E.S.E.E.K.E.R. as the drums switch from half-time to double-time? It’s high quality songwriting and even when you cut through all of the flash and novelty, VALIS is still a really solid output.

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