The Envisage Conundrum


I'm perfectly aware that such "tags" as "Melodic Metal" and "Metallic Melodies" cannot really adequately describe a thing, but I have to admit that those were precisely the labels that came to my mind while listening to the first minutes of The Envisage Conundrum, with the album's brief, sinister keyboard introduction called Convergence - something sounding halfway between the writing for strings by Ennio Morricone and by Howard Shore - followed by the wall of guitars, distorted and angular, of Caught In A Bind, with a crowd of voices with echo coming out of my speakers, drum rolls going full blast right to left, and blinding lights showing me the smoke now filling a room - mine! - that in the blink of an eye had turned into an enormodome.

And so I have to immediately clarify that this is not a "Metal" album, subtract or add the "Melody" part, though it's true that other portions of The Envisage Conundrum - starting with the almost twenty minutes long "Borderstomp trilogy", which acts as the album's "almost-but-not-quite" close - share many of the timbral and stylistic traits of those apocalyptic opening moments.

"So", I hear you say, "What kind of album is this?" "And who are those Godsticks?" These are interesting questions that I spent a good portion of the last two weeks investigating.

A trio from Wales, Godsticks will be "special guests" of the March/April European Tour by the Mike Keneally Band. I have to admit I had never heard of them before seeing the group's name on a poster advertising the aforementioned tour. Their discography features an EP of same name, released in 2009, and a full-length CD - Spiral Vendetta, featuring Bryan Beller on bass - which was released in July 2010.

The current line-up comprises Darran Charles on vocals, guitars, and keyboards (Charles being the group's main composer); Steve Roberts on drums and keyboards; and new member Dan Nelson on bass. (Judging from those pictures I've seen, Nelson looks in his mid-twenties, while the others look like your typical "thirty-somethings".) Let's not forget Joe Gibb: acting as the album's producer, and also as its recording, mixing, and mastering engineer, Gibb is the proverbial "fourth member" of the trio. Gibb's work is of great importance for the sound of the album, which is very "modern" (sounds having a fast attack) but also dynamic - a feature that was made apparent to me as soon as I turned the volume pot of my amplifier a bit more to the right than per my usual (I live in an apartment).

What about the group's various influences? Funny to say, the music of the group sounds distinctive and personal, though it's quite easy to perceive lotsa influences in the background - which ones, I suspect, depending on the listener's own background. I hope Charles will forgive me when I say that once in a while - especially in its most "stadium" moments - his voice reminded me a little bit of Aaron Lewis of Staind. But the vocal polyphony that appears on the album reminded me of Gentle Giant, though the melodies are quite different. A few songs - for instance, Benchmark, with its acoustic guitar intro - reminded me of Mike Keneally. I definitely hear traces of (what I call) "English melodies" (The Beatles), "Folk Music for guitars" (John Martyn), King Crimson in their "nuevo metal" incarnation (The ConstruKtion Of Light), also in their "American" phase, starring Adrian Belew (though there's only one moment that's undeniably Fripp-like, as we'll see later, when discussing the album tracks in detail). I thought I heard faint traces of Neil Pert and Narada Michael Walden on the drums.

Being forced to choose one definition, I'd call The Envisage Conundrum a modern specimen of the Prog/Neo-Prog type, meaning an album that shows more links to modern metal (listen to those fast "double pedal" figures) and fusion (also in its more technical, performance-related techniques) than to jazz or classical.

Let's have a quick look at the tracks, see if things become clearer.

As already stated above, Convergence (Intro) is a brief, sinister-sounding keyboard introduction, halfway between Ennio Morricone and Howard Shore.

Caught In A Bind opens with a wall of guitars, odd-time riffs, everything sounding angular and distorted. Drums la Crimson. Melodic vocals, massed voices, a fine tom passage, going right-left (Narada Michael Walden?), solo voice sitting "uneasily" on the tempo of the track. Fine episode for solo guitar, vocals coming out of the speakers, and hitting the roof. Funerary-sounding keyboards appear on the finale.

The Envisage Conundrum has an odd time signature, the melody sounding like a metal variation on a samba. Strong groove from bass-drums, staccato rhythms, metric superimpositions. Funny thing, the chorus sports a melody very much in the 10cc/Beatles vein, a strange contrast to the tense mood of the guitars' tapestry. Lotsa guitars, the chorus again, and a strong ending.

In A Way It Ended Me, with added background vocals by Bruce Soord, opens with piano/hi-hat, a mix of vocals and acoustic guitars, la Gentle Giant, an "eastern"-sounding vocal melody (echoes of John Martyn?). A melody on guitars, and a coda, that I'll call "Old English Rock", not too far from Phil Manzanera in his 801 period. Vocal coda not too far from Todd Rundgren, circa Todd.

Benchmark, with a fine opening for acoustic guitar, is a ballad la Keneally, with acoustic guitars, keyboards, a fine bass acting as counterpoint, and something "Latin". There's a fine solo on electric, over acoustic backing.

Submerged reminded me a bit of "American"-period King Crimson of such albums as Discipline/Beat/Three Of A Perfect Pair. Light chorus, fine guitars, fine melody from the vocals. There's a "fusion"-sounding guitar solo, fine hi-hat. Strange - but appropriately so, given the track's "Crimson" air - the instrumental section of Submerged from 3' 15" to 4' 04" sounds to me like a "variation on a theme" on the "B" section (from 2' 05" to 3' 29") of the Robert Fripp composition titled Breathless (featured on his solo album Exposure, released in 1979).

A Brief Foray is a ¾ with background vocals by Kaysha Wilson. This is by far the simplest, more user-friendly track on the album, giving listeners a bit of breathing time after the complex tracks that came before, and those that'll come later. Piano. Fine solo moment on guitar, with fine backing by bass guitar, acting contrapuntal. Here the guitar melody sounds a bit "bagpipe"/Fripp-like.

Disclosure is an instrumental for solo piano, composed and performed by Steve Roberts. The piece appears to mix Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, and Jack Bruce. Tense, jazzy, to me it sounds like it quotes something which I could not recall. A very appropriate change of pace for the album.

Borderstomp - Part 1 (Death To Tuesday) is violent but precise, martial, with snare drum and cymbals to the fore, drum rolls, heavy bass, guitar arpeggios, multiple vocals, "enormodome".

Borderstomp - Part 2 (Blind) is fractured, with background keyboards gradually coming to the fore. Solo vocals/doubled. "Square-wave" guitar solo, with - too brief, guys! - a cello part performed by Hannah Miller. The closing part of this piece reminded me for a moment of (60s/70s UK quartet) High Tide.

Borderstomp - Part 3 (Cielo Azul) has "dry"-sounding drums to the fore. Strong attack from guitar and drums, almost in a "post-rock" style. Excellent cymbals, guitars with echo, "apocalyptic" vocals, odd time signatures, and a very fine performance on the bass drum's double pedal. Again, a "square wave" guitar solo la Phil Manzanera, keyboards coming up. Synths.

Raised Concerns acts as a coda, or maybe like a "summa" (unfortunately, due to an error at the printing stage, the lyrics to this song are not featured in the CD booklet - next time, maybe). Acoustic guitar, melody sung in a higher register, then the piece repeats, adding bass and drums, electric guitars, more voices. Enters the piano, the piece travels towards the end. "Celestial"-sounding chorus (reverb), cello again, electric guitar played arpeggio, voice.

In closing? A very fine album, very well recorded, though it's a self-released work (i.e., lotsa time and care). Not for everybody? Sure, but worth a listen anyway. Paradoxical? A "varied and complex" album that doesn't sound "difficult". Personal curiosity? I wonder how they'll manage to perform live all those layered vocals, the trio having just one singer. Stay tuned.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2013

CloudsandClocks.net | Feb. 1, 2013