[24 November 2008]
If 2006’s The Crusade provides any indication, Trivium would like nothing more than to become the next Metallica. On that album, vocalist/guitarist Matt Heafy left behind the demon-meets-Cookie-Monster growl of the metalcore scene in favor of a full-blown, Master of Puppets-era James Hetfield impression. The rest of the band followed suit, and while never exactly achieving the sheer immediacy of classic Metallica, it certainly proved to be more than a contrived tribute band. Beyond the obvious hero worship, evidence existed of a real affection for the metal genre—affection that could potentially give way to exciting things once the band had matured. Because emulation is just emulation, no matter how skillfully one pulls it off.
Shogun, the Florida quartet’s most recent effort, finds the band retracting this outright Metallica worship, which, on the surface, would seem to be an undeniable step in the right direction. Sure, Heafy reverts to growling for a good portion of the album and drummer Travis Smith’s addiction to double-bass can get distracting (especially considering the production’s ill-considered drum treatment has a tendency to make every beat sound like a cannon blast), but at least it seems as though the band attempts a conscious effort to move out of the shadow of constant Metallica comparisons.
Unfortunately, though, without the singleness of ambition that came with trying to imitate the most successful metal band of all time, the band often appears to be drifting aimlessly through Shogun‘s miles of harsh rifts. While the album mercifully lacks any excessive prog noodling—each of the eleven songs adhere to a moderately complex but far from impenetrable structure—it’s rare for a song to possess any self-contained purpose. With few exceptions, any given track on Shogun concerns less with the overall pacing of the album than with, well, being an awesome heavy metal song. But when you have an album filled with tracks all vying to be the same awesome heavy metal song, the formula wears thin pretty quickly.
Take the opening track,“Kirisute Gomen”, as a microcosm of the rest of the album: An addictive thrash riff carries things along nicely with Heafly moving effortlessly from harsh singing to much harsher growling. Around the 2:45 mark, the song without warning morphs into a misplaced power-metal chorus. The overblown drama on display in these melodic bits of the album—and several exist—with its harmonized backing vocals and anthemic guitars, approach DragonForce levels of unintentional camp.
The most jarring thing about these two distinct sides of Trivium—the metalcore thrashers and the Dungens & Dragons friendly power balladeers—remains how the album transitions between them. Or rather, how it utterly fails to transition between them. Tracks like “The Calamity” switch gears so abruptly one can practically visualize a brick wall between verse and chorus. Given the average song length on Shogun falls somewhere in the area of five and a half minutes, this can make for a listen nearly as exhausting as your average Mars Volta album, though only about half as interesting.
Shogun doesn’t classify as entirely unsatisfying. The discerning metalhead will find quite a bit here to tidy over until the next Mastodon release: “Insurrection” channels, at times, the almost danceable swing of Pantera; “Down From the Sky” marries Trivium’s heavy and melodic sides without haphazardly stapling them together; and Heafy and guitarist Corey Beaulieu manage some undeniably pleasing harmonized solos. A handful of tantalizing moments actually exist where the band sounds like a unique and powerful entity in its own right, not like a group of metalcore refugees, a band of power metal vikings or a Metallica tribute band.
Unfortunately, these moments never quite expand beyond the position of enticing footnotes. In its place exists an album that rewards the listener with sharp riffs and excellent musicianship about as often as it frustrates with slapdash structures and trite over-drama. But you also get an album that does, if you look hard enough, display a band who just may one day be capable of actually becoming the next Metallica. Of course, it looks as though that day remains a long way off.