[14 May 2007]
For a genre that derives so much of its reputation on pure aggression, it’s very easy to get caught up in technique when it comes to certain brands of metal music. Certain bands in the genre tend to inspire talking points like tempo changes (I’m looking at you, Meshuggah), gear, sheer volume, or even vocal style, while things like emotion, relatability, or even such abstract qualities as memorability are left behind.
Danish quartet Mnemic plays a brand of metal that seems custom built for this sort of academic analysis. It’s a sound that incorporates myriad tempo changes and the use of poly-rhythms, it’s a sound that occasionally involves keyboards or other electronic instruments, and it’s a sound that’s highly polished, and very professional. For its latest album Passenger, Mnemic has even recruited a new vocalist, one Guillaume Bideau, to replace the departed Michael Bøgballe. The integration of Bideau into the band has introduced one more talking point when it comes to Mnemic’s music: vocal style. Bideau is a far more versatile vocalist than Bøgballe ever was, and as such, it can be interesting to see the ways in which Bideau’s style changes, from a piercing scream to a distorted growl to clean, soaring melodies, along with the changes the instrumentalists are making behind him. Passenger could survive as a mere point of study in a metal fan’s collection for quite some time, as there are new intricacies and layers to be pulled back at every turn, new juxtapositions to find upon every listen.
Where Passenger actually manages to exceed previous efforts is in accessibility, due in no small part to Bideau’s willingness to clean up his vocals for extended stretches. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Mnemic’s most overt bid for North American success thus far, the rather fantastic track “Meaningless”. It’s a song that starts out as brutal as any other Mnemic track, but instead of assaulting the listener with his screams, Bideau starts the song off with actual singing. As the song progresses, there are screamy moments, there are impressive harmonies, and there is even a brief bit of extra-distorted rap-style vocalization, all of it adding up to a package reminiscent of the versatility of, say, a Mike Patton or a Greg Puciato. Of course, the variety is short-lived, as most of the vocals on the album can be reduced to prolonged screams or grunts, even as clean vocals do pepper other tunes, allowing brief respite where they appear.
There is a place for screaming, however, as “Psykorgasm”, the song immediately following “Meaningless”, wastes no time in demonstrating—as if it’s saying, “enough of that weak shit for a while”. Shane Embury and Jeff Walker (of Napalm Death and Carcass, respectively) actually show up to add different flavors of screaming, providing us with a veritable festival of shredded vocal cords. Synths support the surprisingly steady beat and guitar riffs, adding a creepy subtext to all the aggression, resulting in another standout. “Pigfuck”, despite its hilariously obscene title, actually slows down the pace a bit and establishes a groove for a while before going off on one of Mnemic’s many “name-that-time-signature” tangents.
As they do in “Pigfuck”, it is these tangents, however interesting they may be for the analyst-style metal fan, that may well doom the album in the eyes of some listeners. Too many tracks on the latter half of the album sound too much alike, unique only in the way they choose to toy with music theory, all of them blending together in a mess of noise that sounds more like a collection of impressive snippets than fully-realized songs. Unremarkable drivel like “Electric ID Hypocrisy” and “What’s Left” simply fly beneath interest, no matter how loud the band manages to be.
Even after all of the mediocrity, however, a closer like epic “The Eye on Your Back” is bound to snap you back to attention, with its mix of vocal styles, cyclical structure, pervasive keyboard work, and, bar none, the best riffs on the album. It brims with a power that most of Passenger hints at, even if it doesn’t quite get there. While Passenger never actually reaches Meshuggah-esque levels of form over function, it flirts with them; still, it’s tracks like “The Eye on Your Back”, “Pigfuck” and “Meaningless” that point to a band trying to come to terms with both sides of the argument and occasionally succeeding wildly. It’s a technically astounding, occasionally powerful treat of a largely unknown album that points to big things for future iterations of the Mnemic sound. This is a band ready to really make some noise.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/mnemic-passenger/