Mastodon's Brann Dailor sings and drums like crazy for this synth metal act featuring no guitars. It's a treat if you're part of that very specific audience that enjoys synth-metal.
Arcadea features Mastodon’s Brann Dailor on drums and lead vocals, along with Core Atoms and Raheem Amlani on synths. There are no guitars on the band’s debut album (not even bass guitar), which gives Arcadea a unique sound. This is a record that is all pulsing synths and drums, with influences from the typical ‘80s and ‘90s sources. There’s a John Carpenter bit there, a song that sounds like old school video games there, and swirling psychedelic tracks that bring to mind early Monster Magnet. If Monster Magnet had ever eschewed guitars, that is.
It wasn’t until Mastodon’s fourth album, 2009’s Crack the Skye, that Dailor took a chance at doing some vocals for the band. Once he did, though, he instantly became the band’s best singer. Maybe not “best vocalist”, depending on one’s taste for Troy Sanders’ throat-shredding howl and Brent Hinds’ thin bellow. But Dailor is the guy in the band who can credibly carry a tune, and his singing has been a lynchpin of Mastodon’s trend towards more melodic songwriting over the past decade. For better or worse, that timeline roughly coincides with Dailor’s gradual backing off of the hyperactive, nonstop fill-oriented drumming that made him a metal fan’s highlight when spreading word of mouth about Mastodon in the band’s early days.
All of which is to say that Arcadea is a showcase for the full Dailor. His drumming on most of the album’s songs is exactly what Mastodon fans will remember from Leviathan and Blood Mountain. And the lack of guitars makes the drums a sort of de facto lead instrument here. He sings the songs capably, and he’s clearly the driving force behind the project. But Atom and Amlani give the songs all the texture, using a wide variety of synth tones, riffs, and melodies to make Arcadea one of the year’s coolest albums.
The press materials stress that this album is “heavy, but not metal.” But that idea is essentially exploded right from opener “Army of Electrons”, which features a slightly martial drumbeat over a buzzing synth bassline and oppressive, thunderous synth tones in the breaks between the verses. Even Dailor’s intense vocal delivery is stylistically similar to early ‘80s metal stalwarts Iron Maiden and Judas Priest (although he doesn’t have the voice to be compared to those singers credibly). “Gas Giant” features twin tension-filled riffs that bleep like the boss music from a Mega Man game. Meanwhile, Dailor finds a groove and pounds away while singing, ably filling in the gaps between the catchy synth lines. “Rings of Saturn” takes this conceit a step further, creating a barnburner that sounds like a synth-oriented Queens of the Stone Age song. Dailor even pulls out a surprisingly sweet falsetto voice to further the comparison.
The band only slows things down a couple of times throughout Arcadea, but those times are quite effective. “Neptune Moons” features vocals split between airy female singing and a heavily processed, Daft Punk-style “robot voice". It’s an interesting contrast supported by quiet synths, glockenspiel accompaniment, and Dailor’s extremely active drumming making sure that things don’t get too laid back. The album’s penultimate track “Through the Eye of Pisces” builds with a pulsing low end, including a drum performance that is limited almost exclusively to kick drum for the first 90 seconds. The robot vocals return here, with a melancholy feel that fits in nicely with the song’s downbeat feel. The low, slightly distorted synth riff that drives the song is allowed the space to breathe without a lot of extra noise surrounding it. It’s a nice change of pace for the band, even as it builds to a typically busy drum solo over the final 30 seconds.
Other tracks worth mentioning include “Electromagnetic”, which blazes at full speed and finds Dailor’s singing doubled up with punk-style shouting. It also features some gothic, Castlevania-style synth work that is a treat. “Motion of Planets” has Amlani shouting most of the lead vocals over a synth groove that comes close to electro music. It’s a different feel for the band, even if the chorus shifts right back into their standard synth-metal mode. “The Pull of Invisible Strings” may be the closest the band comes to a single song that encapsulates everything they do. The song opens spacey, quickly takes off, and finds a couple of synth riffs strong enough to fully support Dailor’s drumming digressions. It’s great to hear Dailor going off and pounding the hell out of his snare drum all over this album, but there are moments on Arcadea where he just overwhelms his bandmates. This is the time where the drumming intensity is backed up effectively by the synths throughout the whole track.
Arcadea is not a perfect album by any means, but it hits a lot of sweet spots for me. It’s interesting to hear Dailor’s signature drumming in a completely different setting and to hear him fully take on lead vocals. Musically, the synths as metal thing has been done before, but not often is a band this committed to it. Metal fans who have been missing Genghis Tron and HORSE the Band, to throw out a couple successful purveyors of the style, will find this record right up their alley. Outside of that audience, Arcadea seems like it might be a tough sell. It could easily ends up too synthy for many metal fans and too metal for a lot of synth fans.