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Mithras: On Strange Loops

Conceptually, Mithras depict the universe as a strange, chilly, and timeless place. Musically, they step -- and also misstep -- off their technical metal bearings.


On Strange Loops

Label: Willowtip
US Release Date: 2016-10-21
UK Release Date: 2016-10-21

The raw skill utilized by Mithras place them in an honored tradition of classic technical metal that includes Cynic and Morbid Angel, and also in a small core of atmospheric death metal bands that have emerged in the 2010s. Although anyone hoping for the sort of brooding, technical, and dense tapestries of a Fallujah or an Ulcerate may be disappointed in On Strange Loops, their investment in it may not be in vain either. Musically, it does not go deeper into technical death metal, but rather steps -- and also missteps -- outside of it.

It's difficult to fully characterize Mithras's sound without reference, above all, to Morbid Angel. This is particularly true at the heart of the band's sound, where whippingly fast and rigidly precise drumming interlocks with powerfully rhythmic and contorted guitar riffs at absolutely blazing speeds. There are moments, such as during the bass drumming of "Between Scylla and Charybdis", for example, where we must arrive at some boundary of human endurance both for the drummer as well as for the listener, whose ear is equipped to hear only so many beats per minute before it morphs into a solid tone. But very much like the heroically athletic style of "Commando" Pete Sandoval on the classic Morbid Angel albums, the drumming here does feel fully performed rather than programmed; it is violent and disciplined. The breakneck speed and finesse in the drumming square with the progressive, twisting guitar playing, alternating between nimble tremolo-picked riffs and rhythmic chord formations that unfold into strange architecture.

But Morbid Angel at their most distinctive and vintage eschewed the melodic and harmonic patterns familiar to heavy rock and preferred instead a palette of caustic, bizarre, and unfriendly riffs and labyrinthine structures. There is not a lot on On Strange Loops that resembles "Immortal Rites" or "Nothing But Fear", which sound almost sonically inverted. Mithras offer more -- or depending on your perspective, less -- than this, demonstrating a proclivity for silence, openness, and also some rather conventional heavy rock moves. The second half of "Part the Ways", for example, essentially consists of a single repeating hard rock riff that might not sound out of place on an early 1980s Judas Priest album; the metal fan might know where it's heading before it hits the second measure, and it stays there. "Howling of the Distant Spaces" opens with an exhilarating chromatic riff, but again, it is also effectively where the song remains for the majority of its runtime. A loose formula becomes apparent, and it consists broadly in the utilizing of reverb and delay in lead guitar to furnish the songs with introductory soundscapes, solos, and textures, and the developing of a small core of guitar riffs. Throughout there are wild transitions, smoothness, and a finesse that call attention to the exemplary skill of the musicians. But some of the material is deceptively simple. On Strange Loops is the sound of progressive metal musicians holding their most challenging material back.

From that point of view On Strange Loops does disappoint, especially given the Mithras back catalogue. But it is not without some very intriguing elements. "The Statue On the Island" is structured like a jazz song, opening with a simple reverb-saturated lead guitar theme that reappears in the middle, at the end, and a couple of times in mutated form during the song's verses. "Odyssey's End" opens with a two-minute introduction that evokes space, silence, and calm, recalling Jesu, before shifting into mid-paced doom-tinged death metal. Weirdest of all is "Inside the Godmind", which features a Shepard tone -- an auditory illusion in which a tone seems to continually ascend or descend, but does not. The tone's appearance alongside lyrics like, "I dreamt of God / He turned his gaze unto me," creates an overall unnerving effect. This also feels like the summa of the conceptual thrust of On Strange Loops, in which the universe is depicted as a strange, chilly, and timeless place.


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