Progressive metal reviews round-up

Dom Lawson buckles up for a delve into the darker, heavier side with the latest releases from Howling Sycamore, Stonebirds, Arkheth, Letters From The Colony, Usurpress, and Core Of IO

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Howling Sycamore are the brainchild of Davide Tiso, best known for his work with various disparate incarnations of jazz metal experimentalists Ephel Duath. Far closer to more recognisable forms of prog metal than anything the Frenchman has done before, their self-titled debut (Prosthetic) brings Tiso together with legendary ex-Watchtower vocalist Jason McMaster and extreme metal drum hero Hannes Grossmann (Obscura/Necrophagist). The results are stunning, McMaster’s imperious bellow adding genuine drama and embattled soul to Tiso’s complex but weirdly memorable flights of heavy me(n)tal fantasy. For a debut, Howling Sycamore is frighteningly good.

There’s no denying that French hash‑tronauts Stonebirds’ second album Time (stonebirdsarestone.bandcamp.com) possesses plenty of Sabbath-saluting riffing, but this is doomy post-metal of a psychedelic and expansive nature. It’s full of jaw-dropping dynamic detours, fizzing ambient wooziness and an underlying sense of drug-addled melancholy that ensures the whole red‑eyed sprawl grips from start to finish. The 11-minute Shutters Part I & II is particularly breathtaking.

Arkheth’s 12 Winter Moons Comes The Witches Brew (Transcending Obscurity) fulfils the synapse-detonating promise of its barking mad artwork and then some. Ostensibly a black metal band, these shadowy Australians have more in common with Japan’s always loopy Sigh than anything more recognisably frostbitten. Rambling, schizophrenic freak-outs like Dark Energy Equilibrium are prog to the core, embellished with all manner of skewed and unexpected instrumentation and never less than riveting in their unpredictability.

Progressive instincts have been celebrated in death metal since the late 80s, which means that Letters From The Colony are very much upholders of a revered, ancient code. The Swedes’ Vignette (Nuclear Blast) is certainly brutal, technically dazzling and not for the faint of heart, but it’s also disarmingly beautiful and flows like the great progressive albums of old: yer actual authentic musical voyage, if you please. Frontman Alexander Backlund’s feral growl aside, it feels closer in spirit to Voivod, Opeth or Devin Townsend than to death metal’s traditional wing.

Similarly, Swedish brutes Usurpress retain strong links with their brutal past, but fourth album Interregnum (Agonia) uses scything riffs as a mere starting point. What emerges is pure prog rock magic, albeit noticeably heavier than the average and occasionally sung by what sounds like an angry gorilla.

Finally, post-djent pugilists Core Of IO’s Part II: Europa EP (self-released) is their strongest effort yet. The first two tracks, Stuck and Hit The River Hard, offer a spiky blend of alt-rock angularity and tech-metal crunch, while the epic Lenuta is a giddy blur of moods, dynamics and Coheed-ish sparkle. Nice work.