Final Gasp – Mourning Moon7th September 2023
Ulthar – Anthronomicon11th September 2023
Label: Wormholedeath / Release date: 15th September 2023
Out of France comes a new addition to the halls of Alternative Metal and that addition is called Smokeheads. So far, so good. Attempting to build on the works of illustrious musicians such as Devin Townsend, legendary bands like Tool, and, of course, their countrymen in Gojira, this quartet has certainly set some lofty goals for themselves and kudos to them for that.
But ambition is one thing. Making your mark on as weird and varied a genre as Alternative Metal (whatever that even is), that takes more than just ambition. So, what exactly is it these elder Frenchmen can serve up with their very first studio album called All In?
Well, first of all they serve us an album called All In, and I’d like to take a minute to think about that. All In. It’s not quite Lateralus or L’Enfant Sauvage, is it? It’s blunt, straight to the point and extremely direct. It’s a statement and actively void of poetry and it’s also potentially a very dangerous approach.
The ominous title is important to me because it sets the scene. When I’m listening to the masters of so-called Alternative Metal (those masters tend to be Tool for me personally) I’m loving it because I’m fully sold on both story and atmosphere, and that’s chiefly down to the song-writing chops as well as pure physical skill of Maynard James Keenan. Sure, the music is fantastic, but lines such as “I wanna feel the change consume me/Feel the outside turning in/I wanna feel the metamorphosis and/Cleansing I’ve endured in (from “Forty Six & 2”) are mystical. You can, and will, ponder them for days. You’ll Google-search what it’s about if you can’t automatically draw the lines to Jung on your own and if you can draw the lines, then the lyrics might lead you down a philosophical rabbit hole. “I Go All In/All In/All In” belted at the top of your lungs as the core message of your opening song is somehow not quite the same… It might fit in the world of cheese-filled hard rock, but walking the line with the likes of Tool means you actually have to successfully walk the line. There’s got to be some poetic imagery, some words to get lost in, not just a pat on the back and a musical “go get’em”.
You’re probably understanding by now that I do not love the song-writing, and that’s why it’s a good time to a break from the ranting and actually briefly discuss the album itself from a musical perspective. We’ll get back to the song-writing soon enough. This album has drive, it has an understanding of placement and it feels professionally put together. It’s well produced. The atmosphere created by the actual instruments is dark and heavy, and the riffing does a good job leading a metal album. The drumming is rather basic but does a decent job, the same goes for the bass. Picking out more specific things with regards to the music of this album becomes impossible because all the focus is forced onto the terrible, in-your-face, motivation-coming-out-the-ass song-writing.
It becomes all about the sub-par song-writing and the fact that these guys clearly have an overwhelming need to hold your hand and tell you that everything will be ok. Message is a huge thing here and it ruins the whole album. The musicianship is solid and completely alright, but quite clearly nothing special. That’s fine, but only if you have vocal performances to carry a whole album. Pair mediocre, fairly stale metal with unimaginative, inspirational, poster-quality tag-lines meant to make you feel better about your average day and you have a recipe for disaster. And that’s what we end up getting.
The beginning of the album itself is alright, lead off by a pick-played bassline and intriguing atmosphere, but it’s game over in the bad way as soon as the vocals enter the fray. Not one single track on this album is what I would call bad or low quality if you discard the vocals. If you do exactly that, then you’re left with potentially intriguing music, depending on what the vocals can add. Not one of these songs has managed to survive the bloodbath caused by the terrifyingly poor song-writing.
If you’re into motivational, overly American feel-good metal that sounds like it was manufactured in a factory, then this is your thing. If not: stay clear. This album is salvageable and it might seem like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill here but I’m willing to die on this particular hill, hand-in-hand with a mole if it comes to it and here’s why: not all metal is alike. There are different requirements, a fact that you can hate if you want to, it’s still the brutal truth and you can’t as a band entirely ignore one of the main requirements of a genre and expect to get away with it. Yes, these guys can play guitar, drums and bass. Hell, the vocalist even has a fair set of pipes on him. But they can’t write poetry to save their lives and that becomes a problem when they then try to exist in an intellectual sphere. Re-roll the dice boys, this was a critical fail.