Stalwart
Abyss Ahead

Hailing from St Petersburg, Russia, Stalwart bills itself as modern death/thrash metal. That’s being modest, though – this is a progressive metal band through and through, melding elements of Meshuggah, Nevermore and Symphony X.

After an ominous, symphonic intro, opener “System is Insane” unleashes a blast of Morbid Angel-like syncopation, taking a bludgeoning approach to the kind of frosty Nordic melodies you usually hear done with a much thinner sound. It’s like Naglfar as done by classic Fear Factory. Pretty cool. A clean chorus and melody line slows things down a bit in the middle, taking the song to more traditional grounds, but the second half is more fragmented and interesting, which is a good sign of things to come.

Although some other songs seem fairly straightforward, only showing their progressive side via a few interludes, others really make you take notice – and reveal Stalwart‘s true potential. Take “Souls Prison”, which starts with more Morbid Angel churn, breaks into a choir of dissonant keyboards and twisted, proggy vocals, and then mutates in its second half, crashing off-time riff against riff to create a massive scrap metal kaleiscope. “Virus of Aggression” takes a similar tack as well – first charging back and forth between a hardcore lurch and a full-on blast assault, then becoming more contorted and slippery in its final minutes. Both tracks showcase an impressive handle on controlled chaos.

Guitars are, as you’d expect, extremely down-tuned and thunderous during the jackhammer riffs, but when Stalwart slows down enough to explore a more progressive melody line, they fill out and regain some warmth. I would’ve liked a bit more bite – at high volumes, the guitars sound a bit too blunted – but they certainly do their job, and given the variety throughout the compositions, it all hangs together pretty well.

Plenty of keyboard work throughout to add ambience and texture, but it’s mostly from the Library of Creepy Pipe Organs (TM), which is disappointing and unimaginative. Since most of the songs – and the album art – suggest futuristic, dystopian themes, it seems like this was a missed opportunity to do some more interesting layering or studio collagework with a more varied palette. When keyboards switch over to a simple piano – the end of “Naked Core,” “Souls Prison” – it works much better, especially in contrast to the rest of the battery.

Vocals are really the only problem here – they’re very uneven and at times, quite distracting. When they mostly take the form of a hoarse, hardcore bark – another nod to Meshuggah – they’re effective. The clean vocals don’t fare as well, though – a limited range, some awkward melody lines and off-key singing derail more than a few tracks. Also unfortunate is a strained attempt to occasionally sing while still using the hardcore bark, which comes out something like sing-songy rapping (” My Destination,” “Divine Destination”). These moments immediately made me think of James LaBrie’s ill-fated rap attempt on Dream Theater‘s Train of Thought, and no one wants to be compared with that. It’s a shame, because you can tell that Stalwart is eager to try new a lot of things with the vocals, to experiment and meld different textures, but it produces some erratic results.

Abyss Ahead certainly offers things to like. Guitars and drums are tight and achieve a syncopated groove throughout, and they really command attention when the compositions let them mutate into free-flowing, progressive spasms. The compositions themselves are varied and ambitious – nothing truly jaw-dropping, but commendable all the same. It’s really only the vocals that will prevent me from playing this more often – they’re fine when they stay within safer boundaries, but too distracting when they overreach.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jordan Itkowitz
May 13th, 2008

Comments

  1. Commented by: Staylow

    Stumbled across these guys recently – haven’t had the chance to hear the album yet, but the songs posted on myspace sounded really good. The clean vocals reminded me a little of Burton C Bell – not a carbon copy, but in the ball park. I need to hear this more.


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