Album openings don’t come any better than this.
A cheeky flick across the drum kit before a stack of guitar and double-kick centred pummelling moves through a chord progression that could be a centrefold in the book of epic metal, right up there with certain of ‘Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk’s most imperial moments.
Let no one get too comfortable in their saddle though: at the next change all ears will be forced to accommodate blast beats layered over with highly processed stunt guitar acrobatics as we segue from epic fantasy into dystopian sci-fi.
And waiting in the shadows, yet more horrors to come: from the wings, the drums are whipped into double time to herald the entrance of our possessed protagonist, ripping through the backdrop and leaping directly to centre stage, screaming bloody terror into the audience’s startled, ashen faces.
“I line up my nightmares against these walls, like pulled rotten teeth on a plate,” he cries.
And don’t hope we’ll be left to simply imagine those nightmares, for moments later a truly demonic antagonist peels away from the tormented utterances of the central character, squealing the twisted tones of tortured brass.
We are but 90 seconds into the opening act of Howling Sycamore’s debut, and eponymous, musical trip into the dark, mystical experience of the shaman’s essential journey.
The sycamore, Tree of Life to the ancient Egyptians, Mother Isis herself in some accounts, a tree at which the dead were invited to suckle en route to the afterlife, from a culture that venerated death as the portal to a higher existence.
A grove of 12 sycamore trees shelters the entrance to the Black Lodge in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, through which one must travel in order, ultimately, to reach the White Lodge, wherein Man and Nature are as one.
Every soul must travel this path at some point.
The shaman is distinguished from all others by the fact that he or she chooses the moment at which they will travel, for the first time, along the path towards death’s doorway, beyond which Nature and Man, Mind and Matter, and indeed Life and Death, are as one, and from which the shaman returns, having become whole in life.
The moniker Howling Sycamore is intended to prepare the listener for precisely this kind of mystical, awe-inspiring and terrifying existential there-and-back-again, which is precisely what the listener is about to experience in sculpted sound.
It comes as no surprise that Davide Tiso should be an aficionado of Lynch and the inimitable light-meets-darkness, in both content and form, story-telling style that is central to Twin Peaks.
Perhaps not surprising either then is that, listening to this album while recalling the tales woven around the White Lodge and its shadow-self the Black Lodge, another such kindred artistic spirit comes constantly to mind.
During my first listen of second track ‘Obstinate Pace’, an artistic proximity to Frank Zappa started to suggest itself to me.
And no sooner had these thoughts begun than, right on cue, another shrieking saxophone solo tore through the speakers. Running with the comparison, perhaps Tiso could indeed be seen as a shadow-side incarnation of the crazed soul that lived through Zappa.
Because, musically speaking, there is a certain kind of black humour penetrating these and indeed most of his previous compositions.
But here, in the album that has brought Jason McMaster’s soaring wails and piercing screams and layered them on top of a sniper-sharp extreme metal assault peppered with savage saxophone exorcisms, Davide Tiso’s morbidly whimsical spirit might just be expressed to its fullest ever degree.
And yet, as the journey through this chaotic cocktail continues, there is also an unmistakable sense of artistic security.
The reins of this unruly musical steed are held as tight as can be, manifesting total control and reflecting the compositional maturity first hinted at in Ephel Duath’s final releases, the EP ‘On Death and Cosmos’ and album ‘Hemmed by Light, Shaped by Darkness’, and ultimately crystallized in the guitarist and composer’s work on the profoundly solemn Gospel of the Witches debut ‘Salem’s Wound’.
The Watchtower Connection
Spiral Architect, Nevermore, even Blood Revolt have also attempted this extreme metal with clean, impassioned vocals mix.
None of them, despite their respective merits and weak points, ever gave us anything quite like what’s on offer here though.
The most obvious common point Howling Sycamore does have with them must surely be the theatrical, rather than just histrionic, vocal performance, recalling even the delivery of Hell’s David Bower in a few places, albeit in a deathly serious role.
Of course, the vocals also recall the most well known chapter in McMaster’s metal biography up to this point: WatchTower themselves.
Recall and outdo them, for maturity has done McMaster only favours.
He is even more intense and convincing in every line delivered on this album than he was on any single track off his former band’s debut prog metal masterpiece, Energetic Disassembly, a performance the now 52 year old singer delivered when only 20.
Be warned though, what we get here is a brutal vocal acrobatics workout, so don’t come to this mix of extreme and clean expecting to have any rousing chorus melodies stuck in your head for days afterward.
McMaster bends himself to the task at hand with impressive skill, the task of taking his old-school prog-metal trained voice and stretching it out to its most extreme and all-encompassing limits.
The crystal-shattering operatic fits, the barked but still clean staccato calls, the Warrel Dane-esque throat-ripping rasps on the likes of third track Let Fall, but also the softest plaintive tones, it’s all in here.
Wherever Tiso’s eminently eclectic compositions lead him, McMaster is right there, contorting his vocal chords in whatever way the passage or even bar in question requires.
Something else Tiso has in common with Zappa is his ability to identify and collaborate with the most able of musical companions.
Hannes Grossmann will be no stranger to any extreme metal drummer, to any fan of extreme metal that pushes at the boundaries of technical ability. His performance here is as humbling as it is jaw-dropping.
Howling Sycamore was promoted as a mix of layered guitars, prog vocals, and extreme metal drumming. And sure enough, there is plenty of high precision thud and clatter in here.
But it strikes exactly and only where it is needed.
When a solid bed of firm rhythm is called for, that’s what we get, that and nothing more. When there is room for flourishes, these never go beyond tickling the limit of what would be too much, too flashy.
The only flashes here ride atop the blast of thunder and lightning where guitar, bass, and drums attack as one. The instrumental tightness of feel throughout the album works to dissimulate its essentially, and intentionally, eclectic nature.
Each performer contributes equally to making this an album of songs, every one of them unique and identifiable. Indeed, the synergy at work gives rise to some quite improbable sonic blends.
Chuck Does Rush
The first three tracks are dark and broody blasters, genuine assaults on the senses and soul.
What little respite there is comes in the form of perfectly realized devices for making the heavy strike with all the more violence.
And each of these opening three tracks becomes equally more rewarding with repeated listens. They are followed by a short Intermezzo, an instrumental guitar effects soundscape that brings us into the second act.
The real surprise track for me was the first of this second act, ‘Midway’. For all the world, it sounds like Chuck Schuldiner paying homage to Rush from beyond the grave, right down to a guitar solo I spontaneously pictured being played on the latter’s signature black B.C.Rich Stealth.
So, even though the kit may be under the control of a bona fide “modern metal” master, the extreme metal on display here owes perhaps more to an older generation, and is all the less hyperactive for it.
Yet it succeeds as an experiment in mixing extreme with classic metal much better even than Chuck’s own attempt at the same with Control Denied.
This is partly because of Jason McMaster’s incredible contribution, but also simply because Tiso’s songs have been better composed to accommodate and embrace the vocal performance he had in mind than those Chuck wrote for ‘The Fragile Art of Existence’.
There is a definite influence of the late metal god though: I can’t help but wonder whether, maybe even subconsciously, the mood created by sixth track ‘Chant of Stillness’ wasn’t perhaps inspired by Voice of the Soul, from what would end up being the final album Chuck recorded with Death.
The intense and relatively brief album closes out with two tracks that work together as a climax and subsequent epilogue.
‘Descent to Light’, after a short other-wordly introduction, returns us to the intensity of the first three tracks. Karyn Crisis has provided the lyrics for this song, but McMaster delivers them as though they were his own deepest convictions and emotions.
And when he sings “In this cauldron of primal blood and ritual I am freed / And I descend into the blackness / I am home I am home I am home,” I can’t help but reflect on how at home I feel with this music, with this album. But home in the sense of arrived, found, settled.
I don’t think this album could have been created by performers who hadn’t initially struck out into the musical world all hyperactive flailing limbs and unhinged whooping cries, sprinting in zig-zags here, there, and everywhere.
They all know how to do that, they’ve proven themselves peerless experts at it, in fact. But with Howling Sycamore, it seems we have three grown men who have taken stock of what they can do and, with genuine artistic maturity, have asked themselves, “Okay, but what’s the best we can do with what we can do?”
As a listener who has spent over 20 years seeking out extremes in music, now that I experience it I recognize – as if it were something I’d been waiting for all along – this shifting of the notion of extreme towards the album as a complete work, rather than being limited to only the sounds produced.
I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but with Howling Sycamore Davide Tiso has managed to give us a second extreme metal album that, although world’s apart from Salem’s Wounds in many respects, is both utterly unique in the genre and wholly compelling from start to finish.
And where ‘Gospel of the Witches’ gave us a map of Karyn Crisis’ spiritual journey, with this offering Tiso leaves no doubt that he too has travelled along his path to its most extreme point and returned to tell the tale.
4.5 / 5 – Christopher Stevens ::: 24/01/18