[17th June 2013]
[Self-release via Bandcamp]
01. The Augur
04. Slave Within
05. Heathen Verses
06. Saint Condemned
07. Circles Without Division
08. Throat Of Winter
10. Equa Mortuorum
11. Under Hoof And Gavel
12. The Fulcrum
If you listen to the handwringing, worrywart talking heads that pop up in the news from time to time, you could well believe that humanity is in dire straits. Fed on an unending tsunami of brief YouTube videos and other memes, attention spans are getting ever shorter. A Korean prancing about like a tit suddenly becomes the most famous man on the planet, then evaporates as quickly as he appears.
Surely, we are doomed.
But this isn’t true. Despite the all the people fixated on whatever happens to be trending this second, there is a growing movement hungry for something rather more substantive, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the renaissance that progressive metal is currently enjoying. The Ocean and TesseracT, among others, have already delivered long, involving albums this year that demand to be taken as a whole, and it is into this arena that Sleepers Awake have stepped with their second album, Transcension.
At 69 minutes, if this Ohio quartet had tried to fit any more music onto this album, it would have started physically leaking out of the edges of the CD. Excluding two minute-long interludes, the average song length falls somewhere around seven minutes. Whatever descriptive terms one applied to Transcension, ‘radio-friendly’ is unlikely to be among them.
The thing that is most striking, right from the first listen, is how well balanced the album is between brain and brawn: gentle, delicate passages sit comfortably alongside muscular riffing; vocalist Chris Thompson puts in a particularly impressive performance, ranging from soulful harmonies to fearsome growls. The transitions between these contrasting sections in the long and winding song structures feel fluid and uncontrived. Importantly, Transcension feels as though Sleepers Awake have written songs that just happen to be nine minutes long sometimes, rather than sitting down with the explicit intention of writing a sprawling epic.
Whilst there is some technical influence to their sound, it is not spiky or angular, and the intricacies retain a strong sense of groove. Overall, it comes across as an amalgamation of Mastodon, Opeth and Tool. Transcencion feels, to these ears, like a more than worthy successor to The Postman Syndrome‘s 2002 cult classic Terraforming.
There’s definitely a lot to take in during those initial listens, with new ideas coming thick and fast, but spread throughout the album are moments of such arresting immediacy that familiarising yourself with the whole album does not feel like an uphill struggle.
Most apparent is eighth track “Throat of Winter“, which is a bit of a masterpiece, all told. It is a track of two halves; the first featuring fragile, interweaving acoustic and electric guitar lines and overlaid with an achingly haunting vocal that carries a palpable sense of loss. Drummer Chris Burnsides hits his snare precisely once in the first three and a half minutes of the song. But then, distortion pedals are tripped and, underscored by double kick-drums, the mood lifts to something altogether more defiant. This track is ‘stop what you’re doing an pay attention’ stuff, as well as being the very essence of transcension; literal and figurative.
It is also a testament to the overall quality of this release that it was final track “The Fulcrum” that was chosen as the pre-release teaser. Racking my brain, I can’t think of another example of this happening. If anyone else can, then I’d like to hear about it in the comments.
As the twists and turns of the remainder of the album reveal themselves over subsequent listens, it becomes ever clearer that Transension is something special. The band know when to hold back and when to let rip, so the album carries its initially daunting length and depth without being indulgent or overwrought.
Newtons’s Third Law of Motion states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. So if a seemingly endless parade of transient memes and fads could lead bands like Sleepers Awake to kick back against those cultural trends with an album as musically and intellectually accomplished as Transcension, I can only say ‘bring on the dancing cats’.