Website: http://www.myspace.com/intronaut ; http://blogronaut.blogspot.com/
Geflügelzam! Amazon followed through on their promise to have Valley of Smoke delivered by the 19th, and after procrastinating for a while (I don't have the ROM drive on the netbook I use most of the time), I finally got to listen to it at full volume with a pair of good speakers, and then switched to headphones and have been listening to it non-stop since.
First, though, a teaser for ya:
Something I can instantly say I hate about the cover is the "For fans of Mastodon and Baroness" bit. Firstly, I despise stickers on the case, because it's a slap in the face of the cover artist. Secondly, for fans of Mastodon and Baroness? I'll be honest: Intronaut is on another level from those bands. Yes, they have similarities - the sludginess and, in this album's case, vocal similarities - but there's something else there. Be it the extra bit of jazzy space-metal (Aw-naw he didn't!), percussion, or intangible Awesomeness, it's just enough to make me think of Intronaut as a band in its own class. Like Cynic, maudlin of the Well, and King Crimson, I believe there is no comparison to Intronaut, and trying to sell this album (and I understand that the point is to sell as many records as possible) to fans of Baroness and Mastodon that may be thinking they're getting something similar is a disservice to the band, great as Mastodon and Baroness may be.
All this said, beyond the sticker, the cover art is beautiful. The colour palette looks great, from the greens and reds to the beige. I'd say it's on par with Prehistoricisms' stunning cover. The whole artwork is perhaps even better because of what's inside:
I'm a big fan of simple CD covers, and this one is both simple and pretty. The skull is that of the angel from the front cover, with a golden-brown discolouration, and two ink spills in variations of blue. Also, look at the curve of the black circle - the sun? - around the bottom of the skull. I love it.
Beneath the CD, you see another character from the front cover. Again, it's a simple look, but highly effective. Everything in this album has been well-drawn, and the burst of colour here brings it out. Just look at the blending of the black and brown. The black accentuates the branch as a background, looks like the background to the golden-brown ground, but dribbles over it as the ink is absorbed by the paper.
The back cover is, if you noticed in the previous two pictures, the same as the back of the sleeve. It's also the background of the front cover (although not exactly). Instead of looking drawn like the rest of the artwork, it has a printed look with stamped birds drifting over the mountains. The grey colouring looks awesome and caps off the best-looking Intronaut album to date.
What jumps out at you when you listen to one of Intronaut's later albums is that they aren't as immediately manic. One looks at 'A Monolithic Vulgarity'; it starts with a slow brood, building, and once it really gets going, it doesn't relent. It's riff after riff, fill after fill, verses screamed with reckless abandon, until it finally caves in to provide some respite from the insanity - but even this moment lasts for mere seconds before it all starts building again, with drummer Danny Walker preventing you from stopping to breathe, and returns to the familiar beginning chords and drum-roll.
Ignoring the mellow first track of Prehistoricisms, 'The Literal Black Cloud' is a more groovy and sludgy (in the classical sense) song; mind-numbingly complex, definitely, gorgeous in many moments, of course, full of headbanging riffs, hells in the yeah, but what it isn't is washed-up-actor-jumping-on-talk-show-host's-couch crazy.
'Elegy', in Valley of Smoke's case, starts in a similarly loud manner, but proves itself to have a whole different groove. It truly feels like an evolution for the band. One way in which you can hear it is the tone of the bass drum. The bass drum in Void had a hollow, unnatural, click-like sound. This sound retained its click in Prehistoricisms, but sounded more full this time. In Valley of Smoke, you feel the bass drum pounding; there's still the click (it's a staple of metal), but the band takes the fullness of Prehistoricisms one step further. Similarly, you can hear it in the guitar tone. The guitar tone in Void was dirty, gritty, and the riffs had an indistinct quality. In Prehistoricisms, the tone is heavier, thicker, and more distinct - but without the definition and purpose that you see in Valley of Smoke. The riffs here sound like riffs.
Returning to the beginning of this thought, what jumps out at you when you listen to the beginning of Valley of Smoke is that while it isn't as immediately manic and off-the-wall as the band used to be, now more than ever you get the feeling that these are musicians that know exactly what they're doing. I'm not saying that they didn't know what they were doing before, but from Elegy onwards, it sounds like the band itself knows exactly when and how the next turn will come, and how to react to it.
One of the stand-out tracks in which you hear this is 'Core Relations'. It starts on a beautiful pair of notes, and continues to morph under variations of the same melody, before the hi-hat comes in on a 4/4 beat, and soon is joined by a pulsing bass that follows the bass drum. It's mellow... lovely... escalating... the hi-hat begins to open. You think about this structure, and it sounds like post-rock, but when you listen to it doesn't quite feel like it. There's something else there. Something in the background. Frankly, I don't know what it is, so I'm not going to sit here pretend that I do, but I can just feel it (like Brian Dawkins can. Go Broncos!).
You go back to the closing moments of Void. It's the same structure. The riffs start mellow at first... Danny plays a tom-addled beat... Joe Lester, the bassist, playing fretless, pulsates between his notes... and it all comes together in one great triumphant moment. I love this song, and this ending is as perfect as one could possibly conceive it to be. But you get it. You feel that crescendo. You see it coming. 'Core Relations', on the other hand, is a wave. It comes, it goes, the tide builds, it drifts, it sways, it dies, it explodes. It's just something else. It's just utterly remarkable.
Intronaut isn't a bunch of young'ns trying to emulate their diverse heroes anymore. They're the ones laying the groundwork for a future generation of bands.
It's here that I'll come to the one criticism I have: the vocals. Sacha Dunable's growls have definitely progressed since their first EP, where at times they sounded, let's be honest, whiny. They are, like the music, more defined and focused. The clean vocals, however, remind me of that little black sticker plumped in the corner of my shiny jewel case - specifically, "For fans of... Baroness." Is it me, or do some of the choruses actually sound like Baroness ones? (Well, I know of at least one person that agrees with me.) Honestly, it's only a minor criticism. Intronaut using clean vocals is, I concede, a new concept to me, and I will get used to it - but I don't want to listen to Intronaut and be reminded of a lesser band (yes, I said it, and if you didn't read it right, Muskatnuss, I'll say it again for you: Baroness is a lesser band and I don't want Intronaut to remind me of them. Although, A Grey Sigh in a Flower Bank is loaded to the brim with der Shizz).
Even with this criticism, though, I will say that Sacha and Dave Timnick sound great, it's only a shame that they have to sound a bit like the vocals of another band.
I will end with a final thought. It starts with a tom beat harking back to 'Any Port' (from Prehistoricisms). Where in 'Any Port' guitars come in with spacy, shapeless, reverberated twangs, the guitars of 'Valley of Smoke' come in with clean, formed notes. The original toms suddenly diverge, change into opposing drumsets playing incompatible beats, before rejoining and playing the same beat together, as the rest of the instruments start taking on a purposeful form. Then it all breaks down again. The drums go their separate ways, a dissonance sets in. Then it rises again, slowly but palpably, and bursts. The music takes its previous purpose by the horns and drags it potently until it collapses again. What you hear next is an Intronaut you've never heard before (the Intronaut I and many other fans grew to love). It's quiet. It's clean. It's without that familiar reverb. It's just pure, clean notes, intently going somewhere we've never been before. Then that reverb comes in. It welcomes us like the familiar, warm bosom of a mother we haven't seen in decades, now aged, but still the person we remembered her to be. Soon, it's joined by the bass... and the drums... and those bongos from 'The Reptilian Brain'. It all sounds right. It's Intronaut. And yet, it isn't. It's something else. It isn't Void. It isn't Prehistoricisms. It's a step beyond. The guitars die. Now, it's just the drums and the bongos. They come in again. And that clean guitar. The old is melding with the new... it bursts again... and collapses once more. Now it's just the drumset. One. The second joins. The bass. It throbs. This feels like 'Core Relations'. Then you hear this lick. You haven't heard this before, either, not once. But if you know the genre, you recognise it: it's a jazzy tone. Pure electric jazz. You wonder where it's going to turn now, and you're either hoping for it or dreading it, but Intronaut don't buckle, they dive head-first into it: one-minute-nineteen of a full-on fucking light jazz escapade. It's amazing. It's no 'Monolithic Vulgarity', but it's just as insane. Because it's exactly where they were going to go, but you just didn't know it yet.
'Valley of Smoke', the song, is ultimately a microcosm of Intronaut in 2010. You hear that familiar Intronaut, but then you hear something else entirely. And sometimes they both come together. You may not like what you hear, and demand they go back to Prehistoricisms, or Void, but then you realise that this is Intronaut. A more mature, defined, Intronaut, that toys with your preconceptions of what music is supposed to sound like and where the next note and beat is supposed to go. And right now, they have a greater command of their instruments than they ever have, and they're playing like it.