Digression Assassins – those who assassinate digression or assassins who digress? A question each of us must answer for ourselves by looking deep into our own hearts. Luckily, the question of whether their newest album is any good or not is easier to answer: it’s very, very good.
This Swedish quartet have been making music since 2006, putting their own aggressive, hardcore tinged stamp on the prog metal stylings of Tool, Pain of Salvation, The Ocean and others. Prog is of course a tricky genre in which to distinguish yourself as technical proficiency, epic ambition and the ability to meld different genres and sounds into long, complex songs are all prerequisites but none of them are enough to make you stand out or even make you any good. The genre is saturated with bands who can play the heck out of their instruments but have no idea how to turn their virtuosity into actual songs, resulting in endless widdly soloing, classical pretensions and jazz fusion breakdowns that ultimately don’t amount to anything. Luckily for Digression Assassins they have a couple of key attributes that set them apart from your typical Dream Theatre wannabe prog crew.
The first is some serious songwriting chops. Progressive music by definition can take a while to come together but Merkaba goes straight for the jugular with its ballsy, riff driven sound, hurtling from one section to the next rather than gently flowing. The first two tracks run to ten and eight minutes respectively and traverse all kinds of metal (and non metal) territory but both hit with the force of a ninety second grindcore tune thanks to the huge slabs of distorted guitar, powerfully propulsive drumming and David Catala’s razor sharp vocals. Catala’s clean singing definitely has a classic metal feel to it but there’s real venom in his delivery, and he knows how to bring in his caustic banshee like screams at just the right moment to ratchet up the tension even further. “The Traveller” has that classic prog 6/8 gallop during its verses but elsewhere it has a deliciously off-kilter sense of melody and some suitably jarring moments of discordant hardcore rage to keep you on your toes. Six minutes in it has thoroughly earned its extended instrumental jam out. “Canopus” features some of the most heavy-hitting riffs of the album as well as some of the best vocal hooks. The sudden, perfectly executed drop into moody Radiohead territory part way through might be nothing new to prog fans but the song defies expectation by piling on layers of post-rock tremolo guitar before taking another detour into a trippy space rock groove straight of out 80’s sci-fi, and then slamming on the brakes and derailing entirely in its final moments amid screeching guitars and earth-shaking percussion. Both songs- and the album as a whole- showcase the band’s ability to pillage ideas from across metal’s rich history and beat them into shapes that sound new and exciting in 2015. Quite a feat.
The other thing that Digression Assassins have that makes Merkaba such a success is discipline. The entire album runs to a breezy 37 minutes, a remarkable thing for an album this dense and ambitious. I’ve seen prog albums that drag on for two hours or over, while these guys accomplish so much more in less time than it takes to make a typical pasta bake. This means that even though the music is very intense and cerebral it never becomes too much and the whole thing can be enjoyed in a single sitting without leaving you exhausted. It’s also beautifully paced, with each song shifting gear or building and dropping away at just the right moment to keep it fresh, and shorter songs are utilised to break up the longer tracks brilliantly. These three minute interludes aren’t wasted space- they’re just as musically interesting as the rest of the album. The breakneck riff-fest “Eclipse” plays like a war between different decades of metal as classic thrash riffs and metalcore breakdowns ram into each other like monster trucks, while “She Married Madness” finds time amongst all the shredding to dip into a Dark Side of the Moon groove for all of about 40 seconds before its brutal finale.
Much of Merkaba will feel familiar to prog metal enthusiasts, well made and interesting though it is. Familiarity isn’t a bad thing when it’s this enjoyable, and there were still plenty of little moments that surprised me. None of the songs end up going in quite the direction you expect them to (“Cast For A Minimum Life” is especially unpredictable, and has some inspired transitions), and there’s some great use of guitar effects throughout. The only moment that really floored me came in the final track, “Earth Is Dead”, which begins with a lumbering doom riff and oppressive atmosphere straight out of something by Swallow The Sun, and then a minute and a half in folds in on itself completely, dropping to just a bizarre chiptune effect bleeping out a sad little arpeggio. Of all the directions the song could have gone, I don’t know what gave them the idea to emulate the sound of a dying mobile phone from 1995 being tossed out of a spaceship airlock but I’m very glad they did.
With Merkaba, Digression Assassins have delivered a tight, focussed and innovative blast of prog that will appeal to a wide spectrum of metal fans. Their songs nail the balance between progression and immediacy, the instrumentation is flawless, their hardcore riffs hit hard and their space rock jams are fun as hell. There are even a couple of genuinely surprising moments – a few more of these and Digression Assassins will find themselves at the tip top of the prog metal heap. This is another fine addition to what has already been a great year for metal, and well worth your time.