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The Faceless - In Becoming a Ghost Award winner

The Faceless
In Becoming a Ghost
by James Peterson at 25 January 2018, 12:54 AM

Hopefully California progressive death metal titans THE FACELESS don’t take another six years to put out an album, considering it’s been five since their last masterpiece “Autotheism” and four between that one and their sophomore effort “Planetary Duality.” I of course kid, but that being said, apparently they’re doing a re-mastered rerelease of “Planetary Duality” that should be cool for all the diehard fans of that one (I personally have come to the conclusion that’s my least favorite of theirs… which will surely having even my friends calling for me to be burned AND beheaded at the stake). But, yes… I’m under the impression that since that album the band have cut all the fat from their sound and focused on their strengths, which is what makes “Autotheism” and now, finally, “In Becoming a Ghost” two of the strongest progressive death metal albums of the decade.

To start off diving into why that is, let’s look at all the things that make THE FACELESS such a musically successful progressive band. The band make extra use compared to the bulk of metal bands out there of chromaticism in their note choice/progressions as well as odd time signatures and in these ways, the music almost tells a story that is dramatic and even cinematic as these are things that you can find if you open up a film score orchestral reduction to a battle scene for example. In this case, this is coupled with the lyrics rather well that are very direct and at times only have one layer of metaphor that isn’t terribly difficult to peel back. Contrary to preceding discs that covered antitheism and reptilians, this is much more of a blatantly personal album that seems to allude to Keene’s rumored drug addiction and how it’s caused a lot of difficulty in his personal life, as a household name metal musician, and his public image.

This is made evident right from the get-go. After the title track which is just a spoken word skit (which I usually hate, and it even happens again later, but they’re so short I really don’t care; there’s also orchestrations here that make it delectably palatable), the first metal cut “Digging the Grave” absolutely HURLS the listener into this agony of Keene’s hell on earth. It’s hard to describe just how dark and tortured this album is, but I’ll try my best by touching on what makes each and everyone of the songs here utterly masterful. The track first shows us a couple things: that the sound engineering job is extremely overproduced to the point where it’s trashy as hell in every way except for the clarity of the mix (I’ll go more in depth on this further down) and that this band which has always had black metal influence since their VERY beginnings has absolutely gone above and beyond to master it here. Think black metal in the “Fractal Possession” by ABIGOR sense though, but not quite on the same level of innovation that band was able to portray on their now decade old opus.

There’s something about how the opening riff and guitar lead gives off a similar vibe, alternating with some very chromatic arpeggiations. All of this is purely suffocating tension, and it matches the lyrics 999 billion percent. Reading all of the lyrics is absolutely worth your time just like hearing every note of the record is, for this reason. Thusly, I won’t quote them too much here, just know that the line “As I drown in the agony” could not possibly have a more perfect musical representation than what you hear on this album. After the opening riffs, there’s an EXTREMELY groovy transition before we finally get a bit of release in a very sorrowful and emotive sung passage from Keene. That’s the only break you get though, as the rest of the song triumphs in a glorious wave of equal parts from the NONEUCLID and EMPEROR playbooks.

The former from the extremely dissonant and nearly polytonal part of the song where the dissonant chord, lead and fast drumming approach is ramped up to beyond what can be quantified, and the latter because there is a horn blare which should remind any seasoned progressive extreme metal fan of “In the Wordless Chamber” off IHSAHN’s best work in “Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire and Demise.” There’s also an incredibly fluttering and blustery flute solo that happens over this section as well, but thinking this is just a gimmick would be a mistake because it’s the exact same meme master himself, Sergio “Sexy Sax Guy” Flores, who also played sax on “Autotheist.” It’s cool that the dude can play both flute and sax, much in the same way prog legend Ian Anderson also can and did on the best JETHRO TULL albums: “Thick as a Brick” and “A Passion Play.”

But this song was only one, and in fact the last, of three prerelease singles that came out before the album. It turns out the fact that this is the case actually irritated a number of fans, because hearing all three singles only left a mere THREE new original songs with vocals to check out, considering there’s a cover, the spoken word tracks, and an instrumental. Maybe waiting until the rest of the album was online to hear “Digging the Grave” is part of why it didn’t bother me so much. In any case, the other two pre-release songs were “Black Star” and “The Spiraling Void.” The former begins with a fucking rhythmically insane riff that alternates between 21/16 and 6/4 (If I’m counting correctly), and then goes into some gnarly 7 string riffage (which is very rare for THE FACELESS, as most of their stuff is in 6 string Drop C… possibly the influence for why I write in that tuning, myself) and clean vocals (that also occur in the song’s chorus over a really nice 7/8 chord pattern) with great ABIGAIL WILLIAMS-esque raspy screams from the frontman of both that band and this one, Ken Sorceron.

The bass guitar also has a lot of presence and really poppin’ lines on this cut, and the guitar leads here are utterly sexy as well, with the one during the clean break sounding like it’s using slide technique in it’s opening portion. I’m probably interpreting the lyrics incorrectly, but since “black star” is a street name for LSD, and LSD some people find helped them break their addiction to cigarettes, maybe this one is about Keene trying to use LSD to help him wean off of whatever hard drug he was crippled by, but it failing miserably as he goes through withdrawal and the agony continues. I dunno, like I said it’s probably an incorrect interpretation, but it made the song a lot more emotionally powerful thinking about it that way for me at least.

When I first heard the song “The Spiraling Void,” also featured on this record, but which released initially over 2 years ago in late 2015, I honestly couldn’t believe my ears. If NATIVE CONSTRUCT hadn’t released “Mute” and WILDERUN hadn’t released “The Means to Preserve” that year (which are both in my top 25 songs of all time without a doubt) this would have been the best track to come out that year. Easily. I can’t even begin to express how much of a masterpiece “The Spiraling Void” is to me, or how hard I music-gasmed seeing it live. Let’s start with the opening riff. It’s far and away one of the best riffs ever written, straight up. INSTANTLY I get vibes of XERATH and their album “II.” That’s my favorite metal band and album. Ever. It simply has the most incredible hard hitting groove riffs with spurts of tremolo picking and chord outlining thrown in ever written.

So is also true of the opening riff to “The Spiraling Void.” The band’s classic lineup’s frontman, Derek Rydquist, also does lead vocals on this song (and bits of “Shake the Disease” and “I Am”), because back when the single was released years ago, he was thought to be returning to the band. One can only speculate why they had him record some of the vocals here for this album version, given that Ken has some pretty decent lows as well that he barely utilizes. Keene’s singing is incredible here, and it is different from the prerelease version in that he’s not hiding behind a vocoder ala the “Planetary Duality” style. GOOD. Good I say. Most people seem to prefer that but I massively prefer hearing a singer’s real unaffected vocal timbre (Here’s looking at you, OBSCURA… cough”Celestial Spheres”isyourbestsongcough). There’s tons of riffing here in general that fans of classic THE FACELESS should be nutting over, and a lot of great counterpoint between the guitar and bass on this thing.

Then, out of nowhere following one of said contrapuntal sections, the metal band drops out and we get a percussive 7/8 section with… one of the best chord progressions I’ve ever heard in my life. It crescendos, a choir is added, and then it becomes the next riff. The way this motif is evolved and flows into the guitar solo is absolutely STAGGERING. So is the solo and clean vocals that close this track out. There’s such an incredible sense of literal epicness and brilliance of melody. This song is practically an 11/10. Every song on here is really. Have I mentioned yet that I’m obsessed with this album?

Getting into the remainder of the songs that weren’t pre-release tracks on here, we first come to “Cup of Mephistopheles” which really throughout it’s duration showcases Keene’s industrial music influences right out of the gate as it starts up combined with an extremely potent sort of noir prog piano line (the emotion of which is reflected and almost inverted in a strings progression just before two minutes in) but with a brighter and a truly downtrodden sung vocal line that seems to come from a perspective of this man who is truly struggling with whether or not he can or even wants to escape from his addiction: “I found a place where nothing can touch me. It seemed so perfect, so unbelievable. Nothing effects me; no one to rush me when I’m laying in my six foot hole.” Of course this line is followed by the admittedly kind of cheesy “When did my heaven become this fucking hell?” vocalized by Ken Sorceron, but in large part there’s such emotional gravity, honesty and blatancy in this song and album that it actually damn near doesn’t feel out of place here.

The riffage throughout is, again, pure modern THE FACELESS brilliance, but this track is definitely a more slowed midtempo piece, much in the same way the highlight of “Planetary Duality,” “Sons of Belial,” was or “Ten Billion Years” was for “Autotheism.” I also absolutely love the crap out of the groove riff at 3:18 which is immediately followed by an electro-industrial section, then a very black metal-influenced section…. then a literal blend of both. At first this threw me off but it’s definitely grown on me.

Speaking of things that probably need to grow on me (if they even will at all)… there’s only one song on this album that seems a bit flawed, but not enough to detract from the rating I’m going to give this thing on the composition side. I might as well talk about this and the only other negative thing I can levy at this album (which is a number of the sound engineering choices) so I can get it out of the way before I elaborate on my thoughts on the remaining songs and wrap this up. This song I have (slight, mind you) beef with is “I Am.” Make no mistake, this song is a masterpiece just like all the rest, but the chorus is wholly out of place in context of the motivic arrangement and song flow. It’s a god-like chorus, and it will get stuck in your head like a motherfucker, but it comes literally out of nowhere and isn’t properly introduced.

The chord out of the brilliant groovy riff (which syncopates incredibly with Ken’s screams and has absolutely killer driving bass) does indeed resolve into the first chord of the chorus on further examination, but it’s played practically at the last instant of the end of the riff in such a way that the transition feels hopelessly abrupt. That’s not even the worst part. The part is shamelessly similar to the band EXTOL’s eponymous song from their most recent album’s chorus. It’s so similar to Ole’s writing style that when it was my earworm for a particular day and I wanted to hear it again, I found myself searching the entirety of his new band FLESHKILLER’s masterful 2017 debut album “Awake” (which BARELY didn’t make my year end top 10 I’m about to post as well) just to hear that part again…. only to realize it’s this super “Ole-esque” bit in “I Am.” So this part literally misdirected me and wasted my time a bit, and doesn’t really fit the song at all. I know I just ranted about it a lot, but in reality it only covers about a minute and ten seconds total of a near six minute song which compositionally is brilliant throughout it’s entirety, so it actually is just a small gripe that doesn’t truly put a dent in this album’s and this song’s virtual perfection. Seriously.

There’s too much going on in this song in particular that I love to be able to cover all of it, but the sung passages between halfway through and just past four minutes in are amazing and super resonant in the feels… and make me wonder if perhaps something could be salvaged from here as the hook of the song instead. Some of the most gloriously intense riffing on the album is on this track as well, with the one at 1:46 being another one of the best in the band’s discography so far. It’s like “Autotheism”… but pumped up on drugs. Sorry. Guess I had to get at least one jokerino in there. The only other thing that irks me about the album does so massively. It really and truly does much more so than the Ole-esque bit in “I Am.” The sound engineering on here sounds so plastic. It sounds so inhuman in large part. Let’s start with the drums. Did Michael Keene really ask CHASON FUCKING WESTMORELAND of all drummers to play on an electric kit or something? No way to tell with infinite certainty, seeing as we weren’t there in the studio, but if not then good god everything was sure sampled to death and back. The kick hits all sound the same. The snare hits all sound the same. The toms all sound the same. How about the cymbals? Well guess what fella… SHOCKER, but they all sound the same too. The drums themselves are all COMPRESSED to death and back as well.

People complained about the “Planetary Duality” drums being triggered… but this is way WAY worse. I shudder to think of this treatment being brought to the “Planetary Duality” remix and master which is definitively coming this year as it would be a 10 year anniversary rerelease, and Keene has said so in interview. Especially since he’s also said in the same interview that he thinks this new album has his best mix and master. Ok. This. Not “Autotheism” which had a great warm organic sound but still sounded like it used all the modern mixing and mastering tropes but in a much more tasteful way. The guitars sound very over-processed on “In Becoming a Ghost” as well. So does the bass guitar. Me and a good friend of mine who has experience in playing progressive extreme metal bass internationally agreed that it sounds like the bass is even sampled to the point where it sounds like MIDI when we first heard “The Spiraling Void.” And the mastering… oh god. WHY does the album need to be THIS loud and in your face with such squashed levels. It’s a problem I have with most records in general, but in this instance it’s extra fatiguing.

All of the above really bothers me to the point where I can’t give the sound engineering more than a mediocre rating, but it’s not like EVERYTHING about it is bad, and the performances of the musicians which were molded into these sounds are absolutely top notch. I can’t tell how much or if any quantization was used here because we’re talking about the guys from BURNING THE MASSES and THE ZENITH PASSAGE (scary tight bands from my experience checking them out) working with the Keene Machine and Sorceron here, and the emotion in the vocals is 110% on point throughout the record on the part of both of those latter two. The rhythms and parts in general here can get so intricate at times but they’re nailed with mechanical precision on all the other instruments, even with Keene on bass. Speaking of that, and starting to talk about good things about the mix here: YOU CAN HEAR THE BASS GUITAR THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRE ALBUM. That’s the one area where this thing has a leg up on the otherwise superior sounding mix/master of “Autotheism,” is you can hear everything crystal clear.

You could argue back “well James isn’t that the entire point of a mix?” to which I’d say “it’s that… while making all the timbres of the instruments sound the way they should, which is entirely subjective.” I don’t like overly processed sounds if it doesn’t suit the band or isn’t necessary to create an effect that works for said band. I just feel like so much is sampled and over-processed here that it detracts from and almost ignores the art of recording in the traditional sense, in blatant contrast to my favorite metal engineering job ever: “Pleiades’ Dust” by GORGUTS. Also, even though I complained about the drum compression and the bass “MIDI sound” in the preceding paragraph, the tone of the bass is still admittedly a really good, clean and warm sound, and the cymbals still have a lot of the natural dynamics of Chason’s playing left in from what I can perceive.

That’s literally all the negatives I can think of, so for the remaining sections of this review, it’s back to across-the-board praise. In the negatives, though, obviously one of my unfortunate big points was that the chorus of “I Am” sounds like a completely different band. It’s interesting that we have a case of that on the same album where THE FACELESS managed to do the inverse: make a completely different band, as in outside the realm of metal entirely, sound 100% percent like their brand of progressive death metal to the point where, if you didn’t know it was a cover, you would think it’s an original song. Enter the DEPECHE MODE cover, or perhaps “arrangement” is a much more fitting word to use here, of “Shake the Disease.” Originally, this was slated to be on an entire album of covers re-imagined in Keene’s composing style, but clearly this was the only one salvaged for this release, or perhaps even the only one completed. Perhaps it’s for the best that way; we may never know for sure.

The keyboard/organ and industrial percussive sounds in the beginning of the song take on a much more nightmarish carnival-esque timbre than the lick does in the original song, perfectly befitting Keene’s style. The verse lines are almost entirely rearranged musically, with contrapuntal tremolo lines and chromatic third chord strumming combined with the almost fretless sound of the sliding bass lines and Ken’s screams in such a way that I’m reminded of the recording session video of a similarly arranged “Dawn of a Golden Age” off the ROADRUNNER UNITED album (On a sidenote… that’s a Suecof mix, and I LOVE Suecof’s mixing, but he mixed Sean friggin’ Malone from CYNIC to be completely un-hearable which I’ll never understand). Anyway, the pre-chorus of the “Shake the Disease” cover’s major key turn is oddly enough further accentuated in Keene’s extreme prog metal arrangement to be even more uplifting, but it’s super effective dynamically as the hook returns right after with the vocals finally matching melodic content from the original song, plunging you back into the overwhelming darkness of the bulk of the cover.

The post-chorus “Understand me” line is also sung, but in a demented whispery tone from Keene that is chillingly awesome. The arrangement largely retains the basic song structure style of the original, but I think there’s strength in that because we’ve never really heard THE FACELESS do that before so it’s a really nice change of pace from the more progressive structures of their original material. Lyrically this song also ties in 100% with the concept of the album. Like I said, if it wasn’t stated that it’s a DEPECHE MODE cover, and if one isn’t familiar with the original, they might not be able to tell it’s a cover. Seamless integration of outside material onto a record, guys. Truly genius.

There are only two more fleshed out pieces of music to dive into here. The penultimate track, “(Instru)mental Illness,” once you get past the almost cringily goofy title (which may or may not be a nod to the ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND song of the same name), is actually an unbelievably strong short piece of music, and one that, unfortunately, is relegated to being of lesser importance as a song on here by many who have talked about this album. A lot of fans awaiting this album who chose to listen to all three pre-release songs found themselves disappointed that they (paraphrasing, here) “listened to half the album already,” as only three more songs are originals with vocals. This is complete nonsense, I find; as I stated above, the “Shake the Disease” cover is flawlessly integrated into the album, and the instrumental track has YET MORE of the coolest Keene writing we’ve heard to date on it. The opening lick for example is unquestionably in my top 5 openings to THE FACELESS songs alongside the vocoder passage that starts off “Akeldama” and the first riffs of “The Spiraling Void” and “Coldly Calculated Design.” It’s an orgasmically tight-knit but chaotic arpeggiation of different… almost alien feels and moods jam-packed into a few seconds.

Already the name of the song is reflected in the music via shred and very tasty tonal/structural instability. The guitar and bass leads shine oh so brilliantly and with a smoothness like freshly lotioned skin as they occasionally weave into the song amidst rapid changes in riffing and chord outlines and textural shifts in some of the coolest harmonies the band has showcased to date. I especially dig the little clean guitar motif that comes into the madness to break it up a couple times, being more developed on it’s second appearance. This flows into one of the more evocative Keene guitar solos he’s ever put on one of his albums, which is saying a lot, before the clean guitar moods return but with distortion and that godlike opening lick returns to close the song.

The final cut here, aptly dubbed “The Terminal Breath” fits very well next to “(Instru)mental Illness,” I find, in that both songs bookended by one incredible riff at both ends, and this closing song has more of the coolest THE FACELESS chord progressions ever just like how the instrumental song does. I’m also impressed by how, after such a bleak and emotionally taxing album to listen to, this song starts with an ominous churning that rivals even some of the other desolate passages on here, before plunging into that aforementioned killer opening riff. I also adore the chorus on this one; Keene pushes his voice to add some strain and grit, and it isn’t so much melodic as it is punishing and rhythmic and only oscillates between a couple notes. The hook really stands out from the others on this album in a unique way that I love, in that aspect, but the bridge section does have more of the super smooth and buttery melodic singing and lead guitar playing style we’ve come to expect from him. There are also a couple other riffs in this song that just absolutely destroy but I’ll leave it to you to hear what they sound like and bring to the table in this phenomenal record closer.

“In Becoming a Ghost” is a record that’s almost terrifyingly diverse (every song offers something different) and yet extremely consistent and original for the most part, and almost terrifying just flat out at points from how dark the subject matter is and how effectively the emotions are conveyed to the listener. Aside from literally one lick that feels out of place, and a sound engineering job that almost makes me cringe, the entire record is pure gold… no… pure platinum. Front to back. Every second.  This is an album that’s impossible to forget and get out of your head, and every listen will leave you begging to come back for more. That’s a bit ironic considering it’s an album about drug addiction. Keene’s lyrics and vocals convey so much sincere pain that it’s hard not to be enthralled by his crooning voice, and his guitar and bass writing is at a peak here in their discography with contributions from McKinney. Sorceron’s screams are antagonistic and sharpened, and Westmoreland is as always a master behind the kit.

All their performances combine in musical mastery to create not only the best technical progressive death metal album of 2017, but one of the best of the whole decade. If IRREVERSIBLE MECHANISM, THE RITUAL AURA (my guitarist friend just joined that band please check them) and HANNES GROSSMANN weren’t in the game this might even be THE best of the decade. If you’ve read this to the end, I thank you sincerely. Now jam this puppy, starting with “Digging the Grave,” below.

Songwriting: 10
Originality: 10
Memorability: 10
Production: 4

5 Star Rating

Tracklist:
1. In Becoming a Ghost
2. Digging the Grave
3. Black Star
4. Cup of Mephistopheles
5. The Spiraling Void
6. Shake the Disease (Depeche Mode cover)
7. I Am
8. Ghost Reprise
9. (Instru)mental Illness
10. The Terminal Breath
Lineup:
Michael Keene – Guitars, Bass, Vocals (clean), Vocoder, Keyboards/Programming
Justin McKinney – Guitars
Chason Westmoreland – Drums
Ken Sorceron – Vocals
Record Label: Sumerian Records
     


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Edited 18 April 2021
 

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