Every Friday, The Metal Examiner delves metal’s endless depths to present the genre’s most important and exciting albums.
Intronaut made its name in forward-thinking metal circles by understanding that pure metal moments hit harder by sandwiching them between other styles — in this case, passages that are closer to fusion or jazz. Rather than a guitar spotlight, the group reaches for a fretless bass solo; in lieu of a unison run, Intronaut deploys a spacey, percussive breakdown.
But whereas the group’s previous releases (especially Prehistoricisms in 2008) suggested a band poised squarely in art-metal territory, Valley Of Smoke shows the band moving simultaneously toward and away from modern metal. It’s moving toward in its increasingly overt nods to the group’s sonic peers (Neurosis, Isis, and, at times, Pelican), but away in its refusal to ever really stick to one thing at a time, resulting in a disc that’s not easily classifiable as metal, but not easily classifiable as anything else either.
Be it the echo augmenting the clean, harmonized vocals of Dave Timnick and Sacha Dunable replacing the previous releases’ screams or the plentiful delay pushing the guitars’ texture to the periphery, Intronaut employs myriad timbres on Valley of Smoke. On “Miasma,” a restless, layered opening dialogue gives way to the guttural roar of the verses. For “Sunderance,” the punctuated, staccato riffs set up the track’s crescendo chorus and wide-open, arpeggiated middle section. The mid-song leaps introduced on Prehistoricisms are flexed here in full, with Intronaut pulling off that rare feat of smoothly changing gears without having to announce it.
Buttressing space and subtlety against more conventionally abrasive riffs and double-bass drumming removes any pretense of Valley Of Smoke delivering much in the way of hooks, but this ultimately works in the album’s favor. The odd meter shifts and repeated yields to musical space make the changes in direction into quasi-hooks. Some groups use a refrain to bring listeners back to the fold; Intronaut uses a constant guessing game as its own callback. This non-linear school of songwriting isn’t for the unadventurous, but there are plenty of overlapping, Meshuggah-style grooves for listeners to latch onto.
As a result, most of the heavy lifting up to the rhythm section. Drummer Danny Walker and bassist Joe Lester’s meter changes give the disc a sneakier kind of heaviness than expected, one driven less by sound and more by feel. Consider the invasion soundscape and schizophrenic arrangements of “Below,” which sandwiches some wide-open five- and seven-time parts between vaguely Yngwie Malmsteen-esque guitar harmonies, or the group pulling out all the stops on the title track, disintegrating into a bass-and-guitar duet before picking up the pieces and reassembling them on a foundation of tribal percussion.
Intronaut’s willingness to think differently gives rise to a highly unique, thoroughly compelling album. By the closing, slippery bass of “Past Tense,” Intronaut leaves its Valley Of Smoke not just in flames, but on fire.