There was a time long ago when progressive rock meant more than virtuoso musicians, long songs, and the occasional bout of odd time. Recently bands like Tool and Muse have broken into the mainstream with pseudo-prog heavy on listener-friendliness and very light on anything… well… progressive. Sure, the music scene worldwide was once full of innovators like Ruins and King Crimson, bands who genuinely attempted to provide with their music what others in the psychotropic business were providing: a genuinely mind-bending experience.
The Red Masque are taking back the banner of prog on their third full-length FossilEyes. The disc is nearly an hour of unapologetically out-there music with a focus on unorthodox instrumentation and unsettling atmospheres. Information on the band itself can be as obscure as the music, but this much is known for sure: the Philadelphia three piece, led by vocalist Lynette Shelly, have a dedication to throwing rulebooks out of windows. With gothic and virtuosic help from multi-instrumentalist Brandon Ross and percussionist Brian (Koworn) Van Korn, Shelly creates a unique sound and aesthetic equal parts Hammer Horror and zeuhl.
This is not your father’s prog. Melody takes a back seat to mood and dynamics on this album. FossilEyes does use the traditional extended-song prog format, but sports a few extremely short songs; half the album’s tracks clock in at under 2-and-a-half minutes, but these cuts never feel like bridges or interludes. Acoustic and electric guitars mix and match here with reckless abandon until the difference between the two becomes negligible.
The songs slither and lurch from movement to movement much like the animals they are named after. “Das Snail,” one of the strongest cuts on the disc, metamorphoses from an abstract and jazzy arpeggiation to a lumbering, slow-paced monstrosity as it collapses and reforms under the weight of its own melodrama. With the occasional touches of heavy metal present (a la Porcupine Tree) the band firmly plants itself in the hazily defined outer limits of “extreme” music.
The Red Masque employs the use of noise as an instrument, especially on closer “The Anti-Man,” but at no point in time does the music descend into a mere texture of sound. At least one part of the music is clear and distinct, usually the drums, which often take on a folk or tribal character during the noise segments. The music is not emotional, or compelling; the band takes inspiration from their horror movie soundtrack imagery, so they focus on creating an unsettling feeling in the listener. The album succeeds in this endeavor because the music never becomes catchy or repetitive enough to make a deep impact. Instead the songs introduce new motifs and ideas in rapid succession.
Lording over the rest of the music like a dominatrix is Shelly’s voice, which rarely reaches a fragile vulnerability, but normally maintains a baroque howl. Occasionally she descends into Diamanda Galas-like shrieks and orgiastic howls. Her lyrics (when clear enough to understand) are foreboding, but thoughtful. The theme of the album would appear to have something to do with evolution, or the food chain, but most of that takes a back seat to the broad and bold strokes of musical color that The Red Masque paints with.
While the songs do hearken back to the sheer bravado and musical adventure of older prog bands, it falls into the same pitfalls — some of the songs are heavy-handed (see opener “The Spider is the Web”) and get bogged down in the sheer multitude of bridges and transitions. All of the songs, even some of the short ones, are overloaded with time signature changes and guitar freak-outs — it often comes across as forced. The album does not flow, and can feel jagged on the crucial first couple of listens. Still, all is forgiven during the beauty of the album’s climaxes, such as “The Anti-Man” and “Poltphemus,” when the guitar becomes smooth and sensual, and Shelly abandons her actress’ mask in favor of a better role: rock singer. None the less, with personality and punch, Fossil Eyes is an album that takes its listener by the throat and demands to be heard.
Comments and Feedback: