This is intended to be an in-depth critique and review of Juggernaut: Alpha by Periphery. I have a lot of complex feelings and critiques about this album so I'm going to start out with a short history and the easy stuff, then go track by track through my thoughts about Alpha, having listened to the album 6-7 times since its streaming release. I have not listened to Juggernaut: Omega past its two singles, and I won't until this post is finished–I will very likely write a companion post to this doing the same thing to Omega and comparing the two.
So! Juggernaut is a double album, comprised of albums Juggernaut: Alpha and Juggernaut: Omega, by the band Periphery (I'll refer to the albums collectively as Juggernaut). According to them, it's a "theatrical" concept album–a concrete story hasn't been released, but as far as these things go, it's about a troubled person who has some sort of autonomous conscience within them that does Bad Things–told across the two albums. There are 17 tracks across the two albums, and Alpha contains what we can assume is the first half of the story, but I won't be focusing much on the story as the specific details aren't really necessary to evaluate the music in my opinion. From my perception, the band intends this album to be a fairly interconnected affair, referencing itself throughout its runtime, which I will applaud as a composer... it's a simple concept in theory but I think it's a very effective artistic choice, especially when it hits the listener in obvious ways like having a chorus that comes back five songs later, i.e. Tesseract's "Concealing Fate" suite, though there's not much as blatantly obvious as that so far on Juggernaut, which I'll talk about. The simple thoughts I have about Alpha are as follows:
It sounds fantastic. Wholly produced by the band, it's very easy to listen to, which I would partially attribute to what Nolly (the bassist/engineer) describes here. It might actually spoil a lot of other albums for me.
Spencer (vocalist) sounds really good in my opinion. His voice suits the material well and I think he's chosen good inflections for most of the parts–his screams and harsh vocals are really something to behold too. The background vocals tend to lean towards what I would generously call "good attempts" at several different types of deliveries, which I'll talk about more as we come to them.
The lyrics, while doing a decent job of conveying the vignettes of the story and having nice phrasing & interconnectivity, hit a few too many generic fantasy images ("Silver faces, an unholy cathedral" is only the second line of the first song") for my tastes. I'm not much of a bard, however, so I won't talk about them much–they're not bad, at least. Some lyrical themes going through the album are: references to blood (echoed in several of the singles' youtube videos, nicely), "drowning", and "push and pull" which all seem to be related to the protagonist's struggle between their consciousnesses.
Well, let's dive in.
"Our voices echo on a quiet night" is such a great lyric. Even though I listened the singles from Juggernaut before Alpha was fully released, the impact of that line sets the beginning tone for this song very nicely, following the clean guitar/electric piano material that establishes the main theme for this song.. I also appreciated that the tonic (the 1st scale degree, the root, or the "home" note) of the key signature isn't established until the drums and vocals enter at 0:41. The roomy drum sounds in this song work, I suppose, but I feel that electronic sounds would have worked much better and been a better complement to the simplistic instrumental parts- especially given that Matt (drummer) is already playing around with the beat and distracting from Spencer's vocals within his first 10 seconds. I am a drummer, and I'm not opposed to complexity, but these somewhat tossed-off parts are a poor fit for the simpler, softer parts of Periphery's music–they should offer dynamic and rhythmic contrast to the complex, intense core of Periphery's songwriting, like the other instruments do, not play Cool Fills.
I won't talk much of the ideas' arrangement in this song, mainly because it's effective, and I'll be doing a lot of that later with the more riffy songs. The layering of sounds works very well, starting with ambiance, then clean guitars and nice timbres, and adding a twangy, Periphery-atypical sort of guitar sound at 1:52 with a (perhaps a bit overdone) accented vocal cue. The first harsh vocals appear at 2:08, and for someone who hasn't listened to Periphery, that will probably be a surprise, as well as the well-built crescendo into the "drop" at 2:46 where the usual down-tuned, aggressive guitars come in with a reprisal of the first lyrical passage. Imagine for a moment that this was the moment the drums really kicked in with ferocity and complexity–I believe it would have been much more effective. Maybe I'm just disappointed that this otherwise affecting and well-paced buildup didn't hit me quite as hard as Devin Townsend's seminal "Praise the Lowered", which even uses real drums but smartly begins with a drastically different texture to them and (while not starkly simplistic) non-distracting playing. It's especially confusing since Periphery has had good electronic percussion parts in the past, courtesy of Jake Bowen (guitarist who also composes electronic music).
We have our first really, really dumb background vocal moment at 1:14 with a spoken line that is both dumb "[stain] our bodies with their own blood" and delivered with the gravitas of your milquetoast friend Greg's Batman impression, and our second at 2:30 with a "crowd singalong" vocal that just sounds... bad; there are several of these throughout the record and I'm not sure how to quantify what makes them sound so cringeworthy and cheesy to me on this album specifically. There's the first blood reference, though. A little awkward as well are the stops in the constant 8th note rhythm of the guitar/music box (?) line beginning at 3:22, but that's a much smaller criticism.
Overall, I think this first song really sets the mood and expectations well for an album that doesn't quite know what to do with that. Misha (guitarist and founder) composed the vast majority of Periphery's previous two albums, while this album appears to have been much more of a group effort; it really shows in later songs that stretch the stitching of their somewhat formulaic structures with a plethora of riffs. Let's move on to the next track.
Beginning with an interesting, if not slightly awkward, synth and gu... oh, whoops.
I'll talk about the opening fill in a second. This song immediately wrenches the listener from the intrigued ending mood of the previous song into a very dissonant, aggressive, frantic place–justified by the narrative, I'm guessing, and it could be an effective choice if used somewhat sparingly. One might notice that there are a lot of drum intros on this album; including the two singles from Omega, there are seven songs with drum parts before the "main first idea" in these twelve songs. Again, I'm a drummer, drum intros aren't inherently bad, but the amount of them makes me envision a lot of "Take us in, Matt!"s in the studio. They do at least establish the characters of the initial parts well (in other songs) but I wish they were a bit more intentional or contained actual rhythmic motives that appeared elsewhere. The decision to start the first no-foolin', real-deal metal song (which is in 6/8) with a fill that starts two 8th notes before the downbeat and doesn't do anything to help the listener establish their pulse, however, is... confusing. Moving on...
I'd say there are five important riffs in this song (barring the postlude which will be discussed later), which might not sound bad, but the song is two minutes long. There're just too many ideas, and in addition, nothing gets developed, other than the drum parts (props)– it just plays its first riff, then a set of two verse riffs, a weird section, a (quite nice) chorus, two more of the verse riffs, the first riff again, and ends. As far as I can tell, no material in this song really ever gets referenced again, so... yeah. I've heard the term riff salad before, and I think it applies.
I will note two good things: first, the "chorus" (1:03–1:17) is really quite nice! Spencer's vocals remind me a lot of The Dear Hunter here. I think the "spiral down" is likely meant to first establish the "drowning" theme throughout the album, which is also easily conflated with the storytelling trope of downward motion equaling descent into madness. That pops up a few times more. Second, pay attention to the high guitar line during the chorus... this melodic material, cleverly hidden away here, will become important later.
Before discussing the next section, beginning at 2:00, I want to establish an example of a musical novelty that works– "musical novelty" meaning a jarring non sequitur of a musical idea that's often played for laughs. The example I'll use is from the current masters of this concept, Between the Buried and Me, and is in their song "Lay Your Ghosts to Rest". Listen from 5:08 to at least 5:31. This extremely aggressive, hectic maelstrom pauses for 7 seconds of circus music for organ and playground noise. It's unsettling, the circus music is kind of creepy, it seemingly disrupts the flow of the section... and yet it works and is hilarious. Some reasons why: first, it's seven seconds. This limits the importance of the section and doesn't let the spectacle take over the moment. Second, the circus music is creepy and doesn't drastically alter the mood, plus it uses the organ which was already playing in the previous section, so it's not really a huge departure from what just happened. Third, the piece immediately continues onward, unfazed (again not letting itself get absorbed in the novelty), and fourth, that same creepy organ theme returns not 30 seconds later at 5:59. So to recap–the novelty doesn't overwhelm the main idea of the section, it doesn't drastically alter the mood, and it's justified later when its material returns. There are plenty more examples, even from that song (for example, how the sudden release of tension at 6:30 works because it only alters the tension of the song, not the tempo, comes immediately after a massive crescendo and the true climax of the whole song, etc.), but I'll move on for now since this paragraph is huge enough.
Now, back to MK Ultra at 2:00. The song ends. Really, the song ends, from the listener's perspective. The bluesy section that follows sounds entirely disconnected–it's in a different tempo, a different time signature, and even leaves you a couple of seconds to process the separation. It's funny, sure, but it does none of the things I described that made BTBAM's novelty work, and after the listener laughs they cock their head to the side and say "huh?". It negates the emotional impact of what came before, similar to the ending of Scale the Summit's "The Dark Horse" (3:54), because it plays a dumb prank on the listener and doesn't justify it. Worse yet, the mood of the album has only been built for 6 minutes, we reached a climactic point, and suddenly the dark, emotional, brooding tone is being sabotaged and betrayed by this nearly-a-whole-minute whoopee cushion. BTBAM also, to be fair, has a less self-serious and more musically laissez-faire tone to their concept album, but that's not the only reason their frequent asides and subversions don't feel like they're pulling your chair out and snickering to themselves. The actual music of this section isn't bad, but it feels terribly misjudged. The only possible justification I can find in that aside (other than more fun keyboard sounds–I like the Coheed-esque stuff there!) is that its tempo is at least reasonably similar to and flows into the next track, "Heavy Heart".
And it's a good track! The organization is a pretty formulaic intro -> verse -> chorus -> so on, but the thing that makes this song really work and feel justified in its riffs, as opposed to some later songs we'll talk about, is that the first riff in the song (a 15-beat idea), the verse riff (a 9-beat idea), and the bridge riff (in 6/8) all have enough similarities to not feel like a grab-bag of ideas. The chorus, as they tend to be on this album, is good and catchy, and that's good enough for me. I like the audible acoustic guitar strumming during the choruses as well.
The bridge's lyrics are in line with the themes of the album, especially the "I'm falling" at 3:17. It also references some of the handiwork of the protagonist (seen in the YouTube video art) over some happy music, which works well enough as far as cognitive dissonance goes–especially since they keep the overtly joyous "La la la"s to a minimum and don't suddenly play christmas music for a minute.
The solos in this song are also... fine, I guess. They do their job, and they're constructed decently–saving the higher register parts for the second solo at 3:35 to give a sense of development from the lower parts during the first solo at 1:07 (the vocals in both verses do the same thing, it's a pretty standard tactic in my experience). Having listened to the whole album, though, the solos all tend to give that impression (with the possible exception of "Rainbow Gravity"): they function, and do what you'd expect, but none of them really stick in your head with unique character like Guthrie Govan's solo on "Have a Blast" or (slightly less so) John Petrucci's solo on "Erised", both from Periphery II.
I'll try to keep this one's discussion to a minimum. It's essentially a short instrumental intended to (I'm assuming) set the table for The Scourge. That's fine, and sure, I guess it's "theatrical" in some way. As far as I can tell, the ideas here don't come back on Alpha. It's just sort of a throwaway track, but I don't think it necessarily had to be. Let's move on.
I really, really like this song. This was the second thing I heard from the album, being the first single (the first thing I heard was a live video of "Psychosphere"), and it really set my expectations high. It's essentially a song of two crescendos, both ending in subversions of our expectations for the song–and most importantly, both "heel turns" don't interrupt the tempo or play it for laughs, they inspire confidence in the composer(s).
The first section is built around a 7/4 idea that repeats 7 times; it's a very nice harmonic progression, especially with Spencer's vocals changing inflection nicely, and it somewhat calls back to "A Black Minute" which was only about 15 minutes ago–the arpeggiated guitar parts also somewhat echo the heavily arpeggiated riffs from "Heavy Heart". Spencer's tone on "This man, he fell apart" is great, bone-chilling, and much more effective than the overdone effect on the first "[stain] our bodies with their own blood" in the aforementioned Black Minute. However, while that song takes its crescendo and punctuates it how you might expect, "The Scourge" subverts our expectations by completely developing the first section to its climax (like in the BTBAM example above) and then leaving a very intriguing clean guitar pattern in its aftermath (1:38). This idea pops up pretty often in the album–it first appeared back in "MK Ultra" and also appears in "Four Lights" and "Psychosphere" later. It's essentially in the Phrygian mode but with a raised 3rd scale degree, and it's constructed in such a way that it sounds major in the first three notes, then adds the flat 6th and 7th which is common in minor chords, then reveals its flat 2nd which really ups the weirdness, and THEN raises the 7th on the last note. What a weird, beautiful idea!!
That midsection also comes with some nice melodic accompaniment with tasteful cymbal bells from Matt, and builds completely conventionally with straight quarter notes while the listener is still figuring out the "Scourge theme", as I'll call it. It's written all over Meshuggah's work, but with the right treatment, straight quarter notes can be an unbelievably heavy, brutal sounding rhythm, and "The Scourge" really takes its time to fully pound every single one into your head when the whole song explodes at 2:29–it feels incredible and unbelievably climactic, at least to me, especially since Periphery really took their time and built up this moment directly for almost a minute, and indirectly since somewhere around the end of "Heavy Heart". Even after 2:29, the song keeps building until the huge release of tension before 2:56 where the drums start using 8th notes and 16th notes again and the band follows.
To not ramble on longer than I have to, that section at 2:56 has an very weirdly-timed riff in typical Periphery style but I feel that it's very earned, and it's a great riff to boot. The song's "heel turn" comes at 3:21 when it changes its tonic and turns somewhat hopeful with the lyric "I will survive". This last section doesn't quite feel stable to me–that is, it doesn't feel like to the listener like it's totally done and couldn't possibly do anything more–but it's not bad and works on first listen.
One last note about this song is that the screams are fantastic here. Spencer's playing with the pitch of his screams is fantastic, especially around 1:21 where what initially sounds unpitched suddenly shifts pitch and becomes a melodic line. It's very unsettling. It also sounds great at 2:56, I don't know exactly why but Spencer's screams there sound absolutely unreal.
One last last note about the postlude in this song, which isn't included in the video link I attached–it's good! It's certainly not a throwaway like "The Event", so for the sake of completeness if you're listening to this album alongside the review, it's included at the end of this guitar cover. This material does come back later and I don't mind Matt's improv style here. Plus, the lyrics, containing references to pushing & pulling, drowning, and more of the protagonist's inner struggle against their alternate conscience (or whatever) don't rely on the on-the-nose references or images as much and come across to me as more interesting as a result. Anyways, this section then leads into...
...the musical equivalent of a Borat reference in 2015. Does anybody still like this chiptune stuff, legitimately or no? I don't hate it on principle, but their justification for this pointless timbre isn't great either. It's just... so jarring, and doesn't seem to have any symbolic significance.
This song is one of the worst offenders in terms of the "plethora of riffs" phenomenon I described in the opening section. By my conservative estimation, there are six important riffs in this song (really more like 8)–and most of them are either just repeated with little development, or stay in their own section and don't relate to the rest of the song. We have the first idea, we have the verse and pre-chorus ideas, we have the chorus, and we have the (entirely too short) bridge, which isn't a bad selection, but that's only the first 3 minutes. Essentially, this is an entire pop-structure song with three ideas tacked on to the end. This really reeks of oversaturation to me, which could very easily be a result of the collaborative writing process. Anyways, the "pop song" section of the song is decent, though the verse and chorus lyrics are pretty on-the-nose in a sort of pitiable way. The bridge is way too short to return immediately to the third chorus right after, though if this first part were any longer the two other parts might feel even more tacked on than they do. Of positive note in this section is the little 7/8 (I think) guitar line over the bridge which comes back in the next song. Also, the chorus has the obvious blood reference.
The second section of the song, from 2:59 to 3:58, is just a short build of its idea that never appears again in Alpha (album). It's a pretty boring idea too. At least the background vocal effects at 3:38 are good (a first for this album...) and the lyrics do foreshadow a part in "The Bad Thing", which is still about 20 minutes ahead, so that's interesting–the transitions in and out of this section are very inelegant, though. I think one can only really punctuate a song like they do at 2:59 and 3:59 once per song, or at least, they needed to make part 2 more interesting and beefy so the listen can gear up for another climax at 3:59.
Part 3, from 3:59 to the end, is also a not super great idea, but I do like the moment-to-moment transitions at 4:22 and 4:31. "The bastard in our brain will chew until it bleeds" is a bad lyric. This section sounds like it could have been a longer section in its own song, but instead it's lumped in here, to disappointing effect. The chiptune does return at the end, but it just reminds me of the beginning–it would have worked fine had there been a different device been used to introduce the main theme. For example, the intro to "Have a Blast" (weirdly not on youtube, so that's a drum cover video) has the bizarre violin part and the watery synth that introduces the main guitar line, and, well, I like it in that song–if you didn't really get into chiptune music during its somewhat-recent resurgence, then I envy you, because this section probably would work more for you. It just doesn't seem like the right choice to me, especially when the music doesn't really acknowledge with the implications of the timbre at all.
The title of this song refers to a book by Judy Byington with themes of mind control, cult sacrifice, and Dissociative Identity Disorder, so that's at least relevant to the themes of Juggernaut (MK Ultra is also a reference to, basically, an old CIA mind control program with very questionable human testing involved[There are a lot of song titles on these albums that are just references and that is a little upsetting, honestly]).
This was the third single from the albums and a pretty formulaic song, again. We have the main, or more accurately, first riff (which only appears twice in the song with no development), a verse, chorus, bridge, solo, whatever. The only way Periphery really breaks from this structure is that they put new material immediately following the first chorus and preceding the second verse (which also happened in "Heavy Heart")–that material here also never comes back after its 30-second contribution. The guitar texture I mentioned in the bridge of "Alpha" does come back here at 2:11, like I mentioned, and there's a reference to "push & pull" in the reuse of the first riff at 2:54.
One thing that bugs me about this song is the transition between the first riff and the first verse. The tonic of the verse is the 5th scale degree of the first riff, and they transition between them with no comment. For those that don't know, an interval of a fourth is very often a "leading" interval, which is to say that resolving something by moving from the 5th scale degree to the 1st above (an interval of a fourth), especially when the first is already established, feels good and "cadential", or significant to the piece. Thereby, it's common to hear music where the tonic has already been established and the piece comes to the 5th scale degree, and the listener generally expects the tension to be resolved by jumping up by an interval of a fourth and coming to the tonic. Here, though, they just continue on what sounds like the 5th scale degree through the progression of the song and leave totally unresolved the tension that one probably feels, consciously or subconsciously, when they already established one note as the tonic. The transition at 3:14 between the same chord roots does a similar thing but works because we've already had the key of the song hammered into our brain at that point.
One more problem I have with this song is that it was unnecessary to repeat the chorus twice at 1:42. We know it's the chorus, it's a catchy riff, there's no reason to repeat it. It makes the whole section seem just a little more stale and makes it less interesting when the song does a heel turn at 3:37 and does a "crazy" version of the chorus, because the listener has already lost some interest in the chorus before that because they've heard the exact same thing four times. It's a nice direction to take the song in, though, and it should be taken for granted that most of the riffs and choruses in all of these songs are catchy and fun to listen to, though I'm not mentioning it constantly.
Now this is how you write a pop-structure metal song. Evidently the main riff (and it actually is a main riff in this song) has been around for a while, something like 7 years, and it does sound like a prototypical "djent" riff, but it's a really good one. My only complaint about that idea is at the end of this song, where it really could have used more awkwardly-phrased drum parts to develop the conclusion–something like Matt does at the begining of the song, or like the ending of 55 Cancri's "Impact" (7:26). Man, this song really sticks to the formula, incredibly so, but the ideas are so good and well developed that I don't care much. Of note are the lyrics of the chorus–"Hold your breath, we're sinking down for miles in an ocean" and "Is it time to put your lungs among the shipwreck(?)" sure sound like our themes of "drowning", and they're nicely contrasted by the mentioning of "flying" and "soaring" in the bridge. It's worth noting, I suppose, that this song does repeat its chorus five times, which I just criticized "22 Faces" for, but a) this song has a better chorus with more complexity to the rhythm, and b) the lyrics and vocal melodies change between repetitions, which they don't really do in "22 Faces".
In terms of the musical subtleties: I love the pitch bend before the first chorus (and it's a perfect example of using the leading tone of the 5th and resolving to the 1st!). Also, they insert an allusion to the bridge's guitar part in the background of the second verse (1:08). Like I mentioned in "Heavy Heart", this is the only solo on this album I think really has any character, this one using some nice chromatic, Petrucci-adjacent classical ideas and complementing it with the also-involved bass part there. Some people have said this song sounds like Tesseract, by which they mean that the main riff bears some similarities to the main riff of Tesseract's "Epiphany" specifically. I guess it does, but hey, there are only so many ways to rearrange quarter notes and dotted half notes with distorted, staccato guitar stabs, and while there are lots of bands who influence still, we all rip off Meshuggah .
What more can I say? It's a good song. It's not especially new ground for Periphery but I can respect a well-put-together, well-considered song with great riffs like this.
"For though thou art great and powerful on your throne, thou remains innumerably Man, and as thou came from Dust once, so thou shalt return to Dust, and though thou hath attained musical coherence and hath developed great riffs in mortal life, in death thou shalt still return to Riff Salad." – Justin Bieber
I don't know what to say about this one. It's a bunch of okay riffs with little development strung together in a 6/8 time. "Throwaway" is, again, a good descriptor. Even more maddening is that MK Ultra was also a Riff Salad song in 6/8 and as near as I can tell, this song doesn't even reference that song's material–though it does contain the Scourge theme, making a glorious and triumphant return! I like how the theme is brought back in a similar context as it was introduced in "The Scourge" but with the very slightly weird-sounding music box from the outro of "A Black Minute" playing it, and the following dual tracking of it in high register guitar with separate pitch bending & vibrato is a very, very cool effect. That doesn't save the song, though. I'm not opposed to short, heavy instrumentals, but other than the Scourge reference, this really feels tossed-off, and it's certainly no "Scarabs" (or the aforementioned "Epiphany").
Finally, the last song on Alpha. What a way to end it. This is by far my favorite song on the album (along with "The Scourge", and probably one of my favorite Periphery songs overall. This song has such a huge-sounding riff, and better yet, a huge-sounding riff with interesting harmonic implications! It still suffers a bit from the clutter of riffs that plagues the album, but overall, this song's more laid-back tempo lets it sit in those riffs for a while longer than many of the other songs and develop them a bit more.
First, there's the obvious thing to note about the first vocal section: these are the same melodies that appeared at the end of "The Scourge" like 20 minutes ago! It's even better here with a great riff behind it. Moments like these really sell the whole "we're going to do a serious, dark, brooding concept album" thing–weird how matching the intended gravitas of the lyrics with powerful music does that. Also, the background vocals from the "crowd" sound much better in this song.
Second, the Scourge theme appears one final time at 4:16 hidden underneath the clean guitars, which, speaking of ripping off Meshuggah, are very similar to "Bleed". I don't blame them for using this concept, though; it's very effective. Speaking of "speaking of"s, let's speak of another returning theme: the very first melody on the album, all the way from "A Black Minute", returns above the glorious outro riff at 5:03! This is really one of those Concealing Fate-, Colors-, Scenes from a Memory-type moments that hits you square in the emotional jaw with a melancholy uppercut and opens up an emotional endorphin wound in your brain skin. My only problem with the ending is that they don't play it for long enough to do justice to that great groove. Leprous is a band that really knows how to, as Metal for Music Majors puts it, build grooves you want live in and play them for the right amount of time–I don't want to link a long example of that concept, but if Periphery had basically just repeated 5:20 to 5:37 once more, I think it would have been entirely solved. Also returning as the concluding rhythm is the little idea from 2:25 in this song. I swear the section at 1:51 sounds familiar vocally, but I haven't yet figured out if it's actually returning material or just slightly generic enough to remind me of something else. Those lyrics do mention "staining" again, calling back to "A Black Minute" and, more broadly, blood, and they also say "Strip away all the [whatever]", which reminds me of the line "Strip away all the excess components" in "Totla Mad" from their first album. Those lyrics actually do outwardly touch on similar themes to Juggernaut's, with talk of personalities and whatever, but, y'know, it doesn't seem like a critical point.
So that's Juggernaut: Alpha. A valiant effort, and a great philosophy; but I wouldn't call it a great work on its own. I will be back after I have digested Omega and hopefully that will clear up some confusing things on this album. I hear there're more dumb blues pranks though. Gosh. (I have since finished my review thing of Omega, read it here.)