Hoo boy. Continuing on from my review of Alpha, this is going to be a similarly involved affair–Omega has more experimental composition choices, but it's definitely made by the same people in the same mindframe. I don't have many "simple thoughts" about this one, having listened probably 7 or 8 times, so let's just get into it.
A short track that feels essential, "Reprise" is a very nice little ditty. It's much better executed than "The Event" or the 2-minute songs on Alpha in that regard–this feels like a song that absolutely needed to be included, rather than a "good start" foundation for a regular-length song. Mainly, it consists of quoting the lyrics of "A Black Minute" from Alpha with a few alterations–putting the melodies over a new tapped guitar part, setting the table for the rest of Omega, and building more of the story. While the lyrics are nice and creepy, and "[stain] their bodies with their own blood" is much improved here with a quiet whispered delivery, I hope that the official story doesn't involve the protagonist indoctrinating a bunch of kids with "bad things" or something; I think that would push it a little too far into Star Wars territory, personally.
As this is technically in the very middle of the album, I don't mind Matt's improvisational style here, especially since this vocal material was already established. This song also helpfully reminds us of that vocal material, which is good since it shows up later in Omega!
I don't think the transition works, though. I get that it's supposed to be a surprise that the next track kicks in so loud after the quiet ending of "Reprise", but the drum intro really betrays the sneak attack aspect.
Anyways, "The Bad Thing" was the second single from this album and one of my favorites like the two songs that came out before it. Of the pop-structured songs on Juggernaut, this one works with the most primitive-sounding material–I can't disagree with Cheryl of HBiH's take on its character: "The Bad Thing is somewhat reminiscent of standard late-2000’s metal bands at local venues. You know, those bands that sounded… pretty alright". However, the things that elevate this song above "pretty alright" for me are mostly the very functional structure and nuances in the writing & arrangement. While the riffs in this song are arguably in "pretty alright" territory, they at least work, and this song generally doesn't fall into the Riff Salad trap. I'll go through it in chronological order.
First off, the main riff is actually the main riff, like "Rainbow Gravity" before it–it's not a mortal sin to have one's first idea presented in a song be inessential material, or have a song evolve, but a lot of Juggernaut's less impressive songs start out with a good idea, move on from it quickly, and introduce 2 or 3 more before acknowledging the first again– in "22 Faces", it sort of works because one sort of wonders about where the first riff was before it returns a bit evolved two and a half minutes later. However, a song like "MK Ultra" introduces the first riff and almost entirely forgets about it for a minute and a half of four other riffs (concession: it does play devolved during the chorus, but I think the new material of that section entirely overshadows it). In contrast, "Ragnarok", one of Periphery II's most well-written songs, sits in its first motive for 45 seconds before introducing its second idea and even develops it a bit, so it feels justified when the song introduces another idea–meanwhile "MK Ultra" introduces four of its five different riffs in its first minute.
The main riff of "The Bad Thing" does have an interesting thing in it, though; after its first appearance, the whole song's key drops by a major 2nd and stays there for the rest of the song. Now, the reason the riff is transposed up in its first appearance is (I'm assuming) to match the key of the preceding "Reprise" (whose melodies are also a 2nd up from when they appeared in "A Black Minute"), which does ostensibly "develop" both themes more, but I don't think I really would have noticed had the album started a 2nd lower and not had the key change at 0:45 in "The Bad Thing".
Other notes: the riff at 0:45 is so gorgeous, I can't believe it doesn't come back anywhere on either album (though I'm not 100% sure). The typical Periphery riff at 0:58 fits well with this song, offering some rhythmic variation from the largely 8th note based verses & breakdown and adding nice texture behind the choruses. This song also uses the little tweak I mentioned in "Heavy Heart" where the vocals in the second chorus are an octave up from the first chorus, which really makes the whole section at 4:20 that much better, especially with Spencer's vocal delivery and a busier version of the 0:58 riff. The introduction of the chorus both times at softer dynamics works very well too; and look at that: the first half of the chorus is a direct reference to the "fly past the withered trees" part from "Alpha"! There's also a reference to the lyric "It's tearing a hole inside" from "22 Faces", as well as our usual themes of blood. The breakdown in this song is, as I mentioned, pretty stock as far as these things go, but it functions. The cranking of the drum room mics during the last section is a nice touch as well.
The only real complaint I have is that the transition into 3:23 is pretty awkward, and the following section seems sort of irrelevant. This song does need a section like this to give it variance in groove/energy, but this one doesn't leave me convinced. Again, if the solo were more memorable/interesting, it would probably make this whole part work a lot better; alas it's typical of the album in that I struggle to remember anything past the first bar or two.
By the by, the Youtube video above omits about 40 seconds of dreamy ambiance at the end of the album track that references the first idea from "A Black Minute" again. Not immediately necessary but like "Reprise" it's a nice reminder of that material for when it appears again right at the end of Omega– though my darling child Scourge theme gets no love whatsoever on this half of the damn album. [dejected sigh]
This song is even more outwardly pop-influenced than "Heavy Heart"–I've seen a lot of praise in reviews for how "emotional" the acoustic guitar work is, but it just sounds like well-recorded acoustic guitar to me. "Never mind what's underneath the stone/It's a life we're living all alone" and its similar lyrics through the choruses are a bit grating to my ear, but otherwise the song is, y'know, pretty alright. We have the establishment of the lyrical theme of rain in the chorus, which as far as I remember, was only mentioned in "Heavy Heart" on Alpha, but comes up more on Omega. I'm assuming it's a narrative counterpoint to blood–rain is often a literary trope used to represent baptism, which also ties into the protagonist's wish to "fly past the trees/far from the things" and start a new life (as well as, more obliquely, the themes of resurrection). That desire is obviously in the lyrics of this piece as well, with the talk of "another chance at life". There's also a reference to "The Scourge" with "Sitting far away, I watch the blackness grow" being a reference to "This black all around makes its way inside"–we can assume that the "blackness" is some representation of the chaotic desires of the protagonist's other conscience.
As usual, it's a little alarming (and revealing) that I actually forgot there was a solo in this song until I just heard it. Uhh... anyways, this song has another sudden character change at the end like "MK Ultra", this time to a sort of twangy 6/8 that sounds very classical. However, this one works for me! The character of this section isn't drastically removed from the rest of the song, the main parts have already been built to a conclusion, the tempo is about the same as the rest of the song, and the final chord transitions to the key of the next song rather nicely. This outro also reminds me of the outro of "Froggin' Bullfish" (4:04) from Periphery II, which makes me want to go write about that super-good song instead. Anyways, "Priestess"'s outro also has a rephrasing of the music box outro from "A Black Minute" at 4:37, which I didn't recognize the first time through. It's nice to see them actually inserting these ideas across the album, though it doesn't quite balance out their lack of riff reuse in my opinion.
"Graveless"! The fourth single from Juggernaut, this one didn't really click for me until recently, mainly because three of the song's riffs never come back, even in this song. The first riff is good, the pre-chorus riff is good (0:39), the little part of the second verse at 1:17 is good, and yet they're all just (seemingly) tossed away! The things that make me like the song are, like in "The Bad Thing", several little Good Things like the ingenious displaced drum stabs at 0:47. The drums in this song are really good and well-considered while not losing the improvisational sound Matt's known for, especially the first 20 seconds' snare work–the kick and snare interaction are really the most important part of any typical drum part and they are perfect here. The chorus is good as usual, and the lyric of "let it pour" appears later–whether the "it" is rain or blood, I'll talk about when it comes up again.
Like I said, at first, I was not very pleased with this song, mainly because of the Riff Salad effect and the very cliche soft bridge–but the thing that brought it back for me was the little background guitar line I heard on like my 6th or 7th listen at 2:25. See if you can hear what I'm talking about in the Youtube link above.
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It's the music box theme from "A Black Minute" again!! This little inclusion really turned around my feelings because it illustrates the concept of organic music nicely–instead of introducing yet another riff and progression under the chorus like I thought they did originally, they just added a texture based on material they already introduced, adding depth to the music without adding complexity. That, to me, is much more elegant and preferable to just introducing new riffs when sections change. It happens several more times on this album, which I'll obviously point out, but for the most part it's sort of disappointing that it's as rare as it is on this album that I'm mentioning the concept concretely for the first time 14 tracks in. The Contortionist demonstrate this extremely well in their two-part song "Language", which I won't link for the sake of this review's brevity (lol) but is very worth checking out.
(Addendum: It took me a month to have a friend point out that the solo has "The Lick" in it at 2:33. As such, I will voluntarily relinquish my jazz badge to the appropriate bureau. I'm so ashamed.)
One more thing about this song: you might notice the obvious castle-type in the Youtube artwork, which is obviously a reference to the artwork for "A Black Minute". Judging from the Amazon description of the book "22 Faces" takes its name from, I'm guessing that the story of this album has a similar origin for its protagonist's struggles; the "unholy cathedral" being where the protagonist was experimented or ritual'd as a young person ("A birthing rite in this duality"), which is supported by other lyrics in "A Black Minute" referring to the very ritualistic image of a circle of people bleeding onto whoever's in the center. The second verse of that song is probably the protagonist's upbringing, and also references "sacrifice" which pops up elsewhere. I think we can assume that the "Now you can live to see another day" is directed towards the protagonist and is a direct result of whatever sacrifice happened; I can't tell from the lyrics whether it's a literal or figurative sacrifice but I do wonder what happened to the other people involved in the ritual ("stain our bodies"). File under "questions impossible to answer without more concrete storytelling". Also, looking at the artwork of those two songs made me examine the others a bit more, so I'll go through the ones of import that aren't immediately obvious:
- "MK Ultra" has an image of a person being controlled puppet-like by a scary face, probably the "ugly face" mentioned in "The Bad Thing", representing the protagonist's "dark conscience" or somesuch
- "Heavy Heart" and "The Event" depict two parts of one scene–the protagonist seeing their handiwork in the trees, and experiencing one of the "holes in the Earth" mentioned in "The Bad Thing", wonderfully illustrated by the glitchy artwork, that shows how the protagonist's perception is being torn and disturbed by their mental struggles
- "Four Lights" shows three planets or circles or something arranged as they are in Periphery's logo, not sure about the title other than that it's apparently a Star Trek reference of some relevance
- "Psychosphere" has a hooded cult-y figure and a withered tree
- "Reprise" has the inside of a cathedral with several hooded figures, with the point of view lying on the floor and looking up–sound familiar?
- "Priestess" has two hands in a guarding position, maybe a person at the mercy of the protagonist representing the "second chance at life" mentioned in the song, maybe not
- "Graveless" also has a grave (awkward), a tree, and a crow
- "Hell Below" is, uh, Hell, so that's probably the protagonist's emotional climax as they experience a complete mental break
Speaking of "Hell Below", the heel turn at the end of this song is both a great moment and an effective transition into the next song, so let's go to that.
BRUUUUM BRUUUUMMMMMM BRUUUM BRUUM BRUUUUM BRUM
Maybe I should just go listen to some more Koloss, but this song and "Psychosphere" exemplify how to keep doing a "heavy sound" so well, and this track in particular has such an experimental spirit, it makes me sort of understand headbanging. Christ, what a riff!! This is how to do a "sneak attack" as I mentioned in "The Bad Thing" above, especially with this extremely guttural riff. I appreciate the rhythmic holes in the guitar lines at 0:20 as their relative volume helps keep us reminded of how heavy the riffs in this song are, since they are in danger of exhausting the listener's sense of that (especially after 14 tracks of this stuff, though this is the heaviest moment in the album so far). Once again, the riffs in this song unfortunately don't really repeat or get much respect, but as in "Psychosphere" the slower tempo helps alleviate that a bit. The section at 0:37 sounds a bit like a sextuplet-ized version of Meshuggah's "The Hurt That Finds You First" (2:20), but I really love the little idea at 0:47. The vocal theme that is heavily established at 2:14 (and really seems like it should come back elsewhere...) of "Live, die, burn" is good, shame the only other reference I can find is a slight nod in the vocal phrasing in the next song, "Omega". There's also a reference to Periphery II's "Masamune", which has a very similar aesthetic, in the drum fill at 2:44–compare to 4:31. Nice touch, Matt!
Now we have to talk about the ending, though. The thing about this ending, and the other awkward endings and all the short songs on this album, is that they do actually serve a purpose, pacing-wise: There needs to be a relatively fast and chaotic song between "A Black Minute" and "Heavy Heart" because, on their own, they're pretty conventional and the listener might lose interest only two songs in on their first listen (the outro of "MK Ultra" is still worthless IMO). "The Event" sets the stage for "The Scourge", "Four Lights" provides the brutal climax that "Psychosphere" provides the falling action for, "Reprise" does what I said it does above (better than these other examples), and "Hell Below"'s outro provides a necessary respite from its intensity before "Omega". These purposes make it difficult to talk about, since the jobs need to be done somehow, but I think there are other ways to do the jobs of these smaller pieces that are more thematically relevant to the album as a whole. Also, as I said in "MK Ultra", the sudden nonchalant shift in tone in that song and this one really sullies one's perception of what just occurred (at least it did for me), which is a shame because the other stuff in this song is so good.
Oh boy, here we go. This song is 12 minutes but is essentially 3 parts/sections/movements plus a coda, so I'll tackle them in order. Kudos to Periphery, though; the extended runtime of this song is justified by the music and doesn't feel like a long song for the sake of long songs, mainly due to some smart continuity within the melodic material of the song, as well as good pacing. The Youtube art for this song is just kind of a person wandering around in the color scheme of Omega's album art, which I'm guessing is a sort of a mental purgatory for the protagonist after experiencing a complete breakdown in "Hell Below".
The first section starts at 3:38 in the previous song and ends at 3:12 of this song, and so begins my confusion: why does the piano solo have two bars included in "Hell Below" whose thematic material is irrelevant to both the preceding and following song, and sounds like Charlie Brown? (Post-review addendum: it's a nod to the alphabet song, a reference to the fact that a Periphery demo titled "The Alphabet" appears at 7:59. What confuses me still is that they play the first bar wrong! The first bar of the alphabet song is obviously (in scale degrees) 1155665 and Periphery's version goes 1135668. ??? Still pointless.) Anyways, the rest of the piano & synth part introduces the main riff of this first section, which is fine. This whole section sounds about like one might expect from Periphery to me; it's pretty alright. At 1:28, a wonderful organic transformation takes place where they take a little tag on the main riff and turn it into its own section; they further develop this by using another variant of it at 3:38. The chords they move the idea through at 1:28 are sort of weird but at least interesting. The section at 1:59 is nice as well, but this first "movement" really doesn't contribute much to the rest of the song in my opinion other than the two riffs that reappear. Two vocal things to note: the use of the word "demon" which pops up again in "Stranger Things", and the displacement of the vocal line "I am" during 1:28 which might be a reference to the same displacement pattern at 2:19 of "Hell Below". Finally, the riff that ends this section is a good example of a throwaway riff that works: it's short and simple, and does a good job of closing the section without sounding like something cool that should come back later.
Section two goes from 3:12 to 7:59 and has much stronger thematic material, but also some awkwardness that section one avoided by being relatively mundane. The first riff of this is obviously derived from the main riff of section one, as I said previously, and ostensibly builds to an incredible release of tension at 4:04 when the complexity drops significantly and Spencer adopts a great Gojira-style "pitched yelling" for the lyric "Born to destroy", which you can fit into the album's story by yourself. However, the buildup is only about 25 seconds, and given that we just started from scratch (essentially) at 3:12, this kind of heaviness seems a bit unwarranted, especially given the extremely sudden and weird character change after this part at 4:18. Now this "movement" breaks into a very happy, optimistic section with what I would describe as a "classic Misha" solo–not a bad section but certainly a strange time to change direction that may have worked better had 4:04 had more ramping up before it. Now, the lyrics in this happier section are nice, and contain lyrical references to "transcending" (reference to "The Bad Thing", "fire burning down below" ("Hell Below", obviously), and more references to "resurrection" in the chorus. That chorus is very, very poppy, and straddles the line between "tasteful pop" and "generic pop" quite tightly, but it's a very subjective thing which side it falls on for you. I do think it was an error to go to the 5th scale degree before both choruses in this section–it's unexpected, given how rare it is for bona fide classical music theory to show up Periphery's rock chord structures, but it should have been different the second time. It'd be like if they repeated the ending to the first section of the song (3:09) anywhere else: instead of being a nice little touch, it loses that slight intrigue and and novelty. Also, the solos here, while functional, again fail to really get me excited or make an impression (though maybe I'm spoiled).
The third section from 7:59 to 10:53 reminds me a lot of Dream Theater–not necessarily in a bad way, but they way they rephrase lyrics from earlier in the album ("A Black Minute" and "Alpha", specifically) and build very conventionally is very reminiscent of Dream Theater's reprises at the end of their longer works. "Inside the circle that's a mystery" is, well... it's cheesy, but I suppose some cheese is warranted at this point. The tempo change at 8:55 is totally weird, and it's puzzling why they chose to change tempos for a sad, one-note part and then immediately, noticeably change a minute later for the next step in the procession towards the end of this song. I think the pattern of notes in that section from 7:59 to 8:55 is a reference to the arpeggiation at 0:53, which also could be a reference to the section at 1:08 of "Graveless", but they're likely just coincidences.
I love the subversion of the buildup at 10:31, though! It's super effective, and the way Matt's drum improv cutoff is totally unexpected and great. They then use the riff from 0:53 slowed down as a final statement for the song. It's good. They obviously can't end the album with this song, but I do feel that the fact that they subvert both this and the next song's endings dulls whatever emotional point they were trying to make with those conclusions, however cool the subversions themselves may be–though a personal theory about the narrative I'll explain later makes me feel a bit better about it.
Christ, we're finally here at the last song. I think it's a very, very effective denouement for the album and brings back a couple themes that hadn't had references for a while to boot. It's nice! It sounds like there's a wrong note in the guitar chords at 0:51 and thereafter but I doubt Periphery didn't hear that post-tracking so it must be intentional. The vocals in this track are consistently on point and the clean guitars and chorus are genuinely somewhat affecting. So, references:
First off, there's another "demon" reference in the lyrics, like I pointed out in "Omega" above–this probably popped up in the album beforehand too, but I'm not going to go look for it. I think it's worth noting that the first rhythm of the clean guitars here has some similarities to a sped-up version of the rhythm at 2:25 and 5:37 of "Psychosphere" but that could also be a coincidence (I'm sort of burnt out on thinking critically about Juggernaut after spending something like 10 hours writing about it, surprisingly). The riff at 1:28 is an explicit reference to 1:57 of "Four Lights", though; what an unexpected justification of one of those throwaways! If only that happened more often with these songs. This section also has a line about hourglasses in the lyrics–a reference to "22 Faces"– and a reference to needles, which pop up in some other songs too. In 3:20 we get a rain reference, plus another appearance of the lovely "Sadistic aura" line from 2:21 in "Psychosphere" as "Majestic aura" here at 3:43. There's also a reference to breathing and holiness around 5:20 which is an obvious allusion to the "Ascend to holy air and breathe" lyric from "Alpha" and "The Bad Thing", and the chorus uses the phrase "Let it pour out" which alludes to "Graveless"'s chorus like I mentioned.
Now for that story theory: the Youtube artwork of this song shows the protagonist facing a scary face in a big white light, duh, so this is the final conflict of the protagonist facing their "dark conscience". However, the chorus lyrics, "Let it pour out and show what has healed / One can finally find what's left inside this masochistic personality" and "In this moment, sail across the open sky", seem a little... alarming, I suppose? Along with the very present references to blood in this track, they make me wonder if the climax of the story is the titular Juggernaut committing suicide as an act of repentance and redemption for their actions, the "it" in the chorus being the protagonist's blood, and the last line referring to some act of spiritual release accompanying death. Along with the themes of resurrection, it certainly seems plausible to me, and it also explains the tone change at the end of this song in a way that, in my opinion, negates the criticism about the subverted endings I mentioned at the end of "Omega". That's just a theory, though.
Anyways, I don't have much to say about the musical ideas in this song because they're kind of great. The attention paid to the riffs, and using all of them to maximum effect, is something that I found sorely lacking in many of the other songs. The only thing I don't think quite works is the riff at 4:32–it was definitely intended to be a sort of big, open release of tension before our final climax during the last chorus, but it sounds weak and doesn't quite work for me, which I think is a result of the lack of rhythm guitar during it. It could have conceivably worked with a big, powerful chugging pattern going on behind the medium-register guitar part (plus some more active drums), but in its current incarnation it just sounds kind of lame and unfinished.
Last notes: the very end features a reprisal of the first verse of the song, which crashes out and then leaves behind the still-great clean guitar playing the opening to "A Black Minute", which has what I assume is a reference to the end of "Graveless" in the chordal guitar feedback behind it. That then fades in the guitar part from "The Event" and a very haunted-sounding treatment of the creepy music box from the ending of "A Black Minute". I don't know if all of these really had to be included... it seems a little overdone to me, like if they had taken out the reference to "Graveless" or "The Event" it would have been fine. It at least does justice to all of those themes, and continues to establish "A Black Minute" as an amazing opening track.
That was a lot of words! I want to close out this review thing out with a comparison to what was undoubtedly my favorite album of 2014 and what I consider to be a huge inspiration in my own musical approaches, The Contortionist's "Language". I already referenced the title track, but the whole record has some commonalities with Juggernaut, mainly the broad concept of the album being a true holistic, self-referential, intertwined work that tells a story. Now, Juggernaut has a much more obvious, concrete story than Language's more abstract, ideological narrative, but they both have very good lyrics that constantly refer to universal themes, and they both tend to lean towards compartmentalizing each song's main musical ideas (for the most part). However, what The Contortionist really nails on that album is respect and care for their ideas. While they aren't always interesting, or even good ideas (the opening of "Integration", dear lord), I can't recall any songs that don't have a clear main idea or that don't flesh out their riffs to make good ideas into amazing, multi-faceted ideas by the end of the song, or even the most seemingly-intolerable ideas (again, "Integration") slightly more tolerable. Not every song is a transcendent, sublime masterpiece like the titular two-parter, but they're all unique experiences and show an incredible use of the "organic composition" I described, where new material is derived from existing material (also, the use of a consistent sonic aesthetic across every song, plus the very broad theme of the 3-over-4 polyrhythm, helps bring a sense of continuity to the album), to create very memorable, emotional pieces. Juggernaut doesn't quite nail that consistently, and while some of its pop-structured songs and more experimental, atypical riffs are very enjoyable, well-written, and inspiring, I can't help but think Periphery have more interesting things they could be putting out than more pop-stuctured metal songs with good riffs. Yet, their obvious conceptual ambition, plus the moments where it shines through–the genuinely transcendent "The Scourge", "Psychosphere", "Hell Below", and arguably "Stranger Things"–are at least inspiring and elevate this album above "pretty alright" to something weirder for me. Something not quite great, but something that's... strangely, pretty interesting? More metal bands could benefit from that kind of rebellious, flawed spirit in my opinion.
Just justify your fucking jazz breaks.