Although Fallujah’s third album Dreamless was released back in April, I’m reviewing it now as a) death metal with a lot of technical playing isn’t usually my cup of tea/beverage of choice, and this is a highly honourable exception b) it’s cool to be late to the party.
Before I heard a single note, my first impression of Fallujah was that they were generic. My bias was partially fuelled by them being on the roster of Nuclear Blast, traditionally a stronghold of bands with a strong sense of the market they fall into, tried–and–tested and often slightly old–fashioned (whether you think that’s good thing or not) in comparison to the rosters of labels like those of Relapse, Southern Lord or Profound Lore. Furthermore, and maybe this wasn’t the case at first, but certainly by 2016, in being named and defined as ‘technical’, the implication is that whatever type of music it is being applied to (although I’m yet to hear of any type of music except for metal which has a ‘technical’ subgenre) has at some point confused performance with deliverance, ultimately losing all sense of soul. The five musicians who make up Fallujah clearly can play – and that they do – but what compelled me to listen to the whole of Dreamless (and continues to compel) was not ‘this is a good technical exercise from a musician’s point of view’, but, completely surprised by its melodicism, not being able to get single The Void Alone out of my head.
Pulsing, asymmetric riffs with bursts of double kick are matched with reverberating, ringing guitar lines, an abundance of spacious interludes and the snappy growls of vocalist Alex Hofman alternate with ethereal, high–register clean singing of guest vocalist Tori Letzler. This approach is true across the whole of Dreamless, with guest vocals from Letzler and Katie Thompson of prog rockers Chiasma on 7 of the 12 tracks. This pairing of heaviness and weightlessness, besides providing the contrast that a lot of death metal (whether technical or old school) lacks, combines with a lyrical preoccupation upon what waits beyond this life to provide a sense of story–telling momentum. A constant tension between an existential oppression found within this life, and the search for the higher realms of the next life, drive the album. These ontological lyrics, paired with these contrasting sections, at times seem a metaphor for the various twists and turns in the narrator’s musings upon death. In particular, The Void Alone, following a spacious interlude accompanied by
Paradise awaits as I unfold
Bleeding days into the soil
slams back in with double kick and a riff to match. Likewise, The Prodigal Son revolves around a sense of abandonment, the Biblical story cast wider to bring in all of humanity, referring to children, men, fathers and mothers. In this this it is an inversion of the Biblical story, with this theme of abandonment underlining the entire album.
In a case of being more than the sum of parts, Fallujah’s technicality serves to elevate the mood of Dreamless to that of something beyond the everyday; playing which bursts through expectations of human ability more readily lends itself to a sci–fi bent (listen to – and read around – Meshuggah and Wormed for two other good examples). A common criticism of technical bands is that their playing is ultimately generic, indistinguishable from the band that came before and the inevitable next one who play just that little bit faster. In this case, Fallujah’s technicality endows them with part of their own sound, rather than becoming something they are beholden to. Despite this review already containing the word ‘technical’ seven times, this is death metal which is technical but shouldn’t be defined as such. The more predictable (for lack of a better word) comparisons that come to mind are to Cynic, Atheist, and, big words indeed, Death. The guitar solo on Dreamless reminded me of Guthrie Govan, and although this solo is a guest spot from Tymon Kruidenier (of ambient jazz fusion band Exivious), this still indicates the sound and style that Fallujah are aiming for. The choice of guitarists Scott Carstairs and Brian James to use standard tuning on seven string guitars gives their playing a zip and a ping alongside the heft of that low B, and the tone in The Prodigal Son and Dreamless, clean with a touch of overdrive through an amp, sets a foot in jazz fusion territory. More surprising comparisons I found myself drawing, particularly on Abandon, were to The Cure and U2, partially through the regular use of chorus and delay effects to create a spaciousness. Suitably, Peter Mohrbacher’s artwork combines the familiar with the celestial, a giant anthropoid enclosing a world within its chest even as it dissolves into the surrounding sweeps of stars and clouds. On a semantic point, I did find myself wondering why Fallujah decided to call this album Dreamless, given its cerebral nature and philosophical musings; Dream does sound a bit strange, until thought of in the imperative rather than as a noun.
As mentioned, I feel compelled to continue listening to Dreamless, to follow its twists, turns and questions. Given the sense of wonder it moves with and imparts, perhaps its melodicism is its lynchpin, but I think where Fallujah distinguish themselves is in the balance they strike. Cynic, Atheist, Death, and, big words indeed, Fallujah.