Review: Utopia ‘Shame’

During the pandemic, I subsisted largely on a diet of APF Records releases and in 2021 I was asked if I wanted to cover the visceral debut from the intensely unique Utopia. Named after the 1979 film, the project is the creation of guitarist John Bailey, whose CV would suggest a much more benign output, ably assisted by vocalist Chris Reese of Corrupt Moral Altar fame.

Utopia 'Shame' Artwork
Utopia ‘Shame’ Artwork

Making their first full-length album Stalker, the band proved to be a manic journey into the heart of darkness that drew together jazz, tech metal, thundering doom and was executed by a jaw dropping cast of musicians into what I described at the time as an ‘extreme metal odyssey’

Utopia’s first album was a complex observation of mental health and the modern world in all its spectrums of light and shade that manifested itself not only in the dark lyrics but the music itself as the band raged through an avant-garde melting pot of styles and concussion inducing time and stylistic changes.

A few years removed from their nascent impact, Bailey is back to independently deliver their sophomore album (not including the instrumental Stalkeroke released in 2022) Shame.

This time, having performed live on a handful of dates, the band features a fixed lineup which includes the original members of Bailey on guitars, Reese on vocals and Arran McSporran (Virvum/Vipassi) on fretless bass as well as being joined by Jay Walsh on drums and a second guitarist in Jimmy Wilson.

Thematically Shame builds on the foundations of Stalker, not only musically but lyrically with the subject matter returning to mental health, philosophy, depression and politics reflecting the struggles of modern life as we try and work out our increasingly disposable place in the world. This existential crisis is soundtracked by a band that is seeking to stretch their already eclectic and abrasive approach, but with this release, there is a more cohesive sound as a result of the new found unity who haven’t deviated from the mission of pushing themselves beyond the instrumental complexities of the first album.

This background makes Utopia‘s latest album another intense piece of work that features blistering Dillinger Escape Plan influenced madness. The jazz sensibilities that were deployed on their debut are not dulled and there are no punches pulled on this ten track headache-inducing nightmare descent into the psyche.

Machiavelli sets off with a furious blast of tech metal, proving that time has not mellowed their attack. Tumbling drum fills and manic, schizophrenic fret runs assault the sense as the band executes time changes that are both jarring and breathtaking in delivery. The vocals shriek and roar, often within a breath while the track features full-on visceral death metal and quiet instrumental dropouts that bring intricate guitar noodling only to return with a vengeance of churning fury. The faltering, stop/start is deceptively catchy and showcases more riffs than some doom bands manage in an album.

Tumbling drum fills and manic, schizophrenic fret runs assault the sense as the band executes time changes that are both jarring and breathtaking in delivery…

The title track with its classical flavoured opening gives way to an impressive chug which you almost get a handle on before the band revert to the cut-up Dada-ist style freakouts that drag you under. As they continue to batter the senses, Shame evolves into a towering powerhouse that feels akin to some of Strapping Young Lad’s City, but just as you grasp it, the band veer off into description-defying territory.

Walking Vision is one of the strongest numbers on the album, catchy (with the exception of the odd sidebar) and has great vocal dexterity in the interplay between pitch and tones, despite the raw, savage power channelled by Reese. Grooves come and go, being replaced by others no less hook laden or straightforward. As they slow to a moodier section, the delicate, melodic work is interspersed with moments of brutality and hardcore shouts.

The whimsical instrumentalisation that marks the first half of Sun Damage is shattered by sheer ferocity and dazzling guitar solos. The crunching, belligerence is made more pronounced by the calm that precedes it. Once again, grooves appear fleetingly and are replaced by even more esoteric notes.

Zither is deliciously twisted, stuttering and hard to pin down. As the vocals seemingly dual with themselves, there are moments of disconnected melodies that run through the track, often concurrently with the brutality. The looser, mid-paced jam-like feel to the end offers some relief and a welcome chance to breathe.

Never Argue With An Idiot is a tech metal clash of false stops where no moment is the same while Withering Away And Laughing has a moody synth that is obliterated by savagery where ideas come at you so thick and fast, it is hard to keep a handle on them as it feels overwhelming before sinking, exhausted, into light and airy break downs.

The upbeat feel of Social Contracts (if you ignore the constant shifts) is almost refreshing as it develops into a teasing flow that unleashes pummelling passages of double bass and run up harmonies before The Gift Of Failure, with its insistent jumble of guitar and jazz like timings bring back grooves to try and balance the monstrously heavy moments.

Signing off with the cheerfully titled Moving Gently Towards The Grave, Utopia bring a keyboard heavy, moody, droning film score feel that I thought was going to be an instrumental, that is until the screaming started. Doom slow and anvil heavy, they close out their second album leaving the listener as restless and uncomfortable as they did going in.

I said in my review of Stalker, that you’ll either get Utopia or you won’t. Even in the loose boundaries of genres and subgenres, they exist as an idea turned up to 11, maybe even 12. Shame is very much a discourse on a fractured mind in a complicated world. On that metric and the fact this feels like a stronger set of material than on their debut, makes this album a success.

Label: Independent
Band Links: Facebook | Bandcamp | Spotify | Instagram

Scribed by: Mark Hunt-Bryden