Review: Utopia ‘Stalker’
The definition for Utopia, according to the online dictionary Merriam Mebster, is ‘a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions’. Crash that name into the title of their debut album, Stalker, and you begin to understand the premise that things are not quite as idyllic as they seem.
Arriving at the end of the month, the latest release from APF Records is the brainchild of John Bailey (in a departure from his day job as touring guitarist for Aled Jones and Russel Watson) but is delivered by what could be described as a who’s who of underground extreme music; Corrupt Moral Altar vocalist Chris Reese, drummers Billy Rymer, Baard Kolstad (Leprous) Lee Fisher (Fawn Limbs/Psyopus) and Si Blakelock (Tangaroa/Dream Troll), guitarist Simon Peter King, bassist Arran McSporran (De Profundis/Virvum) and keyboardist Mike Moran (Ozzy Osbourne) all contribute to this extreme metal odyssey.
Conceptually, and musically, Stalker works as a dissection and discourse on mental health and neurodiversity, the struggles of modern life and the complex relationship we as humans have with the world around us and our own psyches. Frame that around avant-garde jazz sensibilities, Dillinger Escape Plan/Converge style tech metal, doom flavours with huge chunky riffs and it should be warned that Utopia are not for the faint of heart.
Opening with Bus Station Roof, a reference to a well know Preston suicide spot, sets the scene from the first note. Discombobulating style and tempo shifts set the listener on edge immediately; oscillating between moments of peace, lurching savagery and almost classic tech metal random guitar runs, the track sounds like the product of a mind in turmoil, a fractured mental reality and racing, contradictory thoughts.
If this sounds like a lot to take in, that’s kind of the point. Stalker is not an immediately accessible album by any stretch and takes dedication and repeated listens to start to peel back the layers and understand what is going on.
Tech metal/mathcore, call it what you want, has always been a genre that can excite or alienate in equal measure. As important in the scheme of extreme music as any number of other defining moments, Dillinger Escape Plan’s Calculating Infinity didn’t so much rip up the rule book with its jazz like approach to hardcore, it eviscerated it as they blazed a trial that reset the definitions of what heavy music could do. As loved as it is dismissed and misunderstood, it can be grating and unpredictable, or dazzle you with harmonic subtleties and melodic flourishes.
Bailey gives you these moments in spades over the course of the ten tracks; Full length Biography has dub moments of mania, awash with jarring guitar runs and then neo classical oases of calm, Spirit Waves feels like several pieces of technical brilliance colliding at once, whilst the vocals plead in agony, before What About Me unveils a beautiful drawn-out introduction and then gleefully smashes it to pieces.
it’s prog rock on gonzo steroids having a meth party with Hunter S Thompson…
Stalker is going to challenge you in the same way that Calculating Infinity or Strapping Young Lad’s City did. Granted it isn’t inventing a new genre here, but people who claim it’s all noise haven’t sat and listening to the moody atmosphere and heavy density of the stomping A Projection Of Me On You which is comparatively straight forward and recalls the same vibe as Footprints In The Thunder by Johnny Truant.
Even Utopia, which shares the band’s name swerves you, but this time because of the instrumental downbeat, uneasy doom juxtaposes the whirling chaos that surrounds it until angular and unsettling notes make you question what is going to happen next. It’s at once full of beauty and tension.
It feels like a crime not to draw highlight to the various performers on this record, but that could be a review in itself. Reese on vocals however delivers a fittingly insane variety of textures, from coldly psychopathic, to bug eyed delusion and guttural emotion. Keeping step, and as bipolar as the music, he rages and wails, shrieks and roars over blast beats, shuffling grind, led marionette like by Bailey’s impressive and eye wateringly technical compositions.
When they produce something like Moscow Holiday with its sublime, rolling riffs and stoner like groove Utopia show you that all of the chaos, twisting and turning they’ve put you through has been done in a clinical and calculated manner, an exercise in in the exploration of psychosis through tone and structure.
When they smash you out of left field with the time changes, the tonal shifts and then drop into a whimsical piano run like on the opener and It’s Not The End (the last rack on the album) it’s prog rock on gonzo steroids having a meth party with Hunter S Thompson.
When confronted with Stalker I felt at times like a dog trying to play 3D chess. Much like Dillinger Escape Plan, Devin Townsend, The Mars Volta and some of their Dadaist/avant-garde/jazz like arrangements, Utopia exist to challenge the listener; to drag them kicking and screaming out of their comfort zone and provoke a visceral reaction.
Frankly Stalker is either going to have you run from it screaming or professing its genius. Which I suspect is exactly what Bailey wants.
Label: APF Records
Band Links: Facebook | Bandcamp | Instagram
Scribed by: Mark Hunt-Bryden