In the too-crowded realm of post-millennium technical and progressive death metal it has been proven well enough that, from a business standpoint, to go with the flow of technique driven trend and to chase the budding teenaged musician demographic provides serious (well, moderate at best) dividends for the career musician. Whether or not this has ever produced serious, timeless music is entirely up for debate and typically sways in favor of the pretentious and well-sponsored performative musician. Tired as it might be to suggest that feeling and earnest passion trump modernist technique the enduring legacy of Chuck Schuldiner provides an airtight argument that a combination of the intuitive and the practiced can produce a third superior path towards enlightenment. How extreme does an ethos of balance present itself within the confining realm of ‘old school’ progressive death metal anymore? To be frank it is such a mildly expressed form in the greater schema of extreme metal today that it may as well be labeled as ‘retro’ alongside your average 80’s Priest wannabe rather than suggest any earnest representation of progressive anything. Some rebel towards ultra-futuristic excess, machinated soulless music aiming for some kind of unimaginative Blade Runner 2049-esque programmed trash while others find what I’d consider the most appropriate path of retro-futuristic regression; To invoke the old method and style with new fidelity and modern sensibilities. Progressive death metal has birthed some of its finest forms this way from Stargazer and Quo Vadis (Canada) to Lykathea Aflame all the way up to Sutrah there is a reasonable path towards resonance with some artistic integrity in tact. As their third full-length, ‘Their Worm Never Dies’, since their formation in 2014 lands upon us in 2019 I believe it is fair to both include Rochester, New York act Contrarian into that mix while also taking their smaller issues with consistency to task.
When Contrarian was first announced as a project it is important to figure the demographic that’d receive the news first in 2014 when a collaboration between members of Nile and Mithras was sure to catch the eyes and ears of many. In the long run some familiarity with key members of lesser known prog-death band Delirium Endeavor and deathgrinders Sulaco would provide a better idea of what songwriting potential was at hand. If you’ve not yet heard Delirium Endeavor‘s ‘Twelve Cusp’ (2004) and you’re already keyed into what guitarist Jim Tasikas does with Contrarian I’d say go hunt that record down immediately, bassist Ed Paulsen is incredible on the record (see: “Pisces”) in particular. I was there as a lapsed Nile fan beyond ‘Ithyphallic’ and more importantly a Mithras fanatic starved of content since 2011. In this sense Contrarian delivered a solid proof-of-concept with the ‘Predestined’ (2014) EP and what I’d consider a true elevation of ‘Individual Thought Pattern’-esque forms with their debut full-length ‘Polemic’ (2015). Everything about that record came in fine form, the slightly guttural vocal, the outer-space lead guitars, and the Death influenced prog-death extremity and a well-rounded production from Doug White (Withered Earth, Avulsion). It was a major record for many, and as good as a debut as a death metal band can hope for.
As a fan more directed by Leon Macey‘s work I’d quickly move onto his resuscitation of Sarpanitum and found myself struggling to find the distinction and quality of the previous album when ‘To Perceive is to Suffer’ released in 2017. It sounded homespun in terms of recording and drummer George Kollias (Nile, ex-Cerebrum) provided a strained vocal performance that was wildly different from Cody McConnell‘s on ‘Polemic’. This felt like a skeleton crew recording that not only tossed aside flourishes but redirected their sound towards ‘Symbolic’ just slightly and featured compositions heavily rooted in the sort of early 90’s progressive metal their cover of ’89 era Fates Warning suggested. What felt out of place at the time, the ‘Elements’-esque mid-pace, actually had revived some of the feeling of Delirium Endeavor in hindsight and I appreciate the second Contrarian album a bit more after the fact. In firing up ‘Their Worm Never Dies’ two years later it becomes clear that ‘To Perceive is to Suffer’ was more or less Contrarian going forward though they have refined every aspect of that sound unto tighter dynamic performances, balanced (but decidedly thin) production, and a generally more effective use of atmospheric ‘rests’. The most pressing triumph worth mentioning here comes with touches (layers, effects) that help raise Kollias‘ vocals up to a point of interest rather than a detraction, it makes for an entirely more listenable experience.
‘Their Worm Never Dies’ is not as round and glossy as that of ‘Polemic’ but still appears tuned in favor of equalized guitar and bass ‘virtuoso’ presentation; A tonality slightly crisped by its mid-range that gives equal voicing to the concurrent spiraling interplay between the two guitarists and a phenomenal understated performance from bassist Paulsen. It appears they’ve made good on finding a more ‘musical’ way forward with the winding late 80’s/early 90’s progressive metal path and some of this comes with the unavoidable comparison to later Death. I’d interject that there is a bit more of that floaty prog atmosphere a la ‘Elements of Anger’ era Sadus (alternately: ‘Spheres’ minus the keyboards) in the mix, at least when considering a comparable band like Unreal Overflows but, the most immediate reference is that ’93-’95 Schuldiner era all the same. Beautiful in motion and still moderately aggressive enough to remain compelling throughout ‘Their Worm Never Dies’ doesn’t necessarily deliver a memorable experience as much as an intimate level of intricacy.
Again, this record appears to ‘make good’ on the suggested direction of the previous album but what resonates with me most are the tracks that rely on unexpected transitions (and referential tones) rather than grand, meaningful progressions. “Exorcism” is a fantastically sentimental song that feels entirely new in its interpretation of ‘old school’ progressive death metal, “The Petition” weaves in and out of consciousness, an alternation of golden tones and mid-90’s prog-death stabbing that reminded me why a record like ‘A Vision of Misery’ is still so important to me decades later. It’d be easy to recommend any track on ‘Their Worm Never Dies’ as a standalone experience but with the caveat that it all bleeds together into one 38 minute performance. Contrarian are almost too lost in the details to leave one grand impressive arc as its greater statement and this did eventually leave me wanting the record in pieces rather than on repeat. I can still highly recommend this because I appreciate those moving parts and earnest intricacies as a fan of this style of progressive death metal, it will no doubt have enough quirks to irritate the notoriously irritable prog-metal fandom but without them none of it’d be worth remembering. Highly recommended. For preview I’d say “My Curse” will get the ‘Symbolic’ crowd riled up immediately, “Exorcism” will show gains in expressive maturity, and “Among the Misled” is the bigger picture moment of the experience.
Fed upon endlessly. 3.75/5.0
<strong>Help Support Grizzly Butts’ goals with a donation:</strong>
If you appreciate what you’ve read, please consider donating directly using PayPal.