PARANORM – Empyrean (2021)REVIEW

Science has carried us to the gateway to the universe. And yet our conception of our surroundings remains the disproportionate view of the still-small child. We are spiritually and culturally paralyzed, unable to face the vastness, to embrace our lack of centrality and find our actual place in the fabric of nature. We batter this planet as if we had someplace else to go. That we even do science is a hopeful glimmer of mental health. However, it’s not enough merely to accept these insights intellectually while we cling to a spiritual ideology that is not only rootless in nature but also, in many ways, contemptuous of what is natural.” Ann Druyan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience

The notion that the wonder of scientific study presents the “social media preoccupied” masses with disgust more often than it does bewildering quasi-spiritual enchantment does seem to hold water if we observe dullards reacting to organ farms generating transplants from swine tissue and 3D printed synthetic meat made from in vitro cell cultures. Popular science is nothing short of science fiction authorship on this level, meant to present edutainment that’d capture the forward-thinking imaginations of the wealthy. The “high cost” of the pursuit of truth or, the natural laws that scientific study intends to explore, leaves too many out in the cold via educational elitism and this ultimately scourges the pursuit of sustainability that exists outside of an unnatural extreme. Science in practicum is not exclusively, or really at all, a tool for immediate problem solving, it is a system of demonstrative checks and balances. The fear that ‘too much’ knowledge will conjure evil wiles in the hands of the wrong people — the idea that mass education in science and technology can only lead to the dissolution of the human condition is just as absurd as it was when similar societal barriers (read: a horrendous, inhumane division of wealth) to educational facilities forced natural philosophers of the middle ages to court royalty and dynastic tyranny in order to fund physics laboratories for the sake of “cultural value”. The only scenario where the future is a frightening science fiction dystopia (any more than it is) is one where eccentric billionaires continue to direct what funding goes towards certain regions of scientific research. I’m not suggesting that any government should be ruled over by a panel of gigantic scientific brains but surely most would feel safer in the good hands of a collection of well-educated folks, it’d have to be at least somewhat preferable to those who’d stare at a solar eclipse to get a better look or, believe in a current occupation by alien forces. If we look to actual science fiction that presents the technology of the present and projects it into an even more synthetically achieved existential delirium the longest lasting trend in novel writing is the assumption that the Earth or, whatever “home world” is meant to represent humanoid condition, will fail soon enough for overzealous scientific advancement in the hands of villains… Most of whom echo the wealthiest over-confident maniacs of the last eighty years of human history. We connect with the far-flung futuristic anxiety of Uppsala, Sweden-based progressive/technical thrash metal quartet Paranorm positing the dangerous-yet-illuminating potential of scientific advancement as their long-awaited debut full-length ‘Empyrean’ presents a horrifying fiction centering its lens upon a desperate humanity gone too far.

If you’re not up for a long-winded, phasic review of a progressive thrash metal album oh man, are you sure you’re up for a ~55 minute progressive/technical death/thrash metal album? Well, the appeal of what Paranorm have been whittling away at since forming in 2007 is far less complex than the connections made between technology, science, uneven wealth distribution, and the potential each has to collude in damaging all human society. The gist of it is that they’d bonded over a love for Megadeth‘s ‘Rust In Peace’ back in high school, eventually forming a band that’d held in formation for roughly a decade before seeking a new drummer circa 2018. Knowing your thrash metal history and what was “big” in thrash circa 2008 won’t help just yet because these guys were absolutely aiming for classic thrash of the progressive variety on their 2010 demo and first EP (‘Pandemonium’s Rise‘, 2011) where we can hear some Sadus and obviously prime Megadeth in their movements. If you really want to dig into it I’d say the style was closer to the final form of a band like Shah if you can look past the low production values of iron curtain era thrash metal. Keep in mind that at this point Vektor, Skeletonwitch, Revocation and a few other bands had each blown up into their own respective niches and when the second Paranorm EP (‘The Edge of Existence‘, 2014) released the logical conclusion by most folks, myself included, at the time was that they’d made a shift towards the Vektor realm where bands like Teleport, Vexovoid, and Obliterated (among others) were also hanging. Back in 2014 when I was putting together the draft for a 350 item exploration of technical/progressive thrash metal list my notes for ‘The Edge of Existence’ were essentially that Paranorm were a defective clone and, well, of course in hindsight that was a combination of cursory list building and some long outgrown defiance of modern thrash metal’s inability to live up to the profundity of the original 1981-1991 canon. Seven years later it’d be fair to suggest that all past releases were formative and delivered via a different configuration of influences and certainly a different skill set. The easiest difference to point out at face value is the drum performances from Samuel Karlstrand of Wretched Fate as they are attuned with modern thrash metal rhythms in addition to the more traditional heavy metal beats of previous Paranorm output, which was arguably rooted in Bay Area/Teutonic thrash ideals.

So, what sticks and what feels entirely fresh years later? The Vektor comparison actually holds up now in terms of the phrasing of the rhythm guitars and in this sense ‘Empyrean’ is a reasonable-but-distant companion to bands like Vexovoid and Droid, even moreso than in the past when that wouldn’t have held any water. The lead guitar runs and often wordy vocal delivery have more in common with later Hexen (‘Being and Nothingness’) and perhaps Skeletonwitch, if we can account for copious soloing and the use of harsh vocals for around half of the runtime. We can safely label the current evolution of Paranorm as a strong case for progressive death/thrash metal that is still snugly rooted in the high standards of late 80’s/early 2010’s thrash metal. Folks who’ve been along for the ride with me since 2011 or so know that this is my shit, my gig, and a style of music that I’ll tend to be harshly critical of for its too common adoption of commercial “metalfest” mosh mannerisms and the dumbing-down of technical rhythm guitar elements for the sake of a broader demographic. None of this is a major concern in approach of ‘Empyrean’, an album that serves the original inspiration for the band well and finally pushes their output beyond its formative stage. In fact they might’ve gone overboard from a certain perspective, flooding the brain with nearly a full hour of technical thrash metal is a bold, admirable choice in defiance of the short attention spans that plague the greater heavy metal zeitgeist of late.

Constant tempo-map divergence, ranting half-growled vocals detailing an elaborate science fiction narrative, shredding leads and plenty of distinct song-specific riffing help to build up what is sure to be exactly the right full listen for the long initiated technical thrash metal fan. You might have to lean a bit more towards early Skeletonwitch (or, later Dissection?) when things get melodic and the lead guitars start to obliterate all else but one of the virtues of this Paranorm album is its driven, all-too-focused approach to the direction of each song. There isn’t a moment where the band plainly wander off trail, each piece is heavily composed and needled into form. “The Immortal Generation” presents a sort of (late) Death-influenced side of the band which sets us up for what I’d call the modern face of ‘Empyrean’ that fits best alongside the Revocation-entreated pathways of groups like Hemotoxin full of expressive feats of shred. The structure of the song certainly feels plucked right from the corpse of ‘The Outer Isolation’ in some respect as it resolves but this is perhaps less of an obstruction than it was back in the early 2010’s. “The Immortal Generation” also presents the general lyrical focus of the album as it posits advancements in medicine and biological regeneration gone too far. I’ll have to wait for a lyric sheet to dig through the specifics but, I appreciate that ‘Empyrean’ presents the ills of man as the product of mankind rather than science as the catalyst for self-destruction. Then comes “Edge of the Horizon” a nine and a half minute structural monolith that holds up the first half of the full listen. This song is basically the ultimate test for folks who aren’t necessarily die-hard progressive/technical thrash metal fans not only for its lengthy melodic statements and, well, sheer length but for the complex arc woven for its duration. I’d almost wanted to suggest this nigh ~10 minute song could’ve been axed from the full listen to retain some broader appeal but the thrash metal elitist of my 20’s absolutely loved the over the top nature of the piece itself. It smokes, and would end up being the song that shook me out of whatever trailing thought I was having and insisted I focus on the absolute slipstream that “Edge of the Horizon” creates. A much-needed burst of forward momentum.

By the time the second challenging pillar (“Empyrean”) arrives on our descent into painful transcendence of flesh it does begin to feel like Paranorm have exhausted most of their compelling standard thrash metal structured pieces and classic thrash influenced soloing. It was a thrill getting there, but my brains yet called for variety. The title track itself is yet one of the strongest showings of lead guitar finesse on the album. The “Zero Tolerance” influenced intro to “Lost Cause” certainly pulls me back into the fray for the second half but fatigue for the core guitar tone and rhythm guitar riff variance begins to weigh heaviest here. The song itself is not bad but I’d found myself looking for whichever pieces I could cut for the sake of setting closer to the ~45 minute mark; Too much of a good thing is a listener problem and not necessarily an artist’s issue when dealing in the realm of progressive extreme metal with a traditional heavy metal bone structure. Though I’d found myself deaf to the greater nuance of ‘Empyreal’ after some daily hours of intensive listening, some space from and reflection upon the event allowed it to grow its reputation in my mind. The issue isn’t that Paranorm have given me too much of an album but that I’d had to grow a few fresh brain cells to catch back up with the high-effort synapse count that it takes to appreciate the rapid fire flow that tech-thrash demands via its inherent enrichment. ‘Empyreal’ necessitated that I become big-brained, adapting to its shocking excess by physically growing a more efficient processor in response, and I consider this a brilliant gift to behold in the generally stupefying reality of today. A high recommendation, higher if you’re at all thrilled by “technical/progressive” thrash metal in general.

High recommendation. (80/100)

Rating: 8 out of 10.
LABEL(S):Redefining Darkness Records
RELEASE DATE:February 26th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Technical Thrash Metal,
Progressive Death/Thrash Metal

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