BOSS KELOID – Family the Smiling Thrush (2021)REVIEW

Emphasizing positivism-derived life coaching and encouraging a better rounded individual via the creation and unification of community at a crucial point of performative progressive rock evolution might not be a bout of the usual calculated populism on the part of a band making the rare transition from underground sludge kitsch to arena-filling rock artisanship, but it isn’t entirely unfounded either. ‘Family the Smiling Thrush‘ is nonetheless going to be a horse-sized pill to swallow if you’ve long been anticipating yet somehow still living in denial of Wigan, England based quartet Boss Keloid‘s inevitable complete back-turn on their past life as goofin’ sludge heavies. Though it’d fit this narrative nicely to report a “more everything” sort of breach for these folks in following up their heavily praised fourth album, the aphorism and preach-heavy nature of this fifth record necessitates a balance between intimate realism and above par musicianship that prevents the experience from becoming entirely maximal and ‘metal’ in any sense. The result is a fairly strong showcase for new connections made between the manic ride of progressive sludge/post-metal and modern progressive rock music. Even if you’re not left convinced this album is “heavy” to your standards, you might conditionally agree that it intends to be good for your health and, every else’s for that matter. I’d argue this is reason enough to see what all the fuss it about, even if doesn’t square up with your algorithm.

The measured, counted steps from a primitive blastocyst unto an elite ‘progressive’ creation machine represents both symptom of ambition and the natural generative order of life on Earth. Sure, but growth and a sense of seemingly inevitable personal maturity (or, sophistication) that comes with life experience doesn’t begin to “count” within youth until we are faced with the choice which offers the biggest possible risk/reward scenario: Community or autonomy. ‘Family the Smiling Thrush’ initially appears to present its argument for community ’til blue in the face and noodle-armed, to the point that I’d eventually agree to the experiment and begin side-stepping certain ingrained independent/reactive aspects of myself on the way to immersion. Once engaged with every word and note the argument is more of an evenly set discourse, instead of a preached session on positive outlook and communal strength Boss Keloid appears to have balanced this expressive essay for a better planet to speak to the strength of personal willpower, critical thinking in either the singular or plural application. After hanging on the core intensity of thought, meditating upon the bigger picture, we can be sure we are receiving this manifesto of healthy introspection from a (likely) non-denominational spiritual light and though I fear a lot of modern British new age spirituality is the product of weirdly competitive humanism, come on, these guys are way talented but they’ve never been ruthlessly pretentious.

Five albums deep and I’ve never covered a single one of ’em so, there is a lot to cut through on our way to understanding the evolutionary wriggle of Boss Keloid and thankfully progress is linear and obviate with the usual dryly iterative hand of “metal” available to keep us on a quick path forward. Formed between vocalist Alex Hurst and father/son duo of Paul and Chris Thomason back in 2010 it’d seem the early goal of the band was to jam on some shared interest in modern sludge metal and the stoney heavy rock weirdness of groups like Clutch, which is pretty nakedly apparent on their independently released first album (‘Angular Beef Lesson‘, 2010) which was fairly eclectic but expectedly dingy for sludge of that era. I hear more late 90’s Chuck Billy than Neil Fallon in the vocals at this point, and don’t love either, but this inventive and groove-driven side of the band still holds up on songs like “Spurt Reynolds”. ‘The Calming Influence of Teeth‘ (2013) more or less introduced the same line-up they’ve maintained ’til today with just a few interruptions in the bass slot over time. A more cavernous sound, more technical sludge metal grooves and rhythmic play begin to show us what Boss Keloid would become especially in terms of the vocals, which began to evolve into their more recognizable register today edging into cleaner territory via soaring-but-shouted work from Hurst. ‘Herb Your Enthusiasm‘ (2016) we can consider this the first half-leap away from the norm with increasing interest in modern progressive metal shining through their foggy, crusted over sound. ‘Melted On the Inch‘ (2018) was the full leap and the mastery of all of the bold ideas they’d been pocketing or, incapable of up until that point with hints of later Tool-esque dynamics (and beyond) serving a freshened modern progressive rock fidelity, leaving behind the looser heavy rock swing of classic sludge metal for a complex (under the hood) sort of progressive metal. Boss Keloid had found their stepping stone away from “average” work on ‘Herb Your Enthusiasm’ and ‘Melted on the Inch’ was basically them showing off the full effect of going for it, ratcheting the potential of their ideas up to the highest industry standard. You can watch them perform it in its entirety just to get an idea of what the expectations are heading into this latest album. So, what is the next logical step from that high point?

The need to maintain critical darlinghood aside, the only path forward based on the prior established trajectory is cleaner production, extended progressive rock soundscapes, more dynamic swings between sub-genre textures, and tightened performances. That’d have been interesting on par with status quo sonic evolution, and in some ways it is a decent summation of what ‘Family the Smiling Thrush’ offers at face value, but Boss Keloid have been careful not to exhaust the self-balancing pH of their universe with the expected super deluxe double vinyl LP breakout at that this current commercial peak. Instead of putting it all into a worldwide tour (uh…) and hitting the “embiggen” button in general this record delivers on expectations from its own angle, aiming for music that is both performative and impressive with a huge emphasis on its selfless messaging. If the goal is to do something we’re not likely to see from another prog-sludge band anytime soon, save perhaps Gojira, then they’ve hit upon salable virtue in earnest. Can they really manage to push a new intellectually sound enlightenment with swerving, groovy and fairly intimate modern progressive rock in hand and somehow avoid irritating the living Hell out of an insufferably jaded audience? Well, no, and I think that is primarily why it is worth doing and even continuing on towards an even more accessible direction. The potential to disarm and empower is entirely valuable herein.

A collaborative effort beyond past releases and with a more intense focus upon creating organic, clear and natural setting the spatial relationship with the listener does away with the cave-like sound design of the past resembling a thunderous and centrally focused grungy sound and instead places their head a few degrees shy of the centre drum kit, just close enough to hear the resonance of each hit but in a black room of indefinite dimensions. The actual resonance of the kit within Foel Studios is the medium which all else centers around giving a slightly cluttered but atypically “present” relationships between each ear and the full band. The guitars never scream out any certain distress but instead hum and jangle their glassy, cerebral fury for the sake of containing their syncopation into one physically unfurling shape established and morphed wildly across opener “Orang of Noyn”. Any rough edges they’d left on ‘Melted on the Inch’ for the sake of character are shaved away here and this preening also clips away some of the sub-genre play on that album, less tirades off into worldly melodies or stylistic experimentation and instead Boss Keloid focus intently on each song as an entity and a message. “Gentle Clovis” rides the line between preaching for a better, more selfless “you” that is conscious of karma and splices this with soaring odes to what comes across as naturalism. Each song title appears to present a sort of character of its own, initially reading like a very innocent cast of Mega Man X boss robots, and this helps to punctuate each step in the ride as its own trial. The guitar work is at its best when transitioning from slippery, odd-timed grooves towards angularly resolved riffs which almost always serve some manner of vocal melody once developed. That said the guitar work rarely sits in place and the major focus of this album quickly tends towards the vocal work, hence all of the blathering I’ve done about the theme and lyrics thus far. You really can’t side-step Hurst‘s performance here which is as verbose as it is harmonious and charismatic. Though the core of this record’s sound is that sharp cut and placement of the drums alongside “softer” guitar layers it is all technically in service of the vocals as key driver.

“Cecil Succulent” embodies the heaviest and lightest extremes on offer album-wide with the core message of the record nearly summed in terms of lyrics. There are certainly better singles all over the record but this piece offered one of several points of pause when familiarizing myself with the greater arc of ‘Family the Smiling Thrush’. Pairing this high point with “Grendle” had me preferring Side B early on but, after putting the album down for a week and coming back to it I’d end up preferring the bombast of “Orang of Nyon” and the slowly spreading progressions of “Smiling Thrush” as they’d stuck with me best and longest, even if they do go kinda Counting Crows on the title track. None of it makes me want to pick up a guitar per se, only a few parts stick in my head after a casual listen, and progressive rock beyond ~’76 is rarely my thing, at all, but I am left admiring ‘Family the Smiling Thrush’ for what mark it does hit in terms of conveying a point of view in a rational way and with complex and satisfying neo-prog sludge rock backing it up. None of it is so outlandish or cryptic that your average Torche, Lord Dying or Intronaut fan will shy away. Even if this just isn’t my thing, I’ve nothing but respect for any artist willing to push themselves forward to the point of becoming alien and accessible at once and by giving Boss Keloid the benefit of the doubt I’d had a good time picking through the finer points of this record and appreciating the larger goal of its narrative as an actual challenge to a certain status quo. A moderately high recommendation.

Moderately high recommendation. (76/100)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
TITLE:Family the Smiling Thrush
LABEL(S):Ripple Music
RELEASE DATE:April 4th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Progressive Rock,
Progressive Sludge Metal

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