Melbourne’s technical, progressive death and fusion metal outfit Alarum have finally returned with a new album.
It has been almost a decade since the release of Natural Causes and now, with Circle’s End, the quality has again improved. The band primarily exists as a trio, employing the session drumming duties when the role is needed to be filled and in this case, returning guitarist Scott Young brought along Ben Hocking from his tenure with The Levitation Hex. Led by long serving bassist and vocalist Mark Palfreyman and completed with second guitarist John Sanders, who also provides backing vocals, the results are very good indeed.
Opening with a pummelling blast of a track titled Sphere of Influence, some quiet sections and percussive parts soon resume the thrash metal and the abrupt, almost punk inspired attack before a bouncing rhythm feel with fast drum rolls ushers in climbing guitar solos. The vocals here are partially in the style of Chuck Schuldiner with a guttural vibe but distinct clarity; some might even hear Steve Rowe from Mortification’s grind-core style vocal. Soon enough, it gets faster, with a hammering snare over a repeated riff segueing into clear guitar lines with bursts of chromatics. The point is, this is all over the map and trying to categorise this band’s music is almost impossible as they jump from one style to another but do it without losing pace or being jarring in the execution. Very few bands can actually do that well.
The next two tracks, Syzygy and Delta, are no less intricate and complex, however, melody lines with sweeping guitar parts and fast tremolo picked rhythms manage to keep it all grounded. When Syzygy segues back into the riffage with wide guitar chords, more sweeping parts are peeled off before a half time section takes the track into a reprised melodic section, enhanced by a swift, interweaving outro guitar solo that is tasteful within the song context. Delta is a bit more accessible in feel despite quick drumming against a slower, floating melody line and synchronised guitar rhythms with the odd chime but as the notes slide around, finding their parts with conviction, the melodicism stays intact.
For a brief moment, Crystals could be on a jazz fusion album but the high gain guitar bursts against female vocals build the atmospherics. It is a short track that works as a prelude to the adventurous Sand. The arrangements are very reminiscent of grand soundscapes that Devin Townsend unleashes with a wall of metal contrasting with fusion influenced guitar lines that meld effortlessly back into atmospherics and sustained chords followed by a sonic keyboard wash. Chordal and twin guitar arrangements are initially more Allan Holdsworth styled than Strapping Young Lad yet it is fantastic how the production of the track moves from heavy sections into soaring, harmonic chorus parts and post chorus, there are elements of elements of Cacophony and Shrapnel Records era guitar lines. Combined, the push pull aspect of Crystals and Sand are certain album highlights.
War of Nerves is an apt song title with rolling riffs, barked vocals and abrasive rhythm figures. Guitar solos feature squeezed notes to wide vibrato, building in speed, with some definite Holdsworth and Marty Friedman mannerisms such as quarter tone note flurries and whammy dips. Returning to fast, urgent rhythm figures the song changes direction with a samba rhythm including acoustic guitar parts over percussive grooves, yet it works and does so without being pretentious. Variety is the spice of life so if you can do it well, why not?
Another album highlight is the ferocious battering In Spiral. Tight drumming, atonal riffing, long range, sweeping guitar lines, trills and scraping rhythm guitar again morphs into a samba, Latin infused percussive interlude before climbing guitar lines and modal shifts push slightly outside note choices. The harmonies and studio panning of instrumentation emphasises part, ending with a fade out guitar and drumming technique fest with rapid intensity that chases super high notes as it becomes barely audible.
If polka and waltz rhythms in the metal realm work for you, then the Fantomas vibe of Thoughts to Measure will inspire. It’s a weird one so the uninitiated might not gel with this track, if it were not for the full powering metal feel within. An almost waltz and thrash beat mixed drumming, off kilter feel jumps to more driving, thumping chords, back into a repetitive, unnerving progression. The musical tension releases slightly with a jazzy hi-hat, shuffle but not for long as it quickly returns to a heavy rhythm, polka vibe as Palfreyman’s vocals sound somewhat disturbed.
The title track, Circle’s End, is yet again completely different only far more musically melodic at this point. A clean guitar introduction with pleasant tonal choices offer up bright guitar lines over held, distorted guitars. The solo is harmonised, and intentionally a tad out of sync, as it fades out and in fades the metallic segment of the song. Another guitar figure and solo kicks off with scalar runs and as vocals become more guttural, the track’s increasing brutality and cymbals crash, leads into an power to thrash metal outro with slicing chords, double bass kick drums and an expressive, high pitched guitar solo which is very fluid and again with Friedman styled vibrato.
Sojourn is really interesting and the cool delay effect pedal gets some usage. It is an eight and a half minute track that captures a range of moods. Starting with cascading guitar lines, it is soon into more slicing chords and once it builds pace, the guitar soloing speeds up, altering approach to more chordal riffs. The production between thick sonics and more spatially oriented parts also allows the great drum sound to shine, as well as the soloing skill of various technical patterns and melodic, unison bends. About halfway through, it turns into a gentle fusion guitar tinged improvisation outro over a mellow, acoustic figure that slowly fades out.
Be it with stellar production, crisp arrangements and impressive song structures that weave their way into your mind on repeated listens, Alarum have most certainly exceeded expectations. Some parts of the album are confronting and brutal at first, given the style, but in context with great spatial textures and fantastic musicianship, the album is certain to become something of a classic in progressive metal circles, so to speak. Tight, precise and with everything from blast beats to melodic excursions, thrashing metal to quiet, introspective sections, the album plays out brilliantly, despite the variance of styles and attack. Circle’s End should indicate, without doubt, that some Australian metal bands are able to compete on an international scale. Alarum is one such unique band.
- Sphere of Influence
- War of Nerves
- In Spiral
- Thoughts to Measure
- Circle’s End