STARGAZER IMPRESS, FASCINATE, THEN IMPRESS AGAIN ON A GREAT WORK OF AGES
I roll my eyes a little each time someone balks at the idea of labeling a band. This has gotten harder with the rise of post-metal, where every band seems to reply to the notion with, “I don’t believe in labeling what we do. I think the music should speak for itself.” Which is true, except a) when people want to check out a band, a label helps, in that it reminds curious parties of other bands they like and whether or not they would be interested in your band, but more importantly b) you sound like a pretentious fucking douche every time you give that answer. Admittedly, calling a band like Isis “doom metal” or referring to the lastest Nachtmystium record as “black metal” is troubling, but in the end, if it gets potential listeners interested, it’s probably best to say your band sounds like something. Of course, even in that, balking at the idea of labeling was made for bands like Australian everything-but-doom metallers Stargazer. Their brand of heaviness is so deeply rooted in the expansiveness of the last 25-30 years of extreme metal that it’s hard to pin down exactly what they do, and yet, what they do is focused and excellent nonetheless. It’s been clear for about a decade that — for better or worse — the future of metal would be hybrid-genres (and in retrospect it’s good we got the rap-and-metal portion out of the way early), but when combining different metals turns out like this, even a cynical motherfucker like me can’t wait to see what the future holds.
One of the most interesting parts of listening to Stargazer’s latest, A Great Work of Ages, is trying to pin down how to describe it. But unlike, say, Between the Buried and Me’s Colors, it doesn’t jump from genre to genre like so many ADD lily pads, but presents itself as a finely-stirred stew where its ingredients only occasionally bubble up to the surface. Is it a fine slab of blackened death metal with prog asides? No, it’s proggy post-black metal with occasional flourishes of Darkthrone at their most Celtic Frost-y. Wait, it’s not that at all, it’s progressive death metal with shades of Opeth and Focus-era Cynic, and even the occasional Morbid Angel sludge-a-thon. Hang on, that’s bullshit, because it’s a bunch of spidery-fingered thrash riffs with a heaping dose of misty prog-metal for flavoring. Only it’s none of this. Or all of those. Stargazer sand the edges of their influences down to an impossibly smooth surface so that, until one has the interest in exploring its contents (like, say, if you’re going to write a review of it), it all seems like a perfectly blended concoction. These guys are clearly metal historians who know their shit. They also don’t make it appear like they’re trying to combine every one of their favorite bands, even if they are. It all sounds naturally fused to the point where it may not even fused at all.
And per usual, none of this would matter if the music weren’t any good. But it’s quite goddamn excellent. A Great Work of Ages is full of textures and brilliant nuances. They never get heavy enough where everything’s just blazing by you (and believe me, this is an album full of details, none of them you really want to miss), but also never gets too soft, either; no one’s going to sit down and play you something on the lute before getting back to being heavy. There’s so much to grab on to that it almost feels like it’s too much initially. But everything’s balanced out. “Hue-Man-King” and “Pypes of Psychosomotasis” both feature somewhat expansive quiet parts (featuring prominent bass work by Damon “The Great Righteous Destroyer” Good… OK, can we admit that we’ve run out of black metal pseudonyms now?) juxtaposed by thunderous, chest-beating riffs. And “Passing Stone – Into The Greater Sun” features as much blackened thrash blasting as anything off the last Skeletonwitch album, but has enough tweaks — including a hilariously never-ending outro — to make it a cut above the rest. Like the aforementioned Cynic, these guys are talented and seasoned musicians playing their ass off. And like that band, they also know how to write great, engaging music to boot.
However, like blackened thrash and other genre-combining fare, it ain’t perfect. Sometimes song structure is a little lacking, and it can be a little too intimidatingly dense at first. But even in a post-post-everything era where it’s all been done, redone, ironically ripped off, then done again, Stargazer sound remarkably fresh. They’ve been around for almost two decades (hung up mostly due to side work in Portal, Misery’s Omen, and many others) and just gotten around to releasing their second full length now; it would be understandable if their music sounded undercooked (thrown together to get something out there) or overdone (gestating so long that it’s impossible for it to be relevant). Instead, they sound aged like a good scotch: deep, complex, unique, and overall satisfying. With decidedly old-school production presiding over it all, Stargazer have one foot firmly planted in the past and one wherever we’re going to end up, sounding wonderfully nostalgic and eerily prescient at once. Either way, there’s enough meat to grapple on to in order to get lost in this record. Every listen uncovers another way to experience a section or unearths a riff you may have missed. Stargazer can certainly kick as much ass as the next guy, but when it comes to subtlety and complexity, few are doing it quite like them.
(4 out of 5 horns)