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Surgeon Might Need Some Stronger Stuff Before They Fully Establish Their Chemical Reign

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Philadelphia metallers Surgeon dub themselves prog metal, but their 2013 release Chemical Reign has little in common with newer branches of progressive metal. Instead, it’s a curious mélange of old-school influences that place little emphasis on virtuosity. Though the album feels a bit directionless at the start, the songwriting eventually begins to flow, and Surgeon ultimately convince us of their ability to operate their scalpels by the end of their Chemical Reign.

Initially, things don’t seem to bode well for Surgeon’s operation. Chemical Reign begins with the whiny, bizarrely-titled “The Creeple,” which meanders through a swath of one-dimensional doom. The technical appeal of most progressive artists seems lost on Chemical Reign, as the tempos are straight and the instruments sustain simplicity throughout. The music lacks emphasis – Surgeon’s stylistic borrowings are numerous and varied, but often unfocused. Doom, thrash, and prog all wallow around in each other’s space, and it’s difficult to judge whether you should headbang or whether you should merely listen. The heavy riffs never seem to amount to a construct with actual weight, and the hooks often feel gratuitously attached. Sean Bolton’s dated vocal approach doesn’t help: Surgeon’s music really needs more oomph, and it’s easy to imagine the guitars under the sandpapery rawness of deep growls. It also doesn’t help that Chemical Reign is lyrically noxious (see “Watching You” and “The Creeple” in particular).

But it seems that the album was merely poorly planned, with the weakest tracks placed at the beginning. By the time the rich melodic leads of the title track roll around, previous misgivings are forgotten. Surgeon’s reign is fun, regardless of technicality or heaviness, and it’s clear that their music can be successfully executed despite lacking both tremolo picking and double bass. Heaviness simply isn’t Surgeon’s priority, and their music doesn’t need much more of it than it already has. The leads of “Greed” carry tropical texture, and “Animals” incorporates a surprisingly atmospheric outro. Guitarist Lydia Giordano may not be able to out-shred Tosin Abasi, but her riffs twine together like vines around a trellis. The enthusiastic “Hamburger Factory” is likely to juxtapose fist pumping, moshing, and inebriated rapture in a live environment. Bolton’s voice becomes more and more tolerable as the album progresses, even dipping into slightly harsher territory on the gritty “Tomorrow.” “Waves” ends the record with a distinguished flourish, beginning with slithering elephantine swells and finishing off with a wistful melodic climax.

It’s hard to say what audience Chemical Reign is meant to appeal to, but it’s certain that nobody else sounds quite like Surgeon. The inconsistency of this release means that it’s unlikely to catapult Surgeon to any sudden fame, but Chemical Reign should recruit a number of new fans for the band. With more refined vocal delivery and a tad more technicality, Surgeon have the potential to make a great album sometime further along the road.

Chemical Reign will be self-released by the band on May 21. You can’t preorder it yet, but you can look at the album in the band’s shop here.

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