Thursday, July 19, 2018

album review: 'time will die and love will bury it' by rolo tomassi

So this one's been taking its time rising up my schedule... and one that I've been rather perplexed about covering, not just because of its critical acclaim but also because it's received some popular backlash for possibly simplifying and streamlining their sound, which may have been that step needed to win over critics but would have alienated the diehard fans.

And speaking as someone who is definitely not one of those diehard fans, some of that might have been helpful, because Rolo Tomassi are not exactly close to an accessible act - screamo vocals balancing with female clean singing, wild shifts in time signatures and structure that recall something closer to jazz fusion than progressive rock or even mathcore, and let's not forget the synth tones that somehow picked a mutation of chiptune that gives me a splitting headache every time I listen to them. Yeah, let's not beat around the bush, having listened to all of Rolo Tomassi's records, I had a really hard time getting into them - sure, I can respect the sheer talent and there were some of the more restrained, atmospheric moments I liked, but I also get the impression that said moments were not the ones that are winning over the most acclaim from the diehard fans. But hey, Astraea was heading in a slightly more refined direction - as was Grievances in its own twisted, much darker way - and if Rolo Tomassi were looking to double down on those tones for future releases or even just accessibility a decade into their careers... well, it's a balancing act. So how is Time Will Die And Love Will Bury It?

So here's the thing: having gone through this record multiple times, I completely see why the diehard fans may have turned on this, because it is more straightforward and direct. Many of the mathcore elements have been outright removed in favour of more clean singing and relatively conventional song structures, it's by far their most accessible release to date and I can even see why some might brand this a 'sell-out'... and thus it gets awkward when I'm stuck saying that this might be their project I like the most. Hey, I said right from the start that the wilder mathcore material and incredibly grating synth tones were what alienated me from this band from the start and that steps towards this brand of refinement would be something I'd like but probably not the best sell to the fanbase, I know I'm not really going to make any friends with this, especially as I'm still not quite as over the moon as some critics are on this record as a whole. But if this is the record that 'broke' Rolo Tomassi... yeah, I wouldn't be surprised, because it's damn near greatness.

Now some of you might be thinking that I'm taking these opinions because I'm less of a fan of subgenres like jazz fusion and mathcore and certain contemporary classical music as a whole... and while some of that is absolutely true, I think it's important to articulate why that is, because I can still appreciate dramatic clash and music that takes weird shifts in time signature, tempo and structure - hell, I've cited my appreciation for acts like Anna Meredith and Cynic, and I just reviewed Between The Buried And Me! For me, a huge part of appreciating these subgenres does come down to appreciation of the technical spectacle, but if I'm looking for the stuff that connects more deeply I'm listening for melodic patterns and climax points, elements within what might seem to many listeners as chaos or just noise but reflects actual craftsmanship. And while a lot of great improvisational musicians in jazz can deliver this, there are a distinct subset of jazz fusion and mathcore acts that embrace obscene complexity for its own sake and almost seem to relish disrupting even the audiences that 'get it' - and sure, there's an audience for that vibe too, but if you're looking to drive active disengagement with an audience who has a grasp on how to listen to this music - not challenge their perception, actively drive them away - I'm not going to find it all that compelling. And then of course you get the subset where the technical wankery comes at the expense of structure altogether, but a trained ear can typically pick those out and I've never slotted Rolo Tomassi in that category anywway. So when I say I can get into Time Will Die And Love Will Bury It, some of this does come in those patterns being more readily apparent, complex but stable within the mix, and not picking synthesizer tones that give me a splitting migraine! Yeah, I'm going to cite this as a net positive right out of the gate, because while the synths are there and can be a tad blaring on songs like 'Balancing The Dark' for my taste, they better compliment the insane, chugging riffs thanks to a bit more sticky body and texture, or on songs like 'A Flood Of Light' are used in conjunction with the rougher riffs to accent one of the best climax points on the entire record!

But beyond that, Rolo Tomassi has said they consciously integrated more pop-leaning elements like the pianos and Eva Spence's clean singing into this record in terms of cleaner melodies to match against James Spence's guttural screams, the pummeling guitar work, the seething basslines, and damn-near blastbeat drumming. And yes, it might not be as consistently brutal as Grievances was or as actively chaotic as earlier records could appear - but I won't dismiss that there's a level of complexity to this as well, in making those brighter, shining tones feel cohesive against the darkness or have any sort of proper mix balance. Hell, even though this album's DNA is closer to post-hardcore and mathcore, with how heavy and borderline thrash some of these songs like 'Alma Mater' can get I'm almost reminded of the balancing act that so much atmospheric black metal or post-metal tries to attain, especially with a mix that's trying to sound so huge and sweeping and while occasionally relying a shade too much on reverb-soaked guitars still often has the crunch to balance it out - the explosive climax midway through 'Contretemps' is damn near a perfect example of sticking that landing! Now that's not saying this record doesn't take its time getting there - 'Towards Dawn' is a fluttery atmospheric instrumental that opens the record and despite more defined grooves and a heavier hook 'Aftermath' still doesn't bring in the dirty vocals; in fact it almost drowns out the cleaner vocals in one of the few mixing slip-ups. But I'm not sure how you could be unsatisfied with the insane drumwork and jagged riffs complimenting the pianos on 'Rituals', or the transitions spiking off of the cloud of cymbals and seething grooves on 'The Hollow Hour', or how the shredding on 'Alma Mater' is damn near at thrash speeds and complexity but then can still shift into a similar smoky jazz fusion vibe as 'Balancing The Dark' - not the first time this record reminded me of Cynic and in a really good way. And on the flipside, I'm not sure how you couldn't appreciate the beauty of the post-rock vibes of 'Risen' or 'Contretemps', or how well the clean singing pays off the outro of 'A Flood Of Light'. Hell, I think the only song that doesn't click for me is 'Whispers Among Us', but that's more because the riffs are in a less complex heaviness that fades into a meandering grey zone the record has never wanted to embrace!

And that's something else relevant to point out: the juxtaposition between howling darkness and purifying blasts of light isn't just an instrumental motif or quirk or production, it's damn near at the core of the themes of the record! Now this takes us to the lyrics and it's important to highlight how I really like the choice of language that Rolo Tomassi delivers on this record: intimate and approachable in its word choice but aiming for the sort of arch abstraction that fits songs that are going so big and heavy. And yet even though that style of writing can lead to a lack of nuance, there's a surprising amount going on within these tracks surrounding a hard confrontation with the endings of life and love, at some points almost seeming at war with the concept of time itself. In a strange way - and bear with me on this - it almost seems a bit reminiscent of Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens thematically, with songs like 'Aftermath' speaking to an intellectual maturity about loss and death fairly quickly... only for the emotional undercurrent to shatter it in slow motion. Because sure, in your mind you can rationalize what that ending is and how you're not going to be fighting against time itself... but love and emotionality doesn't operate on that continuum, and numb reality is blown apart pretty quickly, especially as clinging onto memories that might provide some clarity are anchors that keep the human emotional consciousness from really confronting the possibility of an end to its existence, especially with time's passage only bringing it closer. It's one reason why the pure rage of 'Alma Mater' has so much righteous power in the desperate dichotomy between heartfelt gratitude in having love and the terror of knowing you could lose it. And what I really like is the implication on songs like 'A Flood Of Light' and 'Contretemps' is that said love is never perfect, never quite the eternal ideal, and that banishing everything that's not this can leave you as a husk yearning for what's real, an organic transcendence that doesn't need to feel overpowering to still take your breath away, mirrored beautifully in the music with 'Risen' showing just enough edge beneath the post-rock swell to show a balance not diminished by contrast but enhanced by its synthesis.

So look, I get how for hardcore fans this record might not be what you're looking for - in terms of in-your-face mathcore heaviness and complexity, this record is doing something very different with a different sort of complexity. But I'd argue it sticks the landing in that lane amazingly well, more than capable of attracting a wider audience with a thematic depth and richness enhanced by the sort of dramatic contrast and swell I typically only find in atmospheric black metal, and sometimes not even done well there. So for me, this is a light 8/10 and absolutely a recommendation - yes, I know, I'm months later to the party on this one and you can call me a pleb for not really getting on board before now, but for me, it's better late than never, especially as the band only seems to be moving in a direction with a ton of potential. In other words, time's not quite dead for Rolo Tomassi, and you'll want to get onboard before it is - check this out!

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