|Cover art by Ben Weatherall|
When Max asked me to write a guest review for Metal Bandcamp, he said he wanted to give me something a little out of my usual comfort zone, and specifically, something connected to the realm of doom. When I agreed, the album he picked was A Beautiful Dystopia, released earlier this year by Okera from Melbourne, Australia. I'm afraid Max failed in his mission. Not only am I comfortable in the company of A Beautiful Dystopia, I'm ready to marry it and have kids.
As a genre term, "doom" is a big tent, encompassing a wide range of music, particularly when it's joined through a hyphen with other styles of metal. A Beautiful Dystopia is one of those hybrids. All of the music is wrapped in the blanket of night, moving in an atmosphere that is often suffused with sensations of melancholy or even the energized bleakness of agony. But the music is also heavy and compulsively rhythmic at the same time as it's wonderfully melodic. To varying degrees, depending on the song, Okera meld together melodic death metal and doom to produce dramatic, memorable songs.
Every one of the sevens tracks share certain hallmarks: Most of them are long, with three of them lasting more than nine minutes and three others ranging between almost seven minutes and eight -- which means they depend on changes in pacing and intensity. Okera establish core melodic themes and then weave them through a course that drops and rises, with soft, contemplative, occasionally acoustic passages and sudden enormous crashes of might and power. The music ebbs and flows, and ultimately the songs build toward an almost overpowering surge of emotion.
The bass is massively heavy in its tone, whether it's rumbling or thrumming ominously in the foundation of the songs, or hammering like a sledgehammer on an anvil, or rising up as sole accompaniment to the guitar in certain relatively quiet passages, or even taking the lead as it does in a segment of "In Solitude", with a shimmering, ethereal guitar in the background.
The drumming is equally heavy and strikingly varied, serving to create distinctive changes in the intensity of the music. The variations are perhaps most striking on the album's title track (the last song), which begins as a stately, dignified march and then erupts in an explosion of blasting percussion and a wall of layered guitars.
Another constant in the songs is the juxtaposition of the heavy, distorted bass and rhythm guitar with higher-pitched lead guitar lines and solos that are perpetually reverberating and echoing, often richly layered and joined together in dual-guitar harmonies. Those beautiful lead guitar parts are alternately ghostly, ethereal, and soulful, sometimes spiraling slowly up through the dense weight of the sonic foundation, sometimes swimming dreamily through the indigo atmosphere of the background, sometimes piercing the heavy clouds like rays of sunshine that have found an opening. And on the album's title track, the lead guitar notes become intricate, even flashy, in a workout that approaches Opeth levels of dark prog extravagance.
A well-known metal blogger recently expressed the provocative opinion that the time has come to dispense with vocals in metal. But that would rob A Beautiful Dystopia of one of its most vital components. In addition to being a guitarist with a deft touch and a strong sense of how to ring changing emotions and memorable melodies from that instrument, Jayme Sexton has an amazing voice -- if you're a fan of really harsh vocals.
Most of the time, his vocals are truly cavernous roars, of the kind that bring to mind the harsh vocals of Niilo Sevänen (Insomnium) and Tobias Netzell (In Mourning), but he also rises up into bestial howls and banshee shrieks that are equally effective. And if you want to raise the hair on your arms and the back of your neck, listen to the two extended, wordless roars/howls that follow back to back beginning at the 4:39 mark on "The Black Rain". Truly awesome shit.
At times, Okera do remind me of those two above-mentioned bands -- Insomnium and In Mourning -- as well as their better-known countrymen in the amazing Be'lakor, especially on the tracks where melodic death metal is a strong ingredient in this hybridized style ("I Hope", "All That's Lost", and "A Beautiful Dystopia"). Yet Okera isn't a clone of any of those bands. The other songs on the album have a more traditional doom influence, and Okera also work progressive elements into many of the songs in a way that also sets them apart.
Last but not least, I come to the songwriting: It's really good. It's very easy to get lost in the dark music on A Beautiful Dystopia, to let your mind ride with it, and to imagine visions of sailing through the void with stars as your companions. The melodies are all memorable, but my favorite is the slow, simple, instantly infectious one that begins "The Black Rain". The moment when it returns again at the 5:30 mark of the song may well be my favorite moment on an album that's loaded with great listening. I'm also partial to the 2:00 mark in "A Beautiful Dystopia", when the band unleash a lightening storm after a very stately introduction.
By this point it will come as no surprise: I recommend this album strongly.
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