As I mentioned earlier this month, the two best ways to get the nerdy metalhead in me drooling is to either put out an album that is extremely well-schooled in classic heavy metal from the late-‘70s and early-‘80s, or to do the complete opposite and put out a completely nutso piece of avant-garde, experimental metal. A small handful of experimental records commanded my attention in 2020, such as recent releases by Enslaved and Oranssi Pazuzu, as I mentioned before. Old standbys Krallice and Disrhythmia put out good work as well, and I was especially impressed by the debut album by Sally Gates’ project Titans to Tachyons. However, one experimental metal (experimetal?) album towered over the rest of the competition this past year, and it still consumes me like no other metal record in 2020.
Have you ever heard a new album that sounds as though the artists completely get you? As though they telepathically dug into your subconscious and went, “Okay, let’s see what stuff this dude is interested in, and let’s cater to as many of those interests as we can”? Imperial Triumphant’s Alphaville is exactly that. When I learned of the inspirations behind their fourth album, I practically flipped. Voivod and the Residents, including two covers by those artists? Yes, please. A concept album featuring a dystopian storyline modeled after jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville? Um, YES PLEASE. Art direction that leans heavily on classic Art Deco? JUST TAKE ALL MY MONEY RIGHT NOW. Mix all that together with a luxuriously rich sound that combines extreme metal with jazz and progressive rock while at the same time being mindful enough to create catchy songs that resonate in the listener’s mind, and you’ve got the most exciting metal record of the year.
Make no mistake, Alphaville might not be an easy listen upon the first attempt. Like any music that comes from way out in left field – or in this case, the parking lot on the third baseline – your subconscious has to become acclimated to it all, but once you let the strange music envelop you rather than assaulting you, the finer points rise to the surface. “Wow, that atonal riff is catchy! Wait, did I just hear jazz piano? And now there’s a ‘30s jazz lounge interlude. And did I just hear a barbershop quartet?!”
Massive credit bust be given to the band, who are able to take seemingly disparate sounds and interweave them beautifully. Guitarist an vocalist Zachary Ilya Ezrin, bassist/multi-instrumentalist Steven Blanco, and percussionist Kenny Grohowski are able to shift from death metal, black metal, King Crimson-style prog, to jazz fusion with incredible ease and yet be disciplined enough to let each song breathe. The gimmicks serve the song, and not vice versa, which is something very few extreme metal bands are able to master. Meanwhile the band included a host of guest musicians including Tomas Haake of Meshuggah, prog guitar whiz and producer Colin Marston, and Trey Spruance of Mr. Bungle to help make the wild stylistic variety more convincing, and that collective effort succeeds wildly.
If that wasn’t enough, Alphaville features some of the prettiest art design I have ever seen on a metal record. The gatefold LP is a sight to behold, featuring lavish black and gold artwork by Zbigniew M. Bielak, perfectly reflecting that dystopian Art Deco aesthetic the band is going for. You put the records on and just lose yourself in that artwork, taking in the finer details like you did 35 years ago with Iron Maiden’s Somewhere in Time. All the while, the weird music that’s playing finds a way to wriggle into your head, and you start to connect the dots in the vague storyline, and realize that for all the 20th century influences, this is as contemporary a metal record as you’ll ever come across. The dystopia Alphaville speaks of is happening now. It all happened while we weren’t paying attention, and Anna Karina isn’t around to save us from it.