Thanks But No Thanks, The Contortionist

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When the Contortionist released their first full-length record, Exoplanet, in 2010, they were one of the most exciting things to come out in the realm of progressive metal for a long time. Where the genre so easily verged into tired cliches or overused tropes, as in the later releases of bands like Dream Theater and Between the Buried and Me, the Contortionist had the right mix of heavy-ass death metal and progressive tendencies.

Now it's 2014 and their third album Language is hitting the stores and online distributors. However, after hearing the first two singles, I'm about ready to throw in the towel on this band. This has all been done before, and better.

I should have known the band would make a radical shift when singer/screamer Jonathan Carpenter left the band early last year. That has now become the obvious turning point. The band went on to hire Michael Lessard of Last Chance to Reason as their new vocalist.

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against Lessard or Last Chance to Reason; their sound was perfectly acceptable prog-metal. To be honest, listening to their music, one can even imagine how Lessard would fit into the Contortionist. The lack of screaming from Lessard might have been a tip-off, but I was willing to ride with that.

But the new singles from Language don't just forego screaming. They forego heaviness altogether. The band isn't metal anymore.

That's all fine too. Good music can come from any genre, and just because the Contortionist used to be a metal band doesn't mean they can't branch out. My ultimate issue with what they've done is that they changed their sound from intriguing technical, progressive metal -- with their own interesting flair that set them apart from other bands in the genre -- to a wholly generic form of jazzy prog-rock.

"Primordial Sound," the latest track from Language to be released, is a bold statement of purpose. It lays it out flat that this is the Contortionist's new direction. Their last single, "Language I: Intuition" was not a fluke.

With that being said, "Primordial Sound" could not be less interesting as a statement of purpose. This has been done, and it has been done to much greater effect.

In 2003, after the breakup of pioneering prog-metal band Maudlin of the Well, front man Toby Driver formed a new project called Kayo Dot. He dropped much of the former band's metal pretense and crafted a jazz-inspired, progressive-rock project with avant-garde tendencies from the John Zorn playbook.

It was not quite what the Contortionist is doing, but certainly the elements were there. Kayo Dot was a fascinating band at that time. They still are, even though they have since moved further and further back towards metal.

Kayo Dot weren't the first band to do this, though, by any means. A more direct and apt comparison would be what former death-metal band Cynic have been doing since their return from the dead.

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The Contortionist were already heavily indebted to Cynic, as were most bands who bridged the gap between prog-rock and death metal. However, since making their comeback with 2008's Traced In Air, Cynic have also slowly dropped the metal from their sound, culminating in this year's Kindly Bent to Free Us.

Apparently the Contortionist have been paying close attention, because "Primordial Sound" and its faceless, ambient tones are essentially exactly the same as any track on Kindly Bent to Free Us.

To go one further, Devin Townsend, another pioneer of the genre, also went in this direction with several of his solo albums and most recently this year's Casualties of Cool project, wherein he is also experimenting with ambient, soothing progressive rock and jazz.

The Contortionist aren't failing to impress me though because they were beaten to the punch in this genre shift though. They're failing to impress me because their songwriting is so much more anonymous and listless than Townsend, Cynic, or Driver's.

If "Primordial Sound" is a true statement of purpose for the band, then count me out. It's not so bad to jump on the bandwagon of progressive-metal bands heading in this direction, even if they are late to the party. But to lose any and all of their trademark sound, and therefore anything that made them a great band to begin with, and to write bland, ambient progressive rock that is trendy right now, is to lose the fans who supported them from the beginning.

However, if this new material did hit with you, the Contortionist plays at Walters Downtown Sunday night with Intervals and Polyphia. Doors open at 6 p.m.


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