Arcadea – Arcadea
Release Date: June 16, 2017
I remember spending hours sitting around my dorm room in college, talking music with my roommates and debating the merits of various bands, genres, etc., long before any of us were smart enough to acknowledge that—generally speaking—personal preference is not good ammunition for a balanced debate. I guess we just liked to argue. I don’t really remember the specifics of most of the arguments we had, though I do remember a rather lengthy deliberation concerning The Doors. One of my roommates loved them—so much so that we named this ratty old couch we had in our dorm room “The Snake” in honor of a lyric from “The End”—but I could never really get into their sound. Their use of keyboards always bugged the hell out of me because a lot of it sounded like something you’d hear at a 3-ring circus, ruining what was an otherwise solid classic rock sound. I think it’s safe to say that my feelings on The Doors (and probably Hagar-era Van Halen too) colored my broader opinion concerning keyboards and synthesizers in rock music, which was that they should be used very little, if at all. That is an opinion that I now realize, in hindsight, was in fact very, very bad—though I do remain staunch in my opinion that keys and synths are best employed to provide texture and color rather than to serve as the main driver for a good rock and roll song. After a bit of time absorbing the debut album from Arcadea, it looks like I’ll be making an exception.
One of the likely perks of being in a band on the level of Mastodon is that it’s probably much easier to get a quirky project like this off the ground—Arcadea is the creation of Mastodon drummer/vocalist Brann Dailor, guitarist Core Atoms of psychedelic synth-metal outfit Zruda, and guitarist Raheem Amlani of Withered, and the trio’s self-titled debut just released through Relapse Records which is the former imprint of Dailor’s main squeeze. Despite the fact that the band features two guitar players, there is little in the way of traditional rock and roll sounds to be found on this album outside of Dailor’s drums, and calling this album “synth-laden” or “keyboard driven” would be as similarly understated as describing The Dillinger Escape Plan’s music as “energetic”.
The album opens with “Army of Electrons” which kicks things off with simple-yet-ominous synth tones before Dailor’s rolling drums emerge from the din and push the whole thing into a spiraling electronic astro-groove. When the vocals finally emerge, they do so under a shimmering layer of distortion, eventually giving way to a mid-song psych freak-outs followed by a chorus of urgently chanted vocals that push you headlong into the bonkers 80’s videogame boss battle that is the album’s second track, “Gas Giant,” which is then followed by Rings of Saturn where you’ll almost swear you can hear what sounds like a metal riff.
The album’s 4th track, “Neptune’s Moons,” provides a welcome change-of-pace from the frenzied opening trio, as it strips the album’s dense electro-stomp down to bouncing chime notes which dance in and around the fragile warmth of guest vocalist Susanne Gibboney. It’s a great little song, and it’s followed by perhaps the album’s strongest track, “Infinite End.” Though all three members are credited with providing vocals, it seems that Dailor does the bulk of the heavy lifting and, as he’s demonstrated on Mastodon’s last several albums, his voice is perfectly suited for delivering delicious melodies. “Infinite End” is a great example of this very fact. As the trippy synth intro fades back, Dailor assumes full control and quickly locks the whole thing into place with both his drums and a sweeping vocal performance before Atoms and Amlani swoop back in and deliver a blissed-out instrumental lift to see the song through its conclusion.
As “Electromagnetic’s” urgent drive gives way to the stuttering groove of “Motion of Planets” and the album progresses into the homestretch, there is little doubt that Arcadea is delivering fully on their stated intent to hurl the listener through the voids of some distant space-future in which all that remains of the world we once knew are fractured traces of gas and where a new galactic pecking order is at stake. Calling this a concept album seems a bit specious, but Arcadea never breaks character as they careen through the frenzied undulation of this sonic spacecapade, and part of the inherent fun with an album like this is letting yourself be swept up in its wake without over thinking things. In terms of a coherent narrative, “The Pull of Invisible Strings” seems to be where most of the album’s tale is told as it—amid a buzzing synth backdrop—describes a race of insect-aliens called, naturally, the Arcadeans, who serve as the gatekeeper of something our protagonist never quite reaches if the imagery conjured up in the dreamy “Through the Eyes of Pisces” is to be taken literally.
As the album reaches its conclusion with “Magnificent Façade,” I found it notable that only three songs on this album stretch past the four-minute mark, with the Pink Floyd-infused closing track being the longest at just under seven minutes. That’s probably a good thing. The album has more than enough melodic flair to keep it from sounding robotic or overindulgent, as it might have in the hands of the less-talented, but were still talking about a project that clearly seems designed to push the boundaries of what could be created musically, using a limited tool set, all the while keeping it entertaining. For 40 whimsical minutes, Arcadea does just that.