In the realm of technical extreme metal, there’s quite a lot of room for experimentation, from lengthy songs to grandiose instrumentation and a mix of vocal styles. As such, when members of high-profile bands from the genre seek to liberate themselves from genre constraints, it’s a sure sign things will get… unique, at the very least. It is just such a mentality that gave birth to the subject of today’s review, the German progressive extreme metal supergroup Alkaloid. Vocalist/guitarist Morean explains:
‘The feeling that we’ve outgrown the narrow niche of pure extreme metal was a main motivator to start this band in the first place, ten years ago. The ‘prog’ tag is handy for us because, per definition, it already encompasses a wider range of possible styles and influences we can get away with than any one specific metal genre. This means we could ensure from the beginning that we’ll always be able to write whatever we want, no matter how crazy our ideas become.’
Alkaloid, composed of Triptykon, Obscura, Dark Fortress, and Obsidious members, has released two records (2015’s The Malkuth Grimoire and 2018’s Liquid Anatomy) so far. Numen, their third release, expands on the themes and ethos of these albums.
Liberated by the ‘progressive’ label, Alkaloid have never shied away from excess. Both of the group’s previous records feature lengths over an hour and songs that well exceed ten minutes. These lengths facilitate experimentation with a wide range of vocal styles, instruments, technical wizardry, and genre-hopping. Numen is no exception.
Opening with the alphabet-encompassing “Qliphosis”, a knotted, time-signature-eluding riff accompanies Morean’s… distinctive gruff singing (more on that later) before exploding into instrumentation that pounds and shreds. Christian Münzner’s boundless guitar skills shine here, even while serving the song with tasteful vocal interplay. This is even more the case with the all-out pace of single “The Cambrian Explosion”. Fast, complex, thrashy, and shreddy, this track initially seems like one of the more squarely death metal pieces here. That is until about halfway through the song, when we hear an anthemic, almost operatic bridge and a short, restrained jazz break. Such a plot twist seems delivered with a knowing wink from the band, challenging us to expect the unexpected.
“Clusterfuck” furthers that message. It opens with a plodding pace and melodic, memorable riffage. It is just such musical choices that keep this record from spiraling off into chaos. Even when things move at the speed of light, there is still intentionality and melodic sense that gives me the feeling that I’m listening to a song, not just a collection of technical exercises and weird experiments. A shining example of that is the single’s chorus, which also highlights Morean’s higher vocal register.
This leads me to one of my critiques of Numen, Alkaloid, and, honestly, many progressive metal bands. Vocal performances can be fraught in this experimental music niche, and Morean’s are. He can growl and sing in a higher register admirably, delivering intensity and melody in equally impressive measures. As such, when he frequently utilizes a somewhat growly, midrange singing voice that is – frankly – odd and grating to my ears, I get confused and pulled out of the impressive metallic maelstrom that is Numen. Thankfully, the band fires on every cylinder in a way that makes me forgive this choice, but it seems strange for such a capable vocalist.
But I won’t dwell on one criticism when there’s so much to celebrate. Alkaloid makes music for you if you’re an extreme metal fan but feel that the genre is somewhat constrained or predictable. It is boundless and excessive, which might not be well-received by all. Even for a fan of such music like myself, the record’s 11-track, 70 minute runtime sometimes feels like a marathon. However, the band’s creativity and focus on songwriting make this odyssey interesting, surprising, and captivating. Numen is a fun, unrestrained listen, which suggests that Alkaloid fully succeeded in realizing their vision for the album.