I bought A Sceptic’s Universe about 2½ years ago and it continues to haunt me to this day. Of all the records that I have listened to, while this is not my absolute favorite, this is the one that I am the most obsessed with. This obsession got up to the point where I wrote a 5 or 6 page paper about it for one of my classes. Sometimes it sounds obnoxious and sometimes I think it’s the greatest recording ever but I’d say that, simply based on the fact that I can’t help but come back to this album every now and then, A Sceptic’s Universe has done its job. Because of my longstanding obsession with this album, this post might be longer than usual. I knew I was going to write about this band eventually when the blog started so I might as well get it out of the way while, fresh out of college, I have the time and energy to write this.
Spiral Architect is a band based in Oslo, Norway that is named after a Black Sabbath song. They picked this name because, according to bassist Lars Norberg, the name “reflects the ‘spirit’ of the band, musically as well as ideologically.” Other than a demo, A Sceptic’s Universe is the only thing that Spiral Architect had released… and they released it back in 2000… 7 years after they had originally formed… and supposedly, they’re still active, working on a second album. The band members are active in various other projects, keeping them quite busy, so this second album could take a while if it will ever be released at all.
This music falls under the category of “technical metal.” For those who have never heard of the term, imagine the crazy burst of virtuosic musical energy of a band like Mahavishnu Orchestra coupled with a metal sensibility and you’ll get technical metal. Ron Jarzombek, who I wrote about a while back, is an example. What makes this band stand out in my mind is the weird and mysterious mixing job. Let’s face it: from a professional sound engineer’s perspective, it’s very badly mixed; the drums have no power and the guitars, in addition to having timbres that sound a little off, are practically buried in the mix. Yet it somehow manages to sound fine for this music. Also, the bass is WAY up in the mix for no reason. Unlike most rock and metal recordings, where the bass is sort of subdued, you can actually hear everything that the bass does here, including the sounds of the strings when you slide your fingers across. Our ears are accustomed to the bass being low and subtle in a rock/metal mix but that’s not the case here so it has some shock value. But this bassist is very good; I’m guessing he’s jazz trained since he’s not just plucking the strings like a normal rock or metal bassist would and, other than being technically gifted, his phrasings for the basslines are beautiful so one would be quick to forgive the weird mixing. One reviewer on Encyclopaedia Metallum theorized, “it is just engineered to fuck with your mind and drive you to the very edge of sanity.”
If you are not very familiar with technical or progressive metal or don’t listen to dense or spastic music like this often, I recommend treading these waters with extreme caution but an open mind too, otherwise you’ll miss out on some very interesting music. Here is the first song that I have heard by them, “Insect,” a song that compares the intelligence of an average man to, well, an insect:
When I first heard “Insect,” I was floored. I didn’t know what to expect with the synth intro. Then suddenly, there were guitars playing diminished arpeggios and rushes. Then suddenly, RANDOM 10-SECOND JAZZY BREAKDOWN! And…what? You mean to tell me we’re not even a minute into the song yet? I couldn’t help but stick around since the music was so crazy and was really going places. I think that “Insect” and “Conjuring Collapse” are the wildest tracks on the album. Here’s “Conjuring Collapse”:
And here’s something that’s tamer, “Moving Spirit”:
As you probably already figured out, the music is really dense and spastic. I remember reading somewhere that a truck driver got a migraine while listening to this record on the job, two minutes or so in, because the music was too much (I should add that he only listened to Top-40 type music so that might explain it). I don’t want to simply say that it’s “complex” because that is too reductive and that is a word that people often use to describe this kind of music when they can’t think of anything better to say. But the music is very dense and can be difficult to take in all at once. It’s got it all: weird guitar timbre, fast passages, atonality, unexpected breakdowns, polyrhythms galore, and π/e time signature (okay I’m exaggerating but I honestly don’t know what time signature we’re in over half the time with these guys). There is a wide range of emotion in the music and just because you can’t pick out one among several does not make it emotionless. It’s like a musical embodiment of the chaos theory: it sounds like pure cacophony at first but after a while, you’ll realize that there is a method to the madness.
Thankfully, the music is not just spastic craziness all the time. The band is polite and merciful enough to let us bask in familiar and easier-to-digest musical elements from time to time. An example is “Cloud Constructor” but I couldn’t find a Youtube video for it that is available in the US. The next best example is “Occam’s Razor,” which, other than being the theory that the simplest explanation is often the most plausible one, represents the soft and gentle pause between “Moving Spirit” and “Insect.”
With all that said, this band is not for everybody. I would certainly not recommend this record to a casual listener or someone who only likes music that “gets to the point” so to speak. I would only recommend this record to people that like creative and challenging music with a heavier edge and who have patient ears. This is easily one of the most challenging records that I have come across.
I can’t tell if these guys are geniuses or crazies. It’s definitely one or the other because no other kind of person would even dare to write, play, or record/mix music like this.