Album Review: Black Absinthe – ‘Early Signs of Denial’

I might as well start by answering the question everyone’s asking: absinthe is a very strong Swiss alcoholic spirit that tastes like aniseed and has been around since the late 18th century. So now you know and can probably look forward to regretting trying it the next time you’re at the bar!

Black Absinthe, by contrast, are a fairly new band, having formed in 2011 and hailing from Ontario, Toranto (that’s Canada for those of you who aren’t good at geography). The band have a very odd sound, to say the least: they’re noted on the site Metal-Archives as being heavy metal/punk rock, which is not a sound that you see a lot of, as it usually tends to result in a sound that is labelled as post-hardcore, metalcore or even sludge metal, but the information I’ve read about them indicates there is more traditional metal influence to their sound and even a bit of progressive influence, which seems like a very bizarre combination of genres when you think about it (at the risk of pointing out the obvious, punk and progressive music are not exactly known for having much overlap: the closest I can think of to an overlap is when Green Day did those 9 minute long songs on American Idiot, which aren’t even what most people would point towards as examples of progressive music anyway).

The band’s previous recordings are three EPs: 2012’s Augusta and 2014’s Noise Complaint and Live at Coalition (the latter being a three song live EP while the former was a studio recording) while this is their first full length album (although, at six songs and with a runtime of just over 26 minutes, I think most would find calling this a full album a bit of a stretch). The band’s lineup has been consistent since their forming, comprising bassist Kyle Scarlett, drummer Austin Henderson and guitarist and vocalist Jack Cerra, all of whom are complete newcomers to the music scene as far as I can tell.

So, with everyone on the same page as me, what are my thoughts on Early Signs of Denial? Well…I think there is room for improvement in some areas, but, in general, I found this a fairly interesting listen and something that I would certainly be happy to go on record as stating that I enjoyed.

E.S.O.D

Let me get the negatives out of the way first: I think Cerra has to work on his death growls more, as they feel a bit undeveloped. This might feel like a harsh criticism on some levels, as very few vocalists who aren’t in the death metal scene try to pull off death growls like those of the intensity usually associated with the genre (you don’t hear a lot of metalcore screamers sounding like Glenn Benton, if you see the point I’m making) and it’s not a core part of Cerra’s vocals on the record at all, but I do feel that Cerra’s harsh vocals are a bit underdeveloped and putting a bit of time in to refine his death growls would be a good idea for the benefit of the band as a whole. The rest of his voice is fine, though: his clean vocals (although I think calling punk vocals “clean” is a bit weird, so consider this more “clean by comparison”, as they’re still more than a bit on the aggressive side of things) fit the music very well, being sung without necessarily lacking aggression, and he even does some falsetto screams on ‘NOW’ which, while not something that Rob Halford would break into a sweat over, were actually not too bad!

The songwriting also feels a little bit like it is trying to juggle a lot of elements to the band’s sound and, as a result, it does jump between ideas rather quickly. This is probably to be expected, considering the progressive elements to the band’s sound that I mentioned earlier, but those used to more typical songwriting may find the songs lack focus. I wasn’t too bothered by it myself and I do find that the band keep the focus well enough that the songs at least have a consistent tone and flow very well, but I will admit that there were a few occasions where the band made songwriting decisions where I was going “OK, that was a rapid change!” (‘Winter’ probably being the standout example: there’s one point where they get surprisingly close to playing death metal, which feels very odd because the earlier part of the song leading into it is much more akin to metalcore-tinged punk than anything else!).

The final real sticking point for me is the production, although only because I’m a stickler for this kind of thing. The overall production is great, with excellent mixing (you can hear the bass very well, for starters!) and a good sound to the instruments (it’s clearly a professional recording, but it’s still got some grit to it, as fitting for the punk element of the band’s sound), but I do think the mastering lets it down a bit, as it’s a little bit on the loud side. I know, complaining about loudness in metal might seem like a self-defeating prophecy, but there’s a difference between loud mastering and loud playing. The latter, with a skilled sound technician, enhances the music without causing too many issues with the ear (although having appropriate ear protection is still not a bad idea anyway), but the former can outright destroy the music through damaging the quality of the sound and cause ear fatigue even on low volumes. Black Absinthe don’t go to the extent that I feel the mastering badly damages the record, but I do personally think the band could have got away with a quieter mastering job, as the busier parts of the record can feel like the band is fighting over each other to be heard.

Still, that’s all I feel really runs the risk of letting the band down (and they’re hardly major complaints in my book, just elements where I feel need a bit of work). Beyond that, I don’t really have any complaints!

The band’s sound is something I touched upon earlier, but, for the record, their music DOES actually fit all that I’ve described to various extents: the punk influence is very obvious, as the band plays fast music without necessarily having a lot of complexity to the individual performances, but there’s audible love for the harmonies and guitar solos of traditional heavy metal in the guitar performance and the performances also show a surprisingly large amount of skill in that the members have to jump between tempos during the songs, which is a feat normally associated with progressive music (and, if attempted by a less-than-skilled drummer, usually results in the whole thing falling apart). It all results in something that might not be the easiest of things to approach if you’re not used to one of the genres that forms the core of their sound (prog fans might find the punk influence too much to bear, punk fans won’t like the changes and traditional heavy metal fans might find there’s not enough influence from that to keep their interest), but, for those with that appreciation for a wider variety of music, will prove to be a surprisingly engaging listen.

The band performances are also fairly solid on the instrument front. While the punk influence does mean that the band’s performances aren’t all that impressive when you break them down to their core, the progressive element to the band’s sound does mean that they get to show off their instrumental skills all the same and more than make up for it. Scarlett doesn’t have a huge amount to work with overall, but he provides a solid backbone for Cerra’s guitar and he doesn’t follow the guitar as much as you might expect, which is pretty good in my book. Henderson…I’m not going to lie, I think Henderson is the star performer on here, as he is able to play at speeds which are clearly extreme metal level and then jump to a speed that is far less than it without any real pause. I doubt that anyone will be comparing him to drummers like George Kollias, but he certainly is a more-than-capable drummer overall. Cerra’s guitar playing is also fairly good overall and it’s obvious that the guy can play well in this style of music, so that comment about Henderson’s drumming should not be taken as a slight against the other guys at all, just as a general comment on what I feel was the best performance overall.

Ultimately, I think Early Signs of Denial is a pretty solid record! It’s not the best record I’ve heard this year, I’ll admit, but it’s certainly one of the most interesting records I’ve heard this year in terms of the band’s sound and the quality of the material is enough to make it a very good listen if you’re willing to approach it on its own terms. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious idiot (too late!), I’d say that this is a promising debut album by a band with a lot of potential and I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing where Black Absinthe go from here!

Early Signs of Denial will be released independently on the 13th of May. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.