I invite you to come with me to a time before 2008. It may surprise you to learn that at this point, Circle II Circle was actually a pretty damn good band. They did eventually become prog Godsmack, as history will record with bitter regret chronicling the storied tale of Savatage. For now, however, let’s make like boomers and complain about how things used to be better.
Burden of Truth sounds like sentimentalism, at times. It feels rather like Skid Row filtered through Phantom of the Opera, in that characteristically Trans-Siberian Orchestra fashion. The difference, though, is that Circle II Circle crank the technicality and bite of their music significantly higher than TSO’s comfortable bombast. It’s certainly a little saccharine, but performed with such conviction and talent as to make that nearly irrelevant.
Zak Stevens’ voice is vital to this whole undertaking. His overbored bass resonates unstoppably through every song, an unmistakably mature vocal delivery that dignifies even the album’s most banal emotional turns (“How can we learn to live as one…” “I walked by the church and saw the children, and the world through their eyes…”). Moreover, it is very identifiably American, and that’s the biggest selling point of this album. It’s worth noting he layers very nicely with his backing vocalists. The “The Black” and title track have particularly good harmonizing.
One might be tempted to snicker at some of these lyrics and the melodies. How antiquated the notion of melodic music without dizzying rhythmic changes or production magic out the ass. Yet, the sheer power behind it all is impossible to deny. The piano line on “Heal Me” would be insufferable if it didn’t drag you in immediately. Despite the sugar content, Burden of Truth is largely fat-free. It doesn’t fall victim to most metal tropes, including the prevalence of vibrato. It’s endearing too, in a sort of Andie McDowell in Five Weddings and a Funeral kind of way, or perhaps of Joy Davidson in Shadowlands – very American.
The opening to Revelations? Badass. The crunchy riffs of A Matter of Time? Some slick shit. The entirety of Evermore? One of the most masterfully tight, pointed pieces of prog metal out there that still pounds away at the ears like a cannon blast. If you wanted an aspirational American soundtrack, this is it. Songs for an endearing everyman with more behind his ears than you might guess.
I’ve been watching a bunch of nature documentaries recently. Dangerous animals only, for the most part, because I refuse to devote an hour of my life watching turtles mosey around the deep blue. Additionally, I’ve sought out very in-depth material so I can appreciate the animal being analyzed. As a result I’ve been able to watch a decent amount of material closely scrutinizing the habits of predators, and that’s given me a particularly good context for understanding Sadist’s 2015 album “Hyena”.
This album is intended to track the habits of a hyena. Seems a bit on the nose, but bear with me; the album’s style is important. The album takes the listener on a markedly violent safari in an open-top jeep. Feel the wind in your hair, enjoy the natural splendor of the savannah, watch some animals murder and/or eat each other. Bring along some Mango Jive but for goodness sake leave your droewors back at the hut. Musically, as far as the metal goes – it’s a technical death/thrash album with the ferocity of the latter and the substance of the former. The vocals are higher-pitched snarls, characteristic of Sadist and perfect for the concept; in fact the entire production isolates the smooth bass to allow for moodier lines from said instrument. For the majority of the review, though, I’ll analyze track-by-track, since that best allows me to show what the album is evoking.
“The Lonely Mountain” weights a little heavily on its central riff, a baffling decision given the strength of the rest of them. That being said, the mellow swells and forays here are essential to the concept. Generally, predators don’t hunt at full blast 24/7. There’s a lot of downtime in the veld. The sharp contrast between tranquility and violence is vital to setting the scene. That said, “Pachycrocuta” would have made a better opener. As a proof of concept for the album it’s a much tighter song that better maps out its piano and forte.
The more prominent keyboard work in “Bouki” seemed a little out of place until I learned that the name indicates a malevolent trickster spirit in Senegambian and later Louisianan folklore. This somewhat melodramatic take suits the mythic nature of the character. That said, it doesn’t feel as dry as the first two tracks, which I would consider a point against it.
“The Devil Riding the Evil Steed” begins even farther from what looks like the album’s central “theme” by having a much colder beginning straight out of a Forest Stream album. It’s this song that has a foreign language spoken in it. It’s not Xhosa or Zulu, neither does it appear to be Hausa or Yoruba, but whatever tongue it is, it works. That being said, this passage and the latter half of the song evoke a campfire tale told at the end of a long hunt, which ties back into the theme of the album nicely.
The opening of “Scavenger and Thief” heaves in a certain sense, aping the haggard breathing of some heavy creature. Deriving from the ending of the previous track, and the lyrics here, we might interpret this as a nighttime hunt, especially given the eldritch keyboard. The song nicely evokes the idea of the hyena feeding heavily from some dying behemoth and fighting off competitors while doing so.
The term “Gadawan Kura” refers to a type of traveling traditional show in northern Nigeria, in which domesticated hyenas often feature. That said, Gadawan Kura frequently travel into the cities to make their money, and it’s here that the The Tangent influence on this instrumental makes sense. As hyenas are usually heavily restrained and carted about in this alien, urban environment, the tranquil feel helps illustrate a chained beast meekly confused and out of its element taking in the sights and sounds of the metropolis. It’s kinda like Babe: Pig In the City as envisioned by Yes.
“Eternal Enemies” begins with some plucking on what sounds like a musical bow, a popular traditional instrument across Africa, and particularly among the Xhosa and Zulu of South Africa. It’s definitely the most intense track, with plenty of lurching and screeching. Judging from the lyrics, perhaps a pack of hyenas trying to fight a lion.
“African Devourers” has some of the most confusing lyrics, but they are nonetheless helpful. A morning hunt, driven by the enervating energy of a good night’s sleep. The Spiral Architect-style bass riffs particularly help give a focused air to the whole track, while the rest of the song evokes a group heading out on a mission.
“Scratching Rocks” takes us to the nighttime and a territorial dispute between hyenas. The eldritch keyboards return. The relentless nature of the track makes more sense here, bringing to mind the need for constant vigilance and the fatigue brought on by a prolonged fight. Thankfully it manages this without being monotonous. Suddenly the ferocity stops, as is the case in the wild – and presumably the animals take stock of their gains and losses – before a few seconds more at the end, which from the lyrics sounds like a last attack where the one who fought to maintain its territory dies and dwells on the sum of its life.
“Genital Mask” is, from a lyrical standpoint, one of the funniest songs I’ve ever seen. It makes almost no sense thanks to Sadist’s ESL writing, but it addresses the concept of hermaphrodism among hyenas owing to the female hyena’s bizarre anatomy, which consists of an elongated clitoris that splits for mating. Musically, this is probably the closest to sensual that the album ever gets, albeit through the lens of an amusingly Procrustean femdom sensibility and nowhere near the blatancy of the corny porno guitar and bass Gorod cheekily threw in to spice up "Varangian Paradise". That the album should end with a song about mating makes some sense, as this is frequently seen as the whole point of existence in the first place. Even the repetitive nature of the riffing makes sense for relatively obvious reasons. The flow of the song suggests not only mating, but also pregnancy, birth and the ensuing infant cannibalism that takes place among hyena babies.
I’ve always noticed that in the grand sweep of folk metal African music usually gets left out. Makes some sense – I’ve heard quite a lot of traditional African music and it’s way too happy and tropical. Then again, Dan Swano, Skindred and even Equilibrium have managed to make Caribbean music work in metal, so it’s not impossible. The next best thing is something thematically evocative, which is what “Hyena” represents. It’s not perfect; Sadist could have paced out the textures better and deepened the nature sounds, perhaps taking influence from the largely untouchable Russo-Finnish metal masters Second To Sun. That being said, it’s a one-of-a-kind work and Sadist deserves credit for taking their vicious brand of tech-death on a sun-bleached adventure into the wild.