This right here is another one of those times to sit back for a moment and savor a band’s line-up slowly. Howling Sycamore is comprised of Davide Tiso (Gospel of the Witches, ex-Ephel Duath) on guitar and bass, Jason McMaster (Dangerous Toys, ex-Watchtower) on vocals, and Hannes Grossmann (Alkaloid, ex-Obscura, ex-Necrophagist) on drums, with saxophonist Bruca Lamont (Yakuza, Brain Tentacles) and guitarists Kevin Hufnagel (Dysrhythmia, Gorguts) and Fester appearing as guests on the band’s eponymous début album. Now that’s a lot of renown in one place, if I do say so myself; and that’s usually where the problems begin for most ‘supergroups’ of this type.
Not so in this case, though! Opener “Upended” makes it very clear right away that you should not expect a subpar offering slapped together for a quick buck from these experienced individuals. A pounding double bass pattern meets sinister rhythm guitars, a rumbling bass, and surprisingly traditional heavy metal lead melodies. The saxophone enters the fold with a frantic solo section early on as well, dispersing the fears of it being included as pure gimmickry. From there, “Upended “ cavorts through assorted elements such as thrash rhythms, black metal-informed melodies and drumming, and Iron Maiden-esque epicness, displaying the broad pallet of styles from which Howling Sycamore draw.
The following “Obstinate Pace” underlines the initial impression left by the opening track, albeit with a very faint smack of repetition (due to the elements making it up being the same as before). Obvious highlights are the sustained and nuanced drum work, McMaster’s occasional rough vocal outbursts, and, of course, the unnervingly smooth (and later on maniacal) saxophone solo sections. This song basically rearranges the strengths of its predecessor into a different, almost as convincing form, making for a strong one-two punch outset for Howling Sycamore.
One major blemish has to be addressed here, however: a good few times throughout the record, McMaster’s classic heavy metal vocals don’t really seem to keep up with the instrumentals as far as intensity and atmosphere go. His epic, unwavering delivery does little to add to the diversity of Howling Sycamore, other than providing a certain contrast of styles, which is most likely what the band was going for. Nevertheless, although he doesn’t actually weigh down the music significantly, he is responsible for some of the weakest points of the album.
Which would be unforgivable in my book, weren’t it for the relatively standout songwriting by Tiso and co. to make up for any perceivably lacklustre vocal performance. The acoustic guitar-led “Chant of Stillness” is probably the best song on the album, channeling a certain dark folk flair with a more Mediterranean temperament (if that makes any sense at all). Occasional raw electric guitar licks and lead flourishes round it off nicely; afterwards, “Descent into Light” picks up with a similarly eerie atmosphere in a much heavier musical context. Dark, textural guitars meet a once more pummeling rhythm. Especially the faster sections prove to be tricky for McMaster to lend his signature vocals to; nonetheless, he manages to pull off the odd memorable moment.
Spanning eight tracks and 37 minutes, Howling Sycamore is exactly what the sum of the band’s parts initially suggested: a tour-de-force through different styles under the progressive/avant-garde metal umbrella. While there weren’t any notable deficiencies in quality over its runtime, I also waited in vain for the kind of exaltation that would have made Howling Sycamore more than the sum of its incredibly talented parts. In the end, Howling Sycamore is a very competent début release let down by the anticipation surrounding this promising project.
Notable Tracks: “Upended”; “Chant of Stillness”; “Dysphoria”
FFO: Ephel Duath, Watchtower, Brain Tentacles