Surprises sure are cool, and this year seems to just be full of them. Chicago-based sludge/post-metal outfit Scientist recently self-released Barbelith, and after spending just a few minutes with it, I knew it was something special. I had heard just one song ahead of the release, and then after I got my hands on the full record my impression of this band got flipped on its head. Barbelith is one the most fearless records of the year and has unexpectedly leap-frogged a few others on my favorite albums of the year. The key to this greatness is the subversion. When I saw tags like ‘sludge’ and ‘post-sludge’ my brain dialed in on a certain sound that I was going to hear. Thankfully, Scientist finds ways to break that expectation down.
The first encounter I had with this approach is on the second track of Barbelith, “Magick Mirror”. The song begins with single guitar note gliding over a set of simple guitar chord changes. As this winds up, the meaty tones of a guitar, drums, and bass enter setting the tempo and upping the atmosphere. Oh, you think that was it? That’s not all. After some screeching leads, everything but a single guitar drops out. The tone is fuzzy and – bam – we’re right into a stoner rock riff that’s rife with blues aesthetics. But guess what? This riff ends abruptly and a chaotic black metal segment crashes in. These transitions may seem sudden or abrupt if you’re just reading my description, but trust me, it’s handled skillfully. What this also does is act as a sort of plot device. Much like watching Game of Thrones when you see who you think to be a pivotal character bite the dust when these stylistic transitions happen, it puts you on the edge of your seat.
The title track clocks in as the longest at just over six minutes, and showcases the band’s grasp on creating vocal dynamics and exceptional lyrics. “Barbelith” begins with the fuzzy bass lines and ferocious vocals. The lyrics here are apocalyptic and existential and that just hits the sweet spot for me. ‘Am I the final bone in a mass grave?/Has this compound worm met its fate?/Will I now be consumed?/What more is there left to do, but face this god that I so love to hate?’ After this fiery delivery, there is a clean melodic response that softens up the atmosphere and is one of the most impressive and dynamic passages on the record. This call-and-response continues throughout the song and I never tired of it.
Throughout Barbelith, there is a real diversity in the compositions. “Fiction Suit” is an upbeat sludge track with groovy-as-hell drumming and almost Converge-like atmosphere. “Retrograde” sees the bass come back to the front of the mix and feels like a late-90’s take on sludge. Sure, plenty of bands can play in a plethora of styles, but doing so with this proficiency and excitement is profoundly impressive. Lastly, what I will say is that the pacing is great on Barbelith, with most songs being in the five-minute range, and with seven tracks you can get in and out of the record in around forty minutes.
A few months ago, I wrapped up a review on a record that I was certain would be the finest post-metal record of 2018. Barbelith is making me reconsider that idea. Scientist have created a record that is bursting at the seams with creative energy and chaotic spontaneity. The vocal diversity, blending of styles, and incredible lyrics make this record one of the best I have heard this year. Don’t let this gem stay hidden. Buy it. Share it. Blare it.
Notable Tracks: “Barbelith”; “Magick Mirror”; “Fiction Suit”
FFO: Neurosis, LLNN, Abraham