To professionally review an album requires undeniable audacity. It takes stones, my friend, to tell another individual how they fared in regards to the realization of their personal vision. I know: blah, blah, blah. I’ve long laid out the cardboard and have been breakdancing around this simple, stupid premise for many fucking moons now, (most overtly through the Mechanix and Ethics of the Album Review series, and yet I’m still whining about it. What a friggin’ drama queen. Why don’t I just take my tear-stained wubby and crawl back inside my bottle of Pinot Grigio, huh? There’s a good boy…
Regardless, I’ll admit that I’ve acquired a taste for the process and especially after chewing over it so damned long have found myself reflexively winding up to lob a review across the plate. I’m also magnetized by the concept of a critical analysis itself being subject to review, (assuming that anyone bothers to read it, any exercise in criticism is likewise, reflexively scrutinized. I’ve certainly judged the shit out of any number of reviews based on the frailty of their arguments or composition.) Finally, I’m keen to take this opportunity to mull an older album that I’ve not entirely seen eye to eye with. So after mentally auditioning recordings by the likes of Giant Squid, Bosse-de-Nage and Negative Plane, I landed squarely on Sculptured’s 2008 release Embodiment: Collapsing Under the Weight of God as my quarry.
Sculptured have always functioned as a band that for me—on paper—had the whole package. I generally look to be surprised and challenged by the music I listen to, even to the point of being slightly taken aback by it. At least, I tell myself that this is so. And to their credit, Sculptured never fail to gracefully hurdle this particular goal. They know how to compose a suitably sticky melody and they certainly know how to gleefully undermine one as well. They even managed to craft my favorite Maiden cover of all time via the band’s titular “Iron Maiden” for the Maiden America tribute album a way’s back. And yet, the brushstrokes have always shone too heavily for me with this band. Whether by way of the debut’s painfully oily lyrics, (check out “Almond Beauty” and hold on tight to your lunch,) and saccharine vocal treatments or through their later releases uneven, oftentimes fractious performances. Many of their compositions are mulishly scraggy and/or impenetrable, as if they recoil at the idea of their audience comprehending or even appreciating them as mere ‘entertainment,’ only to flower with violent suddenness into fully functional, attractive passages. No doubt for many listeners, the demands Sculptured place on them are simply too much to afford a holistically valuable experience. But personally, Sculptured’s ‘smartest band in the room’ élan in tow with just enough catchy-yet-novel devices has tended to bring me sniffing back around the grounds of their second and -most especially- their third efforts. Still, those brush strokes. Jesus…
Each Sculptured album is texturally different from the last. The labored, gilt chamber-orchestra airs of their debut is exchanged for the melted-Snikers-on-a-dashboard, New Orleans jazz ensemble of their sophomore effort Apollo Ends. The latter release painted large swaths of nearly impassable terrain, embroidered with slightly anachronistic, Gothenburg-esque riffs. Apollo Ends feels cramped and its melodic vocals are often far too homespun and communion-wafer thin. And while I appreciate the thematic nature of repeatedly referencing Don Anderson’s digestive issues and their tendency to be most severe in the morning, it makes for a super distracting leitmotif. Dyspepsia does not qualify as compelling lyrical matter. Still there’s a fascinating quality to the album’s dynamic ‘otherness’ and just enough beauty embedded in its warped bulwark to nourish the wearied listener. Revisiting it for this piece, it’s admittedly more enjoyable than I recalled.
Embodiment traces Apollo’s form by being discouragingly serpentine and needlessly prickly but a couple of fairly radical lineup shifts result in a very different feel to the work as a whole. Shit, I still recall my gross, slobbering appetite to lay hands on this monster when the word came down that it would feature not only the incomparable David Murray on drums but none other than friggin’ Andy Winter on keyboards! I, my friend, am no Winds fan, but Andy Winter’s treatments have always provided a tremendous amount of value to me. I’ll suffer through most any Winds arrangement—no matter how grueling- just to hear his remarks upon them. I predicted him providing Sculptured with valuable dimension and color.
Likewise, the drum performance on Apollo Ends is stiff and ill-fitting, like an old varsity jacket the band’s outgrown. That complicated muss needed something more articulate, more sensitive and generally more adept than what it got. David Murray would afford Sculptured the chassis it required to properly communicate its message. I was certain that this would be the album where Sculptured would finally wander into focus. But of course, I’m talking ‘focus’ as it exists from my perspective and already I’m back to square one, arrested by the medium of the review practice instead of following through with the movement itself. Oh, the tyranny of the mind, am I right?
“Your faith/ your Christ/ is an affliction.”
Within the first minute plus of Embodiment’s opening number, “Taking My Body Apart” the album’s cards are brazenly revealed. This would prove to be an elaboration of Apollo End’s “Above the 60th Parallel.” Wandering and willfully dissonant but now with far less distinct references to any other strains of the metal genre. Like the ghoul that it is, “Taking My Body Apart” casts zero reflection. The phrasing in its first minute and 45 seconds is fascinating by dent of its ugliness. The recording is suitably high-toned—if anything almost too much so—acting like a surgical beam to unveil every gnarly, diacritic detail. The level of exposure across the album is so damned high that the question’s never, “what exactly is happening?” but rather, “why exactly is this happening?” and upon occasion, “why does this fucking exist?”
No relief or mediation comes by way of Andy Winter’s performance as I’d presumed that it would. Those suave, neo-classically tinged treatments I most closely associate him with are exchanged for simplistic, grossly atonal organ synths; the kind of exasperating, one fingered keyboard abuse that wouldn’t be excusable in a pimple-studded, high-school jam band. What the f? The drumming at least is predictably head-spinning though it’s clear from the get-go that they’ll be righteously overplayed. (Surprisingly, over the years while I’ve come to terms with Andy Winter’s bizarre approach to Embodiment, it’s been David Murray’s wildly inconsiderate kit-work that’s emerged as my least favorite quality of the album. He allows precious little room for reflection or even oxygen and proves as much of a distraction than Apollo’s weird preoccupation with diarrhea. Or maybe this too is a motif. Maybe Anderson’s tummy trouble was thematically communicable and now the drumming itself has the trots. Jeez, you guys are way to smart for me.)
And then, at the 2:07 mark, the sea of reeds parts and what’s arguably the catchiest, most majestic melody that Sculptured have yet conceived comes galloping from out its midst. Four measures in total—gratifyingly complimented by harsh as opposed to melodic vocals—that immediately compel the listener to recalculate and justify the movements that buttress them. It’s a wonderful passage and a clever trick that Sculptured will return to across the length of the recording, a bit like camouflaging a dog’s medicine with a treat, (only backwards.) In this instance, the treat’s obscured by the medicine. The razor blade hides the candied-apple.
As an aside: on reading over several other reviews of the album, I’ve been a trifle vexed to see the words “carnival-esque,” “Mister,” and “Bungle,” advanced time and again as functional descriptors. Incredibly lazy and, in fact, complete and utter sewage, my friends. I don’t know how Mr. Bungle became the control for eccentric, heavy music but it’s rarely, ever applicable. We’ll agree that Sculptured are equally as capricious as Monsieur B. but that hardly amounts to a viable one-to-one-comparison. Try again.
One of the album’s better qualities is only divulged via repeated tours of its landscape: in the same fashion that every Sculptured album feels different, every track on Embodiment radiates distinct temperaments. Technically, this shouldn’t be such a feat. Unless your name’s Impaled Nazarene or Motörhead, the listener should reasonably expect a quality of variegation and movement across a release. Sadly—and especially in death metal—this is rarely the case, (I miss you, Edge of Sanity.) But here, (for example) the surly “Bodies Without Organs” provides a welcome foil to the impulsiveness of the opening track, the in-and-out-of-focus frenzy of “The Shape of Rage” and the finger painted doom of the messy yet aptly titled “A Moment of Uncertainty.” Once again, on “Bodies…” the band fixes the candy-apple deep within the piece’s heart when—after an anti-riff that somehow sounds even more confused than the listener should be—at the 4:35 mark, the song casually trots out a tasty, Winter led jam that would handily unite both fans of Spiral Architect and early Phish. One of Sculptured’s praiseworthy knacks lies in their comfortability exploiting major chords and progressions. Clearly Dan Swäno’s always appreciated the utility of this practice. Morbid Angel have occasionally dabbled with major chords as well, but few extreme metal practitioners seem to grasp the value of mining such radically contrasting territories, (or else they’re too concerned that they’ll have their identification badges stripped away.)
“Embodiment is the Purest Form of Horror” functions neatly as the album’s closer. It slips into view with a rare virtue of gravitas, (not to mention a wicked, Amorphis like keyboard riff on the opening verse,) that simply feels conclusive, in the same way that the final song on an old Maiden release tended to strike an unequivocal tone of resolution. As a piece, this track most closely recalls the melodic legibility of the band’s debut album, evoking Sculptured’s bygone romantic inclinations while still underscoring their exceptionally scant attention span. Whereas most terrestrial bands would milk and build upon nearly any of the movements contained here for the sheer sake of economy, Sculptured impatiently slough off one worthy idea after another as if they were flipping through a Rolodex of closing statements. Everything funnels decisively into a final, wispy acoustic remark, with Andy Winter’s keys tracing a line through it in gorgeously restrained fashion, egressing Embodiment via an uncharacteristic flourish of elegance. Lights go up and the show is over, my friends. Wowzers. What the fuck was that?
It wouldn’t do to merely announce my assessment of this album as I find it today without balancing it against my impressions upon its release more than a decade past. My disappointment at that time was overt, veering nearly into resentment. Mind you, I dug outlandish music. Seriously. Neither Sigh nor This Heat nor Maudlin of the Well nor fucking Bloody Panda were too brazen for my tastes. But by contrast, Sculptured’s compositional tendency’s struck me as having an ulterior design. It wasn’t any one quality that I could put my finger on, but their idiosyncrasies felt calculated with the intent of keeping me at bay. Embodiment may as well have been code that said, “I can’t believe this dumb piece of shit still buys compact discs.” Despite the numerous passages that I found value in and despite the satisfaction of hearing the bass and guitars finally performing at the technical level that I’d always wished for Sculptured, the album altogether was too cool and too contrary for me to bother really acquainting myself with. I might have awarded it a 4 out of 10 in Decibel. I definitely would have left my boot-print on that review. And this is what can make the whole critique process a bit funny, right? Because over the following decade, though I still couldn’t make heads or tails of it, I kept revisiting Embodiment; trying to translate it into Earth language as I understood it. However difficult it was for me to appreciate, I felt an undeniable attraction to the work.
Over this exercise, (meaning over the last week and a half or so,) that attraction has sailed past mere appreciation into rank, all-encompassing adoration. I’ve listened to almost nothing else whatsoever and so the question obstinately bobs to the surface: is this what it would take to forge an emotional bridge to and/or to feel satisfied by any work? Is it merely a matter of unwavering immersion and time? Is the reality that we don’t actually dislike anything, rather that we simply haven’t realized our love for certain expressions yet? Or is it simply that Embodiment is a puzzling and inhospitable yet (arguably) brilliant album? An opus which requires the sort of intimacy that can only manifest after marathons of rendezvous to properly enjoy?
There’s a zen saying that goes, “like pebbles in a bag, the monks polish one another.” And sure, it sounds a little…umm, suggestive, but what it’s understood to mean is that through their constant interaction and utter lack of privacy in the monastery, the monk’s emotional defenses—their egotism—is sanded down into something smooth and ultimately more amenable to their spiritual aims. Perhaps that’s what has happened here. Through repeated exposure to the album’s odd transmission, I’ve stopped laboring to decipher it. I’ve stopped armchair directing it or wishing that it was something that it isn’t. I’ve become polished enough by dent of our encounters to glide between its gears and become a part of the transmission itself as opposed to being a lonesome, baffled receiver. I’ve digested it, ergo it is now me and hence I appreciate it. This is essentially what meditation is: to slip out of the fussy gown of the mind’s never ending preferences and admonitions and settle smoothly into the lushness of acceptance. So I see now that this piece is useless as a conventional review. You don’t review yourself or an intimate, beloved acquaintance; it’d be idiotic, the conflict of interest would be too outstanding. Perhaps that’s the value in reviewing output that’s relatively new to the critic. Perhaps a work needs to be measured before the both of you—meaning the judge and the subject—can be ‘polished’ by dent of their interactions. Interesting… So does that mean that my original 4 out of 10 stands? Oh, Jesus, this piece could hardly be more over.
Be a lamb and follow me @fallow.heart on Instagram won’t you?
“I don’t care terribly much about my own opinions. I find my own opinions very tiresome and predictable… You know, in a bar over a drink, I can dredge up an opinion. I can even dredge up a belief. But I don’t have much conviction in these matters.” —Leonard Cohen
“Through our ears the Universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the Universe becomes conscious of its glory…” —Alan Watts
“The minister, the Uraeus,
the Abraxas Stone, the Cup,
‘Obscurum per obscurius!’
and the sea of reeds furls up.”
—You Gaunt Horse of a Deathbed Bride, Forrest Pitts