Perhaps you’ve never heard of Conquering Dystopia before…but you probably know the members who make up this new group. This US-based collaborative group and likewise-named album Conquering Dystopia is the new instrumental metal project set forth by 7-string guitarists Jeff Loomis (ex-Nevermore, solo artist) and Keith Merrow (solo artist), joined by Alex Webster (Cannibal Corpse, Blotted Science) on bass and Alex Rudinger (The Faceless) on drums. This project was independently funded through indiegogo.com by fans who wanted to see this album come to fruition who raised more than double their project’s goal. It is currently available in digital format only from their website.
The cover art and song themes are dark and grey with apocalyptical titles, and from the look and sound of the album it could very well have been Jeff Loomis’ 3rd full-length solo album. His continued collaboration with fellow 7-string axer Keith Merrow, who takes on the rhythm guitar parts and holds down the solid base of the song while allowing Jeff to soar on his well-known solos (or provide harmonies to the parallel riffs they play together) is a successful pairing. Their vision and style seems one and the same, and this album shows off their – and their bandmates’ – talents in spades.
The opening song, Prelude to Obliteration, is a very energetic opener, with djent chording and alternating soloing pushing the song along. The prestissimo tempo to this song seems quite comfortable to this shredding duo of Jeff and Keith, who provide many memorable riffs, as well as the bottom-end and rhythm being masterfully maintained by the able-bodied Alexes. The song title is very apropos, as this album seems to be intent on obliterating the listener (in a good way), and this song is just warming them up to quite an intense album.
Tethys, the second track, starts off strong with continued machine-gun drumming and dissonant chording but then slows down with the opening melodic riff played over arpeggiated chords. About halfway through the song, there is a melody that is heard among flurries of 16th notes between the accents of the melodic line, the motif of which is then translated to a softer acoustic guitar, giving it a different yet smoothly delineated sound altogether. The change of pace is abrupt yet refreshing, with a dash of strings thrown in for good measure. But before long, the electrics and rhythm re-enter with the continued brutal assault of the introductory riffs.
The third tune, Ashes of Lesser Men, is not a slow tune, but has a waltz-like feel as it begins. As the song continues, however, a more straightforward 4/4 is felt, and the 16th/32nd note rhythms take more precedence. However, there is a very nice main melody motif that comes in soon after, and reprises throughout the song, and is one of the more memorable overall on the album. This interchanges with the sheer speed metal that interplays between these melodies. It returns to the waltzy feel toward the end with more neo-classical runs that return before the speed chords finish out the song.
Doomsday Clock, the fourth track, is a shorter 2+ minute song that starts with a dissonant/minor theme with a singular guitar that has an almost sitar-like sound that plays forlornly over an old audio of a speech given by President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Madison Square Garden on October 31, 1936. Later in the song, electric guitar is gently introduced into the song with some accompanying harmonics, and eventually a solo line. Its haunting melody befits its namesake of the time ticking down to the end of the world accelerated by man’s technologically induced catastrophe; however, the minor key very slowly and methodically changes to a major key toward the end, almost as if giving the listener some hope. Incidentally, the Doomsday Clock was last set in January 2014 to 5 minutes till midnight, only 2 minutes closer than its initial setting in 1947. Inexhaustible Savagery, the fifth track, starts immediately after Doomsday Clock without a break in a style that is completely opposite of its predecessor and completely lives up to its namesake. The opening is very brutal and busy, note-laden with low-chord polyrhythms, which maintain throughout the song, but once the first solo starts about ¼ into the song, it continues to shred over the rhythm guitar’s, bass’s, and drum’s flurry of activity for the majority of the song. This song is very speed/thrash-oriented, so it isn’t for the faint of heart. It eventually fades out with the chord’s sustain and a faint synth in the background.
Totalitarian Sphere notches the tempo back a bit and starts off with a more melodic introduction. The rhythm portion of this sixth song is moving and engaging, while the soloing is melodic but tempered and shows off more of Jeff’s semiharmonic “Sustaniac” pickup feature on his guitar. At 2:33 there is a wonderful bass solo where Alex Webster’s bass can truly be heard and allowed to shine. The guitars re-enter and continue with the bassline as a foundation to continue their chords until the solo guitar takes off again
Lachrymose begins the seventh track with a beautiful acoustic opening that changes the pace in the album again. As the arpeggiated chords continue on the 12-string acoustic guitar, the electric comes in with the melody leads. This song is without bass or drums, and is a nice piece with a memorable, emotional melody that seems to reflect the meaning of its title. To me, this little song is one of the gems on the album.
The eighth song, Autarch, is back to the signature sound of Conquering Dystopia with low-tuned rhythm while Jeff’s lead guitar soars over top with the solos. The rhythm guitar by Keith, however, is not to be overlooked, as it continues to stay on target holding down the tempo with eighth note runs or alternately-picked chords. The rhythms are aptly supported by Alex W’s bass that arpeggiates the root chords and Alex R’s drums that reflect the rhythms of Keith’s guitar.
Interestingly enough, a song with the title Nuclear Justice actually starts off quite tamely with a clean arpeggiated guitar line, that appropriately enough sounds melancholic in nature. This ninth song again prominently features Jeff’s “Sustaniac” pickup that allows the notes to trail off into the harmonics that gives it a nice yet sad ending. Keith’s rhythm highlights unusual chords structures to give it a dissonant or strange sound to the song to further highlight its melancholy. However, near the second half of the song, the vibe changes completely as it turns into a full-on assault of 16th and 32nd notes by the drums and rhythm guitar as the solo guitar takes on a slower approach over the blast of rhythms as if an attempt to balance it out, because too many more notes might have made this portion of the song catch flames (as the title might suggest).
Kufra at Dusk, a song title that references a southeastern area of Libya, is not nearly as Middle-Eastern sounding as I would have expected given its title (that style seems to be saved for the next song). However, some of the guitars sound sitar-like, but it is not enough to merit being considered oriental metal. Overall, this is a fast-paced song that keeps your head moving. The rhythm parts are syncopated underneath a steady 16th note stream, and the drums are generally quite assaultive sometimes in sync with the rhythm guitar, but sometimes with extraneous kick drum that seems humanly impossible. This is one of the shorter songs on the album at under 4 minutes, and continues its style until it abruptly ends.
The eleventh track, entitled Resurrection in Black, is a short one-minute piece that has a Middle Eastern/Arabic feel to the piece with a haunting cantoric vocal and strings in the background. It segues immediately into the twelfth and last song, Destroyer of Dreams, which has an appropriately melancholic feel to the melody introducing the song with a single guitar, then exploding with the remaining instruments in a dirge-like 6/8 feel. The solo that enters with its turns continues the haunting feeling until the tempo speeds up with the intensity of shredding and machine gun percussion taking over the remainder of the song with virtuostic soloing and djent strumming both trading off and playing simultaneously until the last third of the song, when the melancholic melody from the beginning returns and is accented by some countermelody arpeggiating against the melodic theme. At just over 7 ½ minutes, this track is the longest on the album.
This collaboration of men as the group Conquering Dystopia has proven to be a good fit. The addition as support on the Animals as Leaders tour this year also appears to signify the viability of this group to continue together rather than being just a crowdfunded flash in the pan. All of the men in this group are technically proficient, which keeps the quality and skill found in the album to be of the highest caliber. Their style is definitely set, though they take the time to occasionally diverge on a song here and there to feature a completely different style or approach, which I find refreshing. In some ways, I wish they would explore those sides a bit more often, since only ¼ of their songs varied from their tried and true approach of progressive speed metal, and I like having some variety within a band’s repertoire. One thing that I lamented was (perhaps in the mixing, because of two 7-string guitars that are tuned lower, or just because of the sheer amount of notes and layers flying around in any given song) that Alex Webster’s bass was nearly unnoticeable throughout the whole record. I feel he had a lot to contribute but it was drowned out much of the time. In addition, Alex Rudinger’s drumming was seemingly superhuman, especially with the speed of the kick drum and the accuracy of his precise rhythmic paralleling to the guitars; however, at times I felt that it was a bit over the top and overpowered the rest of the music at times so that parts were too busy as a whole. I understand that this album is meant to be fast, but the multilayering of 32nd+ notes by all parties involved can almost be counterintuitive and be a mush of notes no matter how precisely they are played.
Keith Merrow’s rhythm guitar work was solid and provided a good foundation for each and every song, as did Jeff Loomis’ emotional soloing that covered the themes of each song. Overall, already being a fan of Jeff Loomis’ music, and this album being much in the vein of his previous work, I still find this album compelling and can give it several spins at a time. I enjoy the instrumental nature of the music, with a few touches here and there of some non-lyrical vocals, or the underlying audio of the FDR speech, that keep it interesting. I think this group has quite a promising future, and hope that they continue this adventure with more collaborations. I highly recommend this album, especially for fans of instrumental, progressive, and thrash styles of metal, whether or not you are already a fan of any of the members’ previous work.