Pyrrhon, An Excellent Servant But A Terrible Master (2011)
Full disclosure: I approached this review with a fair amount of trepidation, because Doug Moore, Pyrrhon’s vocalist and lyricist, is not only a fellow staff writer over at Metal Review, but is also an all-around Good Dude. Still, it would take an overweening amount of Good Dude-ness to make me overlook shitty music, of which I am happy to report Pyrrhon delivers precisely zero.
You and I and your grandmother all know that overly technical metal follows the law of diminishing returns: the first squiggly insane bit blows one’s mind, but keep it up for too long, and squiggly insane bits number two through x will assuredly fall on tired ears. Thus, New York’s own Pyrrhon succeeds where a lot of ultra-technical death metal acts fail by actually allowing the listener to get her rhythmic bearings before going off on a fret-abusing tear (see “Glossolalian” for a prime example of this at work). Too many of the glitchy meth-or-Red-Bull-heads in tech death bands start by writing frantically technical parts, then attempt to wedge them into loosely recognizable songs. Pyrrhon’s approach is the opposite: creating a solid frame of a song, which is then adorned with and debased by flights of sheer heart attack (see “Correcting a Mistake,” where the bass-only opening is not simply a solo spot, but actually previews the skewed melodic riffing of the guitars).
This is technical death metal not on the model of Decrepit Birth, Obscura, or any of that other relentlessly modern fare, but more on the queasy, churning darkness of Ulcerate. Or, perhaps, imagine if Gorguts had written an album halfway between the styles of The Erosion Of Sanity and Obscura. All of which is a roundabout way of saying, Pyrrhon is technical as all shit, but the guitars aren’t just senselessly puking up pinches and squeals and taps – when they do appear, they function as effective rhythmic landmarks (see the opening of “Flesh Isolation Chamber,” for example). Just as one’s senses are ruthlessly toyed with, jerked half a beat this way before being yanked entirely in another direction, there are always little footstools of solidity, fleeting though they may be.
Check out the guitars at around the three-minute mark of “New Parasite” and the clean guitar section in “Gamma Knife” for some excellently woozy pitch-bending, sounding like some alien deep space radar, quietly pinging out the dead oceans of time. Dylan DeLilla’s solo sections are wonderfully psychedelic, and very atypical for this kind of death metal – see especially the midsection of “The Architect Confesses,” with Erik Malave’s thick, purling bass backing an otherworldly spaghetti Western Hendrix. Alex Cohen’s drumming alternately blasts and breathes, smoothly cocooning the broken shard guitar riffing. “Idiot Circles” is a fine example of the monomaniacal dismantling of the tenuous border fences between the great bruising beatdowns of hardcore and the harrowing land of avant-garde death metal, throwing in some Suffocation influence to complement the skronky dissonance of Deathspell Omega and the jerky time-stretch fuckery of Gorguts and Ulcerate that prevail throughout An Excellent Servant…
Moore’s vocals are a hugely versatile instrument used to great effect throughout the album. “Gamma Knife” in particular is a great vocal showcase, featuring a huge range of techniques: spacey effects, deep, throaty bellows, and mid-range snarls. The overwhelming effect, though, is that the vocals are always nervily focused on throttling intensity of delivery rather than dry perfection of techniques. You may also find yourself quite the paranoiac, constantly stealing glances over your shoulder during the spooky clean section of “Flesh Isolation Chamber,” which shows off the clean enunciation of Moore’s dangerously-unhinged vocals. The song, in fact, is probably the best one on the album, as it displays the full range of Pyrrhon’s stylistic touches, plus the way it keeps lurching and threatening to come apart at the seams toward the end is a nice effect.
Since I’ve made a right fuss about Moore’s expressive vocal delivery, it certainly doesn’t hurt that the man’s lyrics are a masterful blend of evocative imagery and forceful economy, one that finds a certain apocalyptic resonance not in the overwrought violence of world wars or collapsing cities, but rather in the quotidian tyranny of alienation and disaffection. The lyrics to “Gamma Knife” read like a Kafka-esque version of Tom Waits’s “Alice”:
“A great, silent heart
Sprouting vein-trees and capillary branches
and spinning lonely through the ice.”
The lyrics also invoke a blighted urbanism, rather like a resigned instead of revolutionary version of Alan Averill’s fanatical protagonist on Blood Revolt’s Indoctrine. One of the absolute finest phrases in this style comes from “Flesh Isolation Chamber”:
“Which is worse:
Always being watched
Or never being seen?”
Moore’s lyrics are most clearly distinguished at the most crucial point, the last lines of the album: “I don’t give a fuck what happens to me / All I want is to go to sleep.” What follows that final exhortation is yet another twisted guitar solo section, singing for all the damned world a demented lullaby. An Excellent Servant But A Terrible Master is delightfully entropic; or, at the very least, its musical text can be read as a dialectic between order and chaos, surging, heaving, lunging onward to respite or ruin. But tending – as always, with everything – to entropy.
This is a remarkable debut from a confident and talented band, and there is absolutely no reason that Pyrrhon should still be without a label. Willowtip, Crucial Blast, Relapse, Profound Lore, somebody: get on this shit now.
Overall rating: 85%.