Album Review: ALARUM - Circle's End

Artist: Alarum

Album: Circle's End

Genre: Heavy Metal/Fusion

Review by Brady Irwin

Things really do run in circles, don’t they? Birthdays, seasons, global viral outbreaks. History tends to repeat itself, and both patterns of behaviour and forces of nature seem to move in cycles.

Well, one force of nature that we’re glad to see re-emerging from the chrysalis is Melbourne’s Alarum. Circle’s End breaks the silence with a brilliant new opus from this technical, jazz-infused progressive metal institution. Sweeping back around nine years after the acclaimed Natural Causes record, the skillful trio of Mark Palfreyman on bass/vocals, John Sanders on guitar/backup vocals and Scott Young also on guitar. Joining them for the album is skinsman Ben Hocking who, like Young, is of The Levitation Hex fame.

As the album refuses to do: let’s not waste time, shall we?

Unlike the meanderings of many progressive metal bands on their openers, Alarum spend literally no time dallying with single Sphere of Influence. Tearing around the block like hoons on the run from a disgruntled highway cop, the track opens with pointedly thrashing rhythms and Palfreyman’s raspy bark leaping over pinioned riffs in one quick burst before giving way to an extremely brief, hazy jazz chord or two. No time is wasted vaulting over that fence, however, into technical thrash complete with gloriously over-the-top lead blazing, as well as riffing that would get a solid thumbs-up from Frekdrik Thordendal. The tight palm-muted sections the band employs at full speed are juxtaposed with washed-out, ethereal effects. Yeah, sure, this is prog, mate – but this isn’t your endearingly nerdy, Dream Theater-shirt-wearing mates’ brand of prog. The abrupt stop-start outro that burns out from the opener into the equally frenetic pacing of ‘Syzygy’ is proof enough of that.

Borrowing from bands like early Cynic, but with their own traditional-metal stylings, there’s a wonderful interplay between focused prog riffing, wailing leads and concentrated swirls of tremolo riffage. The mixture spits out this manic connotation of the more hectic stylings of the unhinged but watertight creativity of, say, Strapping Young Lad. It’s a tasty musical soup that derives itself from a smorgasbord without contradicting itself. Vocals perform almost as an additional percussive instrument, the esoteric lyrics from barks and rasps bouncing around bandmates, never being too foregrounded nor detracting from the commotion around them. Some superbly histrionic soloing over a breakdown riff rounds this one out in both prog and classic metal fervour.

Much that has been said about the prior track could be stated about follow-up ‘Delta’. Not that this is a bad thing at all; in fact, it demonstrates a formula that clearly works. Simply put, a lot of the same mechanisms are in the place as the previous track, however the ante on the flavourful shred is dialled up a notch. Some people just can’t be helped, and we’re glad to let the fretboard-frenzied affliction go untreated. Again, a serpentine and complex breakdown riff over those vocal chants leads the song to a satisfying conclusion.

Overall, on this album there’s a tangible hopefulness hidden behind the chord progressions on this album that really brightens things up. It’s a sensation of playfulness that is oft overlooked or missed in prog circles. Arguably, it takes greater skill not to fall prey to more sombre tones and aesthetics when writing a metal album, and the crisp production helps this sunny-day brightness shine through.

Mind you, they’re not exactly breaking out the campfire acoustic and singing Kumbaya, either. Interlude ‘Crystals’ is exemplary of this, the vocal lines of a female singer siding up against some almost sickly but epic chords and effects. Mildly unsettling in a good way, as an arpeggio leads out to samples of lapping water. It’s a reminder that what we’re listening to has potential to be brooding as well as bombastic. You happy, sad-prog folks?

That business was well over as soon as it began, though, leading into some very jazzy tones over the subsiding samples of lapping water. ‘Sand’ implies exactly the connotation of the title in its’ introduction. I get the impression I’m back on my holiday on the beach in Thailand, holding hands with my partner whilst shuffling over warm sands. The clean tones of duelling jazzy guitars, playful bass and grooving drums pull off a relaxed holiday-ready tempo and feel. And then - thwack! Pummelling into what feels like the fastest section of the album so far, Ben’s double-kicks begin furiously barreling over a warp-speed palm-muted riff into some epic clean singing and thick chords. This doesn’t last long before diving into frantic leads bouncing over almost sickly synth, warbling momentarily before pushing into what is pretty much death metal territory. Before things feel too bleak, the chorus lifts back up, clean vocal strains and refrains sounding like they’ve been lifted from the classic metal textbook. The song melts away to a very synth-heavy outro, again with those lapping waves, giving the impression of being transported straight back to those warm daytime sands.

Lulled into a reverie but expecting a hard hit around the corner, the inevitable wake-up punch to the head clips you ‘round the ears with the stomping and frantic pacing of ‘War of Nerves’. Whilst still employing tasteful and melodic leads, there’s a much more focused bulldozer of rolling and technical riff-work in this number, keeping things at an urgent pace that keeps more in step with say, classic Kreator, than it does your typical prog outfit. A pulsing mid-section with a tight, rasp-heavy breakdown keeps things decidedly metal, the pace never relenting for the majority of the track, save for some punchy and focused breakdowns and the requisite snarky soloing. Even the smooth, jazzy outro section is kept high-tempo and staccato in nature so as to not relapse the sense of urgency.

Pushing all the chips across the table and quadrupling down on this angle is the furious, death metal-inflected intro to ‘In Spiral’, reaching climactic levels of heaviness, blastbeats and sweeps. Barging through at a bewildering pace, the metallic feel of the songs’ first half isn’t even slightly affected by some off-kilter chords and feverish leads, building instead back up again into a furious climax. Tapping and soloing away, the lead guitar is accompanied by an absolutely beefed up rhythm section, the sharp bass clicking through the controlled din that fades out towards the tracks’ end.

‘Thoughts to Measure’ begins in much stranger fashion, a doo-wop vocal chant and off-kilter bass that kicks forward suddenly into that full-band thrashing attack. Reaching a zenith of pace and insanity that mirrors the track preceding it, you get the overall sense with this album that they’ve worked to really thicken out the heavier angles of their sound. The interspersing of just-slightly-atonal shredding with walls of twisting riffs adds to the unpredictable feeling. A much more shuffling, tripped out jazzy section with walking bass and spoken word precedes riffs that feel like a thrash metal band on too much shrooms, punching back into a breakdown punctuated with random chants and yelps. The track gives off a brutal Mr. Bungle sort of vibe, without being too lavishly psychotic or edgy about it.

This strangely enough acts as a perfect segue to the dulcet chords and arpeggios introducing the albums’ title track. Playfully moseying about on some airy chords and jazz feelings, a more traditionally ‘prog’ (what an oxymoron that is, right?) crescendo, with leads that conjure up Plini as much as anything, rises steadily and surely.

However, it isn’t long before this is cast aside for a steadfast procession of thick chords, palm-muting and urgent fret-bouncing over rolling drum-work. Stomping around with consistent attack, the vocals rise to prominence in this track and act once again as an effective percussive adjunct. The ante on the guitar histrionics is turned up and down like a dimmer switch, flashing in hysterical bursts between thrashing gallops.

Without repeating myself too much, we come to expect much of the same formula and are delivered as such with ‘Sojourn’. Interestingly, there feels like there is just an outright encyclopedic use of chords, riffs, time signatures and tempos. The playoff between off-kilter jazz and equally wavering but tight metal riffage feels just as trademarked and diverse as the preceding tracks. What the closing track does, is cranks the ante up on absolutely everything. More virtuosity on the shredding and complexity of riff dynamics. A bigger and bolder presence of the crashing drums and punching bass. A more labyrinthine mix of faster and more complex riffs. Tighter breakdowns.

It’s as though the band have smirked through the album with the knowledge they’ve still yet to dial it to eleven. Their eleven, not yours. Once it reaches stratospheric proportions, the whole cataclysm drops out to a more chilled, acoustic inflected midsection. This leads to a quiet, softening outro, which honestly is a very nice wind-down to the mathematical complexity and urgency of the rest of the album.

So, there you have it. Alarum once again reminds Australia, and indeed the progressive metal scene, what it actually means to be a prog-metal band. And that, judging by this corker of a record, is to be both concise, relentless, diverse, exploratory and punishing. Top-shelf stuff.

Circle's End will be released on June 19.

Pre-order here:

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