Building off of 2019’s terrific NP-Complete, experimental/progressive metal fivesome East of the Wall take their sound farther than ever on sixth LP A Neutral Second. While it definitely falls in line with their previous work, it’s simultaneously more eclectic, unified, and single-mindedly driven than anything they’d done previously. From start to finish, the album exudes East of the Wall’s trademark balance of hectic intricacy, serene respites, and atmospheric transitions. As such, it’s likely their finest work to date and the best example yet of why they’re one of New Jersey’s greatest genre acts.
Once again, the band consists of Seth Rheam (drums/percussion), Greg Kuter (guitars/vocals), Chris Alfano (bass, synths, programming, vocals), Matt Lupo (guitars, synths, trumpets, vocals), and Matt Keys (guitars/synths). In fact, Alfano reflects, A Neutral Second marks the first time the group “had a single, consistent lineup composing a record from day ‘one’ through day ‘done. . . . [B]y [our] standards, this was smooth sailing.” That’s especially commendable not only because of how gracefully the quintet work together, but also because they included several guests.
Specifically, they’re joined by percussionist Mike Somers (The Postman Syndrome), vocalist Craig Cirinelli (Flowers for War, The Atlantic Union Project), vocalist Audra Mariel (Martin Howth), vocalist Joe Pfeiffer (Fake Gimms), and bassist Rolando Alvarado (El Drugstore, Gematria) providing miscellaneous soundscapes. Naturally, they add plenty of variety and personality to the sequence, as do mixer Scott Evans (Thrice, Covet) and mastering engineer Brad Boatright (Sleep, Mutoid Man).
Opener “Detonator Gauntlet” wonderfully illustrates the album’s sundry tenacity. Kicking off with a moody tirade of multilayered guitar riffs, suspenseful syncopation, gentle singing, and subtle synths, its slightly jazzy post-metal vibe evokes superb artists such as Intronaut, Dredg, Russian Circles, and The Ocean. Although the various vocal passages are certainly compelling, it’s the constantly shifting arrangement that intrigues most because of its sophisticated cosmic adventurousness. In particular, the ways in which different timbres chart their own paths before connecting unexpectedly (and excitingly) are very clever and skillful, so the arrangement is endlessly cohesive despite containing numerous counterpoints.
By and large, the remaining pieces live up to those standards and align with that template. Both “Fawning” and “Momentum Mori” incorporate a bit more Mars Volta-esque grittiness and strangeness, whereas “Autosomal Recessive” offsets some of the LP’s mellowest moments with guttural screaming and impressively complex intersecting singing. The hyperactive “Unfamiliar Glass Ceiling” is a notably speedy and grand affair, and its choral harmonies make it feel quite epic and weighty, while panicked closer “Hegemony’s Dilemma” mostly earns distinction due to Mariel’s delightful detour (which also features trippy horns and engrossing rhythmic shifts). Throw in two captivating interludes—the programmed and orchestral “Spite of Icarus” and the mournfully acoustic “Reclamation Rites”—and you have an immensely diverse and striving musical journey.
Even when taking East of the Wall’s prior accomplishments into account, A Neutral Second is a tremendously robust and multifaceted statement. Without a doubt, the fivesome have reached new heights as composers and performers—especially with the addition of so many specialized guests—yielding a collection that’s instantly absorbing yet requires numerous playthroughs to completely appreciate. If you’re a fan of progressive music in any form, you absolutely need to check it out.