Founded by guitarist Davide Tiso (Gospel of the Witches, Ephel Duath) in 2017, Californian quintet Howling Sycamore successfully “melt together extreme metal drumming, layered down-tuned guitars and old school prog metal singing.” Presently rounded out by past or present members of Dysrhythmia, Brain Tentacles, Obscura, WatchTower, and Skinlab—among others—their self-titled 2018 debut LP received warranted praise for its eclectic and forceful grandeur. Its follow-up, Seven Pathways to Annihilation, is largely a more cohesive and less eccentrically polarized affair; as a result, it’s a fine sophomore effort that’s nonetheless too unvaried and tedious at times.
Seven Pathways to Annihilation was mixed and mastered by the legendary Jamie King (Scale the Summit, The Contortionist, BTBAM), so it obviously sounds really good. In addition, guest guitarists Marty Friedman and Matt Baldwinson help bring Howling Sycamore’s vision to life. As for how the two records compare, Tiso comments, “With our second album, I wanted things to be slightly more challenging . . . and we ended up with a much denser collection of songs. . . I aimed for a bigger, richer production but still very natural sounding.” Thematically, the LP deals with “shamanic and metaphysical principles displayed with crude and sometimes brutal imagery. The title, in particular, is tied to the idea of self-destroying one’s ego in order to live a more enlightened existence.” Like the tunes, the cover of Seven Pathways to Annihilation—designed by French artist Dehn Sora—makes it seem truly connected to what came before it.
Musically, the band displays constant charismatic momentum despite feeling stuck in place on occasion. Opener “Mastering Fire,” for instance, begins with gothic guitar arpeggios before launching into a guttural onslaught of intriguing riffs and rhythms. Afterward, “Departure” maintains that aether while adding a tinge more dynamic impetus, including violin-esque croons and striving syncopation. In contrast, “Second Sight” is more dissonantly atmospheric, with a spacious backdrop of distortion leading the way toward a ripping guitar solo. The lengthy closer, “Sorcerer,” is the most wide-ranging of the bunch, mainly due to saxophonist Bruce Lamont finally getting the spotlight. The chillingly isolating coda of acoustic guitar fingerpicking and somber piano notes is a welcomed touch as well. Although a fair amount of Seven Pathways to Annihilation sounds too similar, these elements certainly bring individuality to the runtime.
As for vocalist Jason McMaster, he’s the most divisive variable of the mixture (not because he’s lackluster on a technical level, but rather because his style and timbre may not work for everyone). His dense falsetto outrage works well enough on tracks like “Mastering Fire” and “Second Sight”—channeling the late, great Ronnie James Dio in the process—but elsewhere, he’s too overbearing. He’s downright grating throughout most of “initiation” and especially “Raw Bones,” for example, and his urgent theatricality during “Tempest’s Chant” can be downright comical. Again, these attributes will no doubt be acceptable, if not appealing, for many fans; yet, for others, it maybe be too much too often.
In any case, Seven Pathways to Annihilation will surely please those who enjoyed the group’s first outing (as well as devotees of the genre in general). Although some of its predecessor’s manic unpredictability is sorely absent, Howling Sycamore seem more concentrated and self-assured this time around. Whether that’s a positive or a negative is up to the listener, of course, but there’s no denying the power and potential the troupe conveys yet again. It’s a shame that some lesser elements detract from it a bit, but there’s definitely more to enjoy about Seven Pathways to Annihilation than not.