Like many modern progressive metal acts— such as Between the Buried and Me, Opeth, TesseracT, and even Anathema if you want to go back that far—Indiana’s The Contortionist has gradually moved away from their extremely heavy roots and toward a lighter and moodier aesthetic. Whereas their first two albums (2010’s Exoplanet and 2012’s Intrinsic) featured a fine balance of gruff instrumentation, vocal growls, and tranquil counterbalances (in both respects), 2014’s Language was a significantly more serene and less brutal affair (due in part to several line-up changes, no doubt).
It’s not shocking, then, that The Contortionist’s fourth studio full-length, Clairvoyant, veers even further away from their roots. In fact, there are nearly no traces of death metal here at all; rather, the band commits almost completely to its multilayered and gentle atmospheric persona (with help from legendary producer Jamie King, who also worked on Language). While this will probably displease fans of their older material, those who prefer the group’s softer and more emotionally rich side will find Clairvoyant quite impactful, ambitious, and unified. Its substantial lack of harsh singing and musicianship does result in a slightly less colorful, interesting, and memorable journey than Language, yes, but what it lacks in those areas, it makes up for in pure effective cohesion.
“Monochrome (Passive)” kicks things off with effective patience, as an ominous soundscape of block chants, faint bells, and bleak dissonance swells into an explosion of slow riffs and rhythms. Six-string patterns are layered on top, too, yielding one of the record’s heftiest moments; however, it soon gives way to a marginally psychedelic/post-rock passage in the vein of Thank You Scientist, Russian Circles, or Closure in Moscow, with comforting bass lines and starry keyboard notes soaring across the speakers. Staccato and extended guitar tones appear near the end as well, resulting in a simultaneously chaotic and calm introduction.
From there, it bursts into “Godspeed,” a feisty and unpredictable tour-de-force in which Mike Lessard once again excels as a highly sympathetic and resonant singer. His almost monotone deliveries highlight the sense of defeat inherent in his subject matter, and his occasional harmonies—as well as subtle screeches—add valuable layers to her performance. Naturally, the band provides a fittingly invigorating and inventive backdrop to his laments, just as they do on the catchier, sparser, and more immediate “Reimagined.” In particular, percussionist Joey Baca and bassist Jordan Eberhardt lead the charge with an almost telekinetic bond of purpose and creativity.
As you might expect, the title track is easily among the most captivating of the sequence, with a constant flurry of vibrant fury interspersed with Lessard’s luscious melodies. Keyboardist Eric Guenther shines the most here due to his understated yet crucial cascades that bring a substantial dose of both feeling and flair. Likewise, centrepieces “The Center” and “Absolve,” with their dazzling arpeggios, sharp solos, and/or intersecting vocals, further establishes how heartfelt and poetic this newer incarnation of The Contortionist is. Next, “Relapse” and the penultimate “Return to Earth” ventures into Periphery-esque sentimental spaciness (with lovely piano work in the former and gripping lyricism and syncopation in the latter), while “Monochrome (Pensive)” brings the album full circle with a similar personality as its opening counterpart (albeit with the addition of Lessard’s moving final dirges). It truly delivers the closure and continuity listeners expect from such a thematically heavy journey.
Although Clairvoyant is a bit less diverse and flamboyant than its predecessors (hell, even the cover is appropriately black and white), it’s probably the sextet’s most unified and touching outing to date. A beautiful kind of tragedy, despair, and hope runs throughout the record thanks to how exceptional each member is not only in his own role, but in working together toward a ceaselessly powerful statement. As a result, the LP demonstrates how incredible The Contortionist is no matter where they fall on the spectrum of extreme lightness and darkness. Whether crushingly bleak and violent or optimistically peaceful and nuanced, their work is always profound and masterful.