'Fables Of The Sleepless Empire' - UneXpect (10/10)
In 2006, a band from Quebec quietly released an album that has since become the standard for avant-garde extreme metal. The band was UneXpect, and the album was 'In A Flesh Aquarium', a chaotic masterpiece which shocked many a listener for its uncompromisingly original take on metal, and complexity that bordered on insanity. Putting this band on the map with that album, it was natural for expectations (and tension) to be set very high for the release of the follow-up. The first months of 2011 were filled with apprehension for UneXpect's third record, given the aptly surreal title 'Fables Of The Sleepless Empire'. Although many bands tend to cave under the pressure of releasing an album that tops their magnum opus, UneXpect proves here that not only are they able to hold their fire, but are only getting more fierce. Although I had no problem calling 'In A Flesh Aquarium' a masterpiece even after many listens, it takes an album like 'Fables' to show me how flawed the band's second work really was. Maturing and consolidating their incredibly unique sound, UneXpect has once again raised the bar, and simply stated; created one of the most mind-boggling metal albums to have been released in quite a few years.
It's not that UneXpect have changed up their sound all too much from 'In A Flesh Aquarium'; their style is still technical, fiendishly complex, convoluted, and quirky as all hell. What does take 'Fables Of The Sleepless Empire' up to the next step in the band's evolution however is the fact that they have noticeably matured their sound from the sophomore. For all of its brilliance, 'In A Flesh Aquarium' was still quite a silly album that often sounded like it was trying to be 'avant' for the sake alone of being avant-garde and weird. Here, UneXpect sounds like they are trying to put together more cohesive compositions, with clearer melodies and greater dynamic between the chaotic tech sections and 'beautiful' passages. Remarkably, UneXpect has done this at no loss of weirdness or depth; 'Fables Of The Sleepless Empire' remains an incredibly challenging listen, especially to a listener who does not have the precedent of 'In A Flesh Aquarium' to fall back on.
Also, much of the tongue-in-cheek circus music which defined the second album for some is gone here, in the favour of more serious fusion sounds. Most notably among the non- metal sounds on 'Fables' is the often classically-nuanced violin work of Borboen, who gives the string section a strong foothold on the sound. Often when the guitars and mind-blowing bass work are blistering riff after riff of avant-garde madness, the violin grounds the band with a sense of near-gothic class. Musically, each member is at the top of their game, and after many listens to 'Fables Of The Sleepless Empire', it is difficult not to see these musicians as some of the best to have ever come out of the metal scene. Of special note is the bass work of Chaoth, whose fury with the 9 string bass is nearly unparalleled. Although the bass guitar is often lost in the mix of much rock music, the bass makes itself very prominent, especially in the most technical of 'Fables's instrumentations.
Vocally, the vocals may be the least remarkable aspect of what UneXpect has to offer, but also the greatest point of derision among prospective listeners. Featuring a variety of different growls, rasps, guttural vocals and even harmonies between these, the vocals are as over the place as the instruments, which can certainly be an acquired taste for some. However, these are placed in tandem with some clean vocals, occasionally falling to some low clean male vocals, but most often being placed on the unique alto voice of Leilindel. Due to the highly erratic chaos of the instruments and growls, she is left to defend most the melodic aspect from being overrun by the chaos, and for the most part, she holds her own, her jazz-affected vocal work swinging around the towers of guitars, bass, electronic samples and classical violin.
The songwriting here can be said to rest at the level of genius, even if it were only for the sheer amount of ideas and complexity that Syriak and company are able to push into each song. However, 'Fables Of The Sleepless Empire' reaches its level of near-perfection by the fact that each idea flows incredibly well into the next; each song is a condensed fury of ideas that each come at the listener with remarkable energy and context. Even with 'Unsolved Ideas Of A Distorted Guest' featuring ideas as disparate as a Celtic-tinged bass and violin intro to an electronic dance break, it all works perfectly, tied together by the melodic vocal work and dynamic ebb and flow that runs throughout the album. The last three tracks may have made more sense to have been combined into one track (as they make a running suite of music), but overall, 'Fables' runs and flows quite smoothly.
Regardless, 'Fables Of The Sleepless Empire' is an album that I would have new things to say about each time I listen to it; it's rare to hear such a wealth of ideas piled into fifty minutes, let alone to have things sound so well-arranged and cohesive. Although it may not have the shock value of such a groundbreaking album as 'In A Flesh Aquarium', it is certainly a fair step above its predecessor, taking the existing style of UneXpect, trimming the fat, and fashioning an experience that is detailed enough to present a constantly developing experience to the dedicated listener. Although I never tend to say this for new albums, it took me quite a few embroiled listens to realize that 'Fables Of The Sleepless Empire' is right up there with the other landmarks of progressive metal.