I don’t envy The Faceless for the position in which they’ve managed to place themselves. With Autotheism, they’ve crafted a palatable but distinctive record which straddles the gap between the prohibitive and unfriendly realms of technical death metal and those of death metal’s more populist strains, flirting with if never fully embracing elements of the dreaded designation of deathcore. The result is an album which is good according to any reasonable standards by which it might be judged, but which also feels like it lacks a home. Certainly it should be enjoyed by all but the most selective fans of death metal, or the most antagonistic towards the genre’s cleaner, slicker tendencies, but Autotheism also lacks, shall we say, a holistic commitment to a particular aesthetic or “vibe” that would cause it to really resonate with a specific audience.
If there’s any superlative which The Faceless (US) have earned with their third full-length, it is this: this is probably the most accessible, easy-on-the-ears “pure” death metal album (which is to say, not melodic death metal, which is really a subtype worthy of wholly independent consideration) I’ve ever listened to. In and of itself, this is not at all a point against it. On the contrary, death metal’s tendency towards unrelentingly hyperbolic extremes has proven its undoing as often as not, and I applaud any act with the willingness to marry passages of frenetic tempos and disorienting, complex guitar work to moments of more conventional melodicism, giving the listener room to breathe while introducing new textural permutations. While The Faceless’ arrangements can get pretty Byzantine – to anyone who doubts their credibility, I refer you to the minute-and-a-half “Hymn of Sanity,” a diabolical musical fractal pattern with the density of a collapsing star – their songs as units are never as bewildering as the kaleidoscopic whirlwinds penned by the likes of Spawn of Possession or Crimson Massacre.
Instead of trying to fathom the depths of virtuosic madness – which, truthfully, would be a fool’s errand given how thoroughly they have been plumbed already – The Faceless instead seek to broaden their horizons. Much has been made by fans of the increased prominence of frontman Michael Keene’s clean vocals, but really, these represent the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Autotheism’s commitment to versatility. The songwriting places almost as much emphasis on passages of thick, clanging post-metal influenced chords similar to those of Textures or The Ocean as it does on those of Keene’s and fellow guitarist Wes Hauch’s punishingly fast tempos and intricate, alienating dual harmonies. Tracks like “Ten Billion Years” or opener “Create” are incredibly measured in their pacing and build up, and segue sharply but cleanly into aural violence, drummer Lyle Cooper’s steady-handed, thrumming fills abruptly giving way to bursts of staccato blasting. Various other out-of-left field moments pepper the record, from a spoken monologue in a computerised “Stephen Hawking” voice on “Hail Science” to the implementation of a saxophone (which I melted like butter over, Ihsahn fanboy that I am) playing a quaintly sinister circus-styled waltz during “Deconsecrate.”
“Quaintly sinister” actually sums up my reaction to Autotheism quite well. The album conceptually tackles large scale themes regarding transhumanism and the accompanying Nietzschean “death of God” – an autotheist, the packaging explains, is one who mistakes the workings of their own mind for the voice of God. Correspondingly, the music of Autotheism carries with it a vaguely post-human air; Keene’s weirdly detached, low-key clean vocal performance; the metal-striking-metal percussion which conjures to mind the interior of a massive clockwork mechanism; the way the album’s brutal passages intrude unsympathetically into a seemingly calm façade; the quintessentially ultra-polished, ultra-modern tech-death production. Everything’s just a bit off-kilter and unnerving, an aural answer to the uncanny valley.
It’s an interesting conceit, but I can’t help but find Autotheism’s charms a bit insubstantial. That it’s unnerving is good, but it’s a quality that just kind of sits there, never really confronting the listener or coming to the forefront, permitting itself to be ignored. For the most part, we’re just listening to a highly competent, unusually mild and melodically inclined tech-death album, and while that’s perfectly pleasurable in its own right, its evocation of dehumanisation never draws blood. It’s like if you were attending a children’s birthday party and there was an old man who no-one had invited sitting by himself in the corner, giving everyone the evil eye. Certainly, he makes the proceedings a little uncomfortable, but he doesn’t hurt anyone and everyone ends up having a perfectly lovely time in spite of him. Compare that to, say, Anaal Nathrakh’s Vanitas, an album which similarly deals with dehumanisation, but which, in this analogy, opens fire on the party guests with a submachine gun, mutilates the survivors beyond recognition and burns the community centre down. It’s less subtle, certainly, but it leaves a much more lingering and potent impression.
Autotheism, much like I found with Carach Angren’s Where the Corpses Sink Forever earlier this year, is an album that feels like it could benefit from being stripped down. It functions well – excellently, in fact – as a metal album seeking to thrill and engage for its running time, but the melodic versatility and busy songwriting which make this the case also bury altogether more intriguing qualities. Truly extreme metal ought to thrive on its audience’s discomfort; this is not to say that it ought to prohibit the incorporation of new melodic ideas, but all too often, Autotheism feels like its melodicism mitigates rather than complements the eeriness at its core. The Faceless have made an intelligent album which I find compelling and pleasant to listen to, and it’ll probably be on rotation in my stereo for some time, but equally, it feels disingenuous that I can describe my feelings for a death metal record simply as “pleasant.”
01 Autotheist Movement I: Create
02 Autotheist Movement II: Emancipate
03 Autotheist Movement III: Deconsecrate
04 Accelerated Evolution
05 The Eidolon Reality
06 Ten Billion Years
07 Hail Science
08 Hymn of Sanity
09 In Solitude