It is often said that in life, there are but two certainties, death and taxes. However, I would argue that there is a third constant, one the surrounds us everywhere we look – change. Fallujah are a band who have recently undergone a radical change of their own, with former vocalist Antonio Palermo leaving the band after replacing Alex Hoffman only two years previous. Losing a vocalist is an extremely difficult time for a band, after all, they’re often times the most well-known member of it, and they underpin so much of a bands identity. Thankfully, Fallujah have always been able to trade on more than just a roster of good vocalists, with their trademark intricate and well-crafted sound blending intellect and extremity in an addictive, high-octane c**ktail that has so rightly won them a sizeable legion of fans across the metalsphere.
Armed with a new vocalist in Kyle Schaefer and a new bass player too in Evan Brewer, it is important that Fallujah are able to demonstrate that at their core, the old Fallujah is still there, whilst also stamping a new seal onto that core and showing an evolutionary step forward in the fringes of their sound. It is good news then that right from the get-go, “Empyrean’s” first track, “The Bitter Taste of Clarity” achieves this with aplomb. It’s somewhat less technical than most listeners would have come to expect from Fallujah, but it compensates for this with a wonderfully distinctive guitar tone, that almost borders upon making the instrument percussive as much as melodic, clear but still harsh vocals and a breakneck tempo that builds tension all the way up to a peaceful but well implemented piano outro. “The Bitter Taste of Clarity” ironically is likely to conjure up a refreshing taste of relief on the auditory taste-buds of long terms fans of the band, as it’s abundantly clear throughout the entirety of the track’s effectively five-minute runtime that the band has lost none of its edge, talent or distinctiveness throughout it’s tricky gap since 2019’s “Undying Light.”
Whilst “The Bitter Taste of Clarity” was a smidge less technical than some may have liked, that is rapidly fixed by the following song, “Radiant Ascension.” With a jangly and jaunt introduction that must’ve requires some commendable timing to nail its rather complex signature and a relaxed yet still engrossing set of choruses, there’s a lot to like about the track. I think if I had to pick between “The Bitter Taste of Clarity” and “Radiant Ascension” I’d probably pick the caveman option and pick the former, but ultimately, they both are very high-quality tracks introducing a high quality album from a high quality band and serve to demonstrate the two predominate styles of song that exist on “Empyrean.”
Fallujah here feel like a band just doing their own thing, no doubt they’re aware of being considered as a “Technical Death Metal” band, no doubt they know roughly what the wider fan-base of the album want to hear, and they do honor this in their album. This is not the be all and end all of their sound though. In some of their older work, it does feel like they felt compromised at points, like perhaps there was this want to make music for others before music for themselves. That’s not to say that their previous albums were bad, far from it, but here with this new line-up, the vision is clearer, more nuanced and overall superior to what I know of the band beforehand. Perhaps things had gotten too stale or comfortable before but there’s no risk of that now, the noticeable difference between the first two tracks on “Empyrean” shows a band that obviously wants to keep a cohesive album vision, but at the same time is just making music that it likes the sound of, no matter if it is technical or raw.
Going deeper into the album we have “Embrace Oblivion” with a really intriguing opening segment that actually sounds like something the legendary IDM act “Boards of Canada” would write. The aspersion is cast away with malice though as a hyperactive and Industrial sounding guitar thunders in, going up and down the scale like a frog that’s drank 10 Red Bulls in an hour-long period. Moments like that exhibit an understanding of how to match together peaceful passages and loud ones that few bands grasp, with no delay in the culmination of the intensity and yet nods within it to what you were hearing before hand, as opposed to a steady and protracted build up that has become rather clichéd within modern music. There’s another slowed down, resolved and melodic chorus here, perhaps the common factor between a lot of the tracks on the album. It’s no better or worse than previous ones and contributes meaningfully to the scale and feel of the piece.
Another beautiful introduction frames yet another excellent song, “Into the Eventide” which has a quite emotive and desperate atmosphere to it that lends a unique feel to the track and provides a bit of a change up to how you approach and consume the album. It is important to change up the general vibe of things, and so often Tech-Death bands are severely lacking in the emotive side of their music, but here Fallujah show that they’re capable of making complex, hard-charging music that retains a nuanced emotional edge. Another thing highlighting just how good “Into the Eventide” actually is the fantastic way in which the track flows into its various phases, with clever call backs to earlier parts of the song in unexpected places, an excellent balance of beauty and beastliness, and a wonderful little solo linking two later parts of the song, aided once again by a fantastic guitar tone.
I think a great deal of my personal appreciation for this album is in the phenomenal production. The decision of the band to retain the services of legendary extreme music producer Mark Lewis, who is also responsible for the production on some Cannibal Corpse and Whitechapel releases. Mark clearly knows what he’s doing here, and somehow like some sort of audio-wizard has managed to make extremely clean production work on a very hectic and harsh record. Normally I come down quite hard on bands who don’t leave their production a bit messy and hazy because I believe one of the cornerstones of good extreme music is that it sounds rough, that it can be hard to sink your teeth into. However, when the production is this good, I think you just have to swallow that preconception and appreciate what is in front of you. Everything is so rich and clear, from the electronics to the vocals, it’s a perfect synthesis of instrumental talent and a producer who knows how to show that off in resplendent detail. I can count on one hand times I have enjoyed the production on a record as much as I have on “Empyrean” – and I listen to an awful lot of music.
With an altogether more frantic and energetic opening we have 5th track and half way marker “Eden’s Lament” which presents a rather angry and dejected picture of Earth and humanity’s future. Thematically it’s quite typical for music in the genre, lots of bands are rather environmentally conscious in their sphere and often have a reverence towards the planet, so there’s no real shockers that a song such as this would appear on a tech-death record. Regardless, there’s something very organic and natural about the sound of the song, despite there being no additional elements over the other tracks that would necessarily create this. I’m not entirely sure why it works, but it just does, the sound of “Eden’s Lament” fits excellently with the notions of rage, inevitability, destruction and consumerist avarice that are invoked by its poetic lyrical content, and the song is perhaps the most profound in terms of subject on the album.
Fallujah released three singles for this album, but the only one I had heard before listening to the full album was the 6th track of the album, “Soulbreaker” Interestingly enough, I don’t particularly like this song. I feel a lot of the best parts of the other segments of the album just feel muted or non-existent here. Obviously, the great production and musical talent remains, but the song feels like it lacks identity, and perhaps borders upon being generic. It’s still not a bad track though, and to go six songs deep into an album before finding a track that you could do without is hardly the sign of a poor record.
Coming into the final quarter of the album, it’s a good time to highlight just how well the new band members fit into “Empyrean.” The new vocalist, Kyle Schaefer does an excellent job to match the vocal styles of previous vocalists that Fallujah has had, but also simultaneously to bring his own, extra raspy timbre to the fore. Kyle has a well accomplished vocal approach and will likely continue to serve Fallujah well into future albums. Also, well integrated is new bassist, Evan Brewer, who consistently lays down solid bass lines that perhaps manifest themselves more in the completeness of the general soundscapes of “Empyrean” than they do out right in and of themselves.
Continuing with the album, we have “Duality of Intent” which sadly is similar to “Soulbreaker” in perhaps not being the best song on the album. I find its non-descript chugging and neither here nor there solo work to be mildly disappointing when contrasted with other songs on the album. The final quarter of the song works well though, with a slight power Metal coming in before the song collapses back into a chuggy and aggressive affair again.
The tail end of “Duality of Intent” bleeds into “Mindless Omnipotent Master” which is an altogether better song and returns to the quality I had come to expect from “Empyrean.” I am a huge fan of the middle eastern style vocal melodies largely present in the first part of the track, not to mention the sheer variety of harsh vocals present across the whole song too. There’s a very immersive feel to “Mindless Omnipotent Master.” It feels broad and expansive, perhaps even somewhat epic, it’s a fun song, with this intoxicating sort of sonic fog eliciting head-bangs but also active and intricate listening. It’s a relief that after two rather forgettable tracks that the super high quality of the record is brought back so convincingly by “Mindless Omnipotent Master”
One refreshing thing about “Empyrean” is the variety of guitar tones used. So often these days, progressive metal and technical death metal bands have that distinctive Gojira tone, and I am so damn sick of hearing it everywhere all the time. Mercifully, I don’t think I’ve heard it once in the entire “Empyrean” album. It is surprising how seriously grating it gets to repeatedly hear the same guitar tone over and over again, especially in Progressive and Technical genres which are supposed to be about bringing in bold new idea and styles and are supposed to be widely distinct from one another.
Track number 9 Is a surprise, an entirely instrumental track and my is it good. “Celestial Resonance” has a fantastically vast soundscape, wonderful intricacy, excellent flow and everything is tied together by wonderful synth-work and the phenomenal production that I’ve mentioned already. Furthermore, it’s a great change of pace just as things were getting ever so slightly stale. This is how you do an instrumental track; “Celestial Resonance” is a contender for the most beautiful track of the year for sure.
Perhaps making “Celestial Resonance” is it’s excellent transition into the 10th and final track, “Artifacts.” What a way to go out this song is, it takes the immense beauty of “Celestial Resonance” and bumps up the tempo, accelerates the intensity and creates this splendid cacophony of sheer brilliance that just gets better and better with every passing second, there’s moments of excellence on this track that transcend so much of what I’ve heard of recent, it’s another level beyond greatness and borders on the sublime. There is simply no better way to close an album out than the how Fallujah have chosen to close “Empyrean” out with a phenomenal two song run.
Released By: Nuclear Blast Records
Release Date: September 9th 2022
Genre(s): Technical Death Metal
- Kyle Schaefer / Vocals
- Even Brewer / Bass
- Scott Carstairs / Guitars
- Andrew Baird / Percussion
- The Bitter Taste of Clarity
- Radiant Ascension
- Embrace Oblivion
- Into the Eventide
- Eden’s Lament
- Duality of Intent
- Mindless Omnipotent Master
- Celestial Resonance
Order “Empyrean” here.
A superb album, “Empyrean” brings a new energy and dynamism to Fallujah that culminates in an utterly phenomenal record that redefines the technical death metal scene