Only one (praiseworthy) release to their name, and Richmond's own Conductor have already thrown a bit of a wrench in my typical review-writing process. Generally, when encountering an artist for the first time, inevitable questions arise that then allow for further analysis. Why does this music work (or not work, for that matter) in it's current state? Conductor neatly bypass this part of the process by providing two versions of their debut EP: one with vocals, and one without. Thus, the primary question that arose whilst enjoying Icarus--namely, does this brand of doom afflicted post-metal work best in a purely instrumental form--was answered by default. More on that later, though. Before we get too far into the weeds, let's talk about just how goddamn impressive Conductor are.
Icarus is an effortless journey through genre boundaries. While the majority of the 23 minutes contained herein are of the post-metal variety--expansive, voluminous, and otherwise exploratory--a distinct aggression remains a constant presence, whether lurking on the fringes or launching inward with a blackened bite. The former aspect is comparable to the softer moments of Amenra, Pallbearer, or early Sumac; the latter, perhaps, of Mizmor's abrasive edge. And yet, while they never sound directly comparable or derivative, they are in good company execution-wise. They command a delicate balance between clean and harsh vocals, between melodious exploration and emotive pugilism. And while the blackened bent is used sparingly throughout, it hits hard when called into play.
Conductor demonstrates a keen ability to move between gentle and harsh in a way that reminds me of Omega Massif's dynamism. Look to "Go to the Mast at Dawn" for a prime example of the subtle buildup and sheer cathartic release that these guys are capable of. Genre melding aside, that ability to construct a foundation and then knock it out with one massive blow is central to their songwriting chops. Indeed, this is what gives the opening track such a professional and emotionally satisfying feel. Even given their status as a doom-adjacent band, they aren't entirely focused on the riffs, but yet riffs are central to the buildup and subsequent release. Icarus opens with a nuanced and sophisticated track, and if I wasn't aware, I would have assumed this was the product of a much more mature outfit.
Most notable is the earworm quality Icarus maintains. As those who are forced to live with me may attest, I've been breaking into (horrendously out-of-tune, but heartfelt nonetheless) refrains of O Captain! My Captain! for the better part of a month. "Go to the Mast at Dawn" sticks in my head with a fierce and unpredictable tenacity, and if a track manages to hold on for so long, buffeted about by the current of a thousand promos, it's a great song, plain n' simple. The longing-yet-furious "Catch Me" has a similar effect, with each precious refrain sinking teeth deep. I wish it were a longer track simply so more of those choruses could weasel their way in, and as one who worships brevity in songwriting like no other, that's saying something. Post-metal lives (and dies) by its memorability, and Icarus has memorability in spades.
The aforementioned question regarding the role of vocals--or lack thereof--is raised by the title track itself. Whereas the vocal delivery on the bookends is fairly impeccable, "Icarus" represents a bit of a falter. The pseudo spoken word delivery, while intriguing from a narrative perspective, ultimately doesn't flow with the instrumentation. It's an awkward bump in an otherwise stellar track, and, as a result, this track flows better on the instrumental version of the EP--especially given the brilliant back half, which is a harrowing and emotive journey in its own right. That said, the remaining two tracks are heightened wondrously by their respective vocal accompaniment, and on their respective instrumental tracks, feel otherwise incomplete.
There's room for improvement in Conductor's approach, but it's worth iterating that this improvement need not come across the board. The first track here is a true standout, a prime example of the massive potential they are packing. And, as always, a little more heft in the bass department wouldn't go amiss. But all told, Conductor have a lot on this not-so-Icarian post-metal platter to be proud of. They fly high, but never plummet. Given their penchant for dynamic innovation, I'm very curious to see what they come up with next. Conductor "hopes that anyone who stumbles upon Icarus will feel something from its intense 3-song exhibition." From this particular villager: mission accomplished, and then some.
Conductor's excellent Icarus was released May 2019.
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