As an old saying goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover; however, I stand by the assertion that you can predict a metal band by their name. Unlike other musical genres, metal’s hallowed bedrock of impassioned aggression tends to inform the fearless creativity of their labels. It can be sort of a Rorschach test for new listeners: what do you think of when you read the words ‘Cannibal Corpse’? Or ‘Cattle Decapitation’? Maybe something simple like ‘Slayer’? These names invoke intense feelings of rage, thrashing anger, and an unflappable opposition to the status quo. So, what would you make of ‘Megaton Leviathan,’ arguably the heaviest band name of the year? You might remember a certain interview conducted by IMV’s preeminent senior editor Clayton Michaels, wherein he spoke with the band’s violinist and vocalist Andrea Morgan about their new album Mage. Admittedly, I dove headfirst into the music expecting to greet a colossal sea beast, but I quickly discovered that this Leviathan is more Hobbes than Melville. Literature? In my metal review? It’s more likely than you think.
Like an onion or an ogre, Mage is comprised of many layers. A complex conglomerate of many metal disciplines, the six-piece band draws equal amounts of inspiration from somber post-metal, quirky Krautrock, and ersatz synthwave. Megaton Leviathan conveys a preference of atmosphere over bombast, and it’s inside this aural arena where ideas organically ebb and flow in down-tempo larghetto. A sonic strata of meticulously prepared arrangements, the band emphasizes their style with droning vocal deliveries, plodding percussion, and richly layered strings. I didn’t fully realize the breadth of the album’s density until I spent hours with it on repeat, and for the most part, the band succeeds in crafting a mostly gratifying, if restrained, listening experience.
Mage kicks off with “Wave,” a slow-burning dirge that reveals an admiration for ambient and shoegaze, as crunchy guitar chords and resinous bass drums linger in the air like cigarette smoke. While Megaton Leviathan do claim to have a doom metal influence, it’s not terribly apparent in the music. Much of the distortion is complemented by cleanly picked chords and tingly string arrangements, and not one of the three vocalists perform with a traditional doom-laden delivery; however, if you listen carefully, this album could substitute as a doom metal metronome, because the pacing is perfectly funereal. From beginning to end, the tempo hardly changes, and if you’re not paying attention, the first three songs can fly by very quickly. Keep in mind, this album only has five songs, and this lack of differentiation produces mixed results in terms of overall enjoyment. Experiencing Mage can feel like a requiem of ennui, and I don’t necessarily mean that in an abjectly negative sense. There’s beauty in melancholy, but it’s a drag listening to an album that doesn’t sound like it has purpose when you’re not in the mood.
Some of the slightly more exciting movements on Mage feel like sitting too close to a tumultuous geyser, ready to burst forth and scorch the Earth; however, while the band flirts with eruption, they always operate below the surface. The penultimate track “The Bulldog” works in a synthetic drumbeat to add some much needed drive to the album, but the strained singing effort throughout the piece betrays a critically poor choice on behalf of the band. Megaton Leviathan’s secret sauce is made of their astounding vocal harmonies, and they’re lovingly slathered on both sides of Mage’s buns. But on “The Bulldog,” we’re made to sit through a solo performance that, to my ears, sounds like the singer is struggling to stay in key. A very refreshing piano section guides us to the final threnody “Within the Threshold,” which begins with creepy scene building: there’s heavy synths and digital percussion that makes me feel like I’m navigating through a 1980s cyber-noir with Jason Voorhees hot on my tail. The song teases the listener into uneasiness, building a storm out of the rapidly bowed violins and chirping electronic notes warbling between audio channels. Just like the prior four tracks, Megaton Leviathan unfolds the song deliberately, and we have the pleasure of hearing Andrea Morgan’s soaring vocals overtop the acoustic and artificial soundscape. It’s a slow build that doesn’t exactly reach the tempestuous peaks I had expected, but every time it ends, I’m still shocked by how quickly forty-five minutes passes.
The main ingredient that the group left out of their latest project is good old fashioned aggression, and I mean that one-hundred-percent literally: there’s nothing aggressive about Mage. It’s a purely languorous undertaking. After my first ten or so playthroughs, I wasn’t much of a fan of Mage. It didn’t click with me until I noticed the intricate textures and details hidden in each track, and now I can modulate my listening experience to focus on the parts I enjoy. Although, without the indispensable instrumental and vocal contributions from Andrea Morgan, I think the music would suffer monumentally. This is a difficult album to fully absorb, but I think a patient listener will find something to appreciate about Mage. Perhaps in future efforts, Megaton Leviathan could incorporate heavier and more aggressive styles of playing and move on from the doldrums of contemplating dullness. From my experience with this Leviathan, I learned that it’s not about the excitement of reeling in the white whale, but rather, it’s about appreciating the hopeful monotony of simply casting your line.
Mage is now available from Blood Music.