As much as I love metal, classic progressive rock is my wheelhouse. Before Yes burned the prog bridge with the cringe “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and Emerson, Lake & Palmer ate sand at the Love Beach, they dominated the early 70’s with massive albums that, in this scene, need no introduction. Intimidating track lengths; jarring album art; wickedly talented six-fingered musicians; head-scratching high concepts; all valid reasons why I’ve worshiped ELP and Yes since middle school and seek out similar music to this day – hence, why I love metal. The influence of the prog-rock legends can’t be understated in metal, and in my opinion, progressive death metal is the reincarnation of my cherished classic prog rock. I’ll illustrate my point by directing your attention to Cryptic Shift’s debut album, which doesn’t sound anything like the olde days, but the spirit is alive in Visitations of Enceladus. And you can tell that by the opening 26-minute song.
You know, there’s not many bands with the peaches to pull off a 26-minute first track on their debut record, but here we are with “Moonbelt Immolator.” That’s longer than “Tarkus.” But remarkably, Cryptic Shift is able to launch this epic and keep it on track like seasoned pros. The track is structured like a prog opus a la “Close to the Edge,” with a brief atmospheric intro that eventually spins out of control with warping guitars, adventurous bass, and clean phasers. Guitarist/vocalist Xander Bradley really nails it with his excellent aggressive performance, growling with an emphasis on invective rather than brutality, though his guttural range allows him to bellow at will. Twisting and turning, the band carries on with thrash metal riffs, a bass guitar solo, and some more of those heavy British prog vibes. On the surface level, the sonic quality of “Moonbelt Immolator” sounds akin to a less-screechy long-form Vektor, which I personally find pleasing; however, when I immerse myself in the spirit of what the band presents, I tend to pick up more old school prog on each go-around.
I’ve reviewed some quality cosmic death metal for IMV in the past, and Cryptic Shift certainly shares similarities with my favorites from prior years. The following three tracks aren’t as psychically demanding as the opener, but they pack a mean proggy death punch. Second up is “(Petrified in the) Hypogean Gaol,” (‘trapped under ice,’ if you will), kicking off with a blackened riff spiraling into an old school tech-death whirlwind. Comparisons to Blood Incantation are warranted and somewhat obvious, but Bradley’s vocals have more in common with the less brutal, yet virtuosic Atheist. For fans of technical death metal, the Atheist comparison should be a lightbulb that the old ways of death are respected here. Though, ludicrously talented as Cryptic Shift are, the remaining three tracks don’t succumb to the noodly navel-gazing stereotype. Perhaps the most complete example of what makes this band a progressive death powerhouse is the third track, “The Arctic Chasm,” which is just about as succinctly and brilliantly written as any in the genre. I’m in awe of the excellent mix: it’s a treat to sit and soak in the chirpy electricity, the sumptuous bass guitar, vertigo-inducing hooks, and titanic drumming power. The gritty neo-classical flair carries into the opening notes of final track “Planetary Hypnosis,” another cosmic brownie of thick, tasty prog death. Nary a wasted note throughout and the Gorgutsian bass guitar independence from the shredding electrics is something to behold.
Now, there’s one thing that I have to bring up and basically the reason why this album isn’t a solid “A,” in my opinion. I’ve praised the satisfying songwriting of tracks 2, 3, and 4 in the above paragraphs. Still, I can’t say the same for the goliath “Moonbelt Immolator,” which, in classic prog fashion, suffers from bloating. “MI” is a very ambitious opener, to be sure, and I’m happy with the first 21 minutes of it, because like I’ve said, I live for pretentious prog opuses. But, after the tune reaches what feels like its natural conclusion, it pulls a Con Air and keeps going for another 5 minutes. Yes, the song needed to be long, and in a way, I’m glad my one criticism stems from a classic prog trope, but I skip the last 5 minutes every time I give it a go.
But otherwise, progressive death metal freshmen Cryptic Shift totally nail it with their debut cosmic epic. It’s encouraging to hear more prog death bands reach for the stars and feed their ambitious musical dreams, and that’s definitely what I feel emanating from Visitations from Enceladus. Technically crafted, yet accessible and earnest, CS hits with an arguably bigger impact than Hidden History of the Human Race, which is something of a prog death benchmark, to me at least. The early 70s opuses are still untouched, but this album bears the same spirit of the olde days, warts and all.
Visitations from Enceladus was released on Blood Harvest on May 4th, 2020.
You can purchase this fine record, and others like it here.