The LA based jazz fusion/sludge metal unit return after five years with their most accomplished work yet.
“Ya like jazz?” It’s a simple line from the Jerry Seinfeld-voiced Barry B. Benson in the DreamWorks film Bee Movie, yet it’s also a rather honest question when it comes down to it. As a young high school student barely into their senior year, I was completely enamored by bands from the progressive sludge scene like Baroness, Neurosis, Isis, Mastodon and Kylesa. There was something about each of those groups that brought me into a whole different world of heavy yet complex instrumentation and songwriting. The combination of sludgy guitar chords, yelled vocals and dense drumming alongside the musical wizardry of 70’s progressive rock was something I fell in love with almost immediately. Then, I encountered a band that combined all those things with the complex musical history of jazz and fusion.
This band was LA-based quartet INTRONAUT and the album that happened to be my introduction was their 2008 record Prehistoricisms. It combined my love of Neurosis-styled art sludge with bits that wouldn’t sound out of place in the collective discographies of Yes, King Crimson, Miles Davis and Mahavishnu Orchestra. I quickly began to devour everything the band released, and this discovery ultimately led me to fully embrace and appreciate jazz as an art form. After waiting a few more years since 2015's The Direction of Last Things, I was extremely hyped to hear that the band would be returning with Fluid Existential Inversions. When I accepted the call to review this monumental return, my expectations ran high. Little did I know how fully enthralling this album would become.
After the opening interlude that is Procurement of the Victuals, INTRONAUT decide to get "Cynical" on Cubensis. The capitalization is intentional as the song gives me strong Cynic vibes, most notably from their monumental Focus album, which fused death metal and jazz fusion to a wholly unique sound. One thing that came to mind was that unlike The Direction of Last Things (2015) opener Fast Worms, Cubensis doesn’t instantly go for your throat. Frontman Sacha Dunable takes the reins a bit more here with the occasional harsh vocal from guitarist Dave Timnick. The track does reveal its post metal side as the track progresses but overall, I feel the Cynic influence. We are also treated to soft vocal harmonies from Dunable and Timnick around three minutes in before you are gifted a properly engaging guitar passage that brings listeners back to the Valley of Smoke days. It’s these types of atmospheres that INTRONAUT truly command in their own unique way. The bass work of Joe Lester in the latter end combined with session drummer Alex Rudinger makes for a truly satisfying end as the band revert to the lyrical theme of the track to close things out.
The Cull, in my opinion, sounds like it could’ve been taken from an album like Void (2006) because of how nasty it gets in the beginning before the jazz passages return to add color to the canvas. It’s not all monochromatic in this song’s DNA. Dunable offers his clean vocals as a strong counterpoint to Timnick’s unrestrained roars before jazz and sludge meld seamlessly as primary colors make secondary to paint a vivid musical tapestry of Mardraum-era Enslaved. Post and math rock sections take center stage around the four-minute mark to soothe the listener more into a somewhat false sense of security before clubbing you yet again with Rudinger’s spacey yet heavy handed drum performance. Wavering Radiant-like sounds come into the mix near the end as Dunable and Timnick evoke latter era-Aaron Turner and Co. to really bring everything full circle.
Contrapasso has a rather energetic opening section with Dunable again invoking that INTRONAUT magic of old. The track also features some tight Mastodon-esque riffing that brings Blood Mountain to mind. It’s not as technical as that release; it has its own breath and blood to pump into the body of the album that adds more nuance than previous songs. One of the things that stands out about this track, and in truth the entire album, is that its much more expansive. Whereas The Direction of Last Things was very tight and controlled, this album feels almost free range in a way. It has tight moments, but it doesn’t stay in one mold for very long. I feel this is due in part to the wonderful production job done by Kurt Ballou at GodCity Studios.
Following tracks Speaking of Orbs and Tripolar are some of the proggiest cuts on the record with the former having a metallic Yes flavor to it. The riffs ascend and descend in such a way as to bring old masters to mind, but still pushing new territory for the band members. Rudinger also shines on this track with some intense drumming that will never fail to bring a smile to your face. Tripolar also has a prog flavor more in line with Starless and Bible Black-era King Crimson. It has a dark exterior that really reveals its true inner instability once the 2:20 mark hits, treating us to a meaty chugging breakdown that really brings me back to the days of listening to Prehistoricisms on repeat. This may not be the heaviest release in the band’s repertoire, but I genuinely feel they have caught my attention with the expansiveness and constant time signature shifts they are so well known for.
As much fun as I’ve had with the album thus far though, Check Your Misfortune just might be my favorite song on the whole record. It has a near tangible energy that is immediately felt as Lester and Rudinger anchor Dunable and Timnick’s colossal riffing. At 1:43, we are treated to a truly fun and heavy as balls instrumental passage that marries the guitar sounds of Who’s Next-era The Who with Red Album-era Baroness to create a passage that is perfect for staring longingly into the distance as you watch a friend or loved one leave on a plane. Pink Floyd-styled psychedelics color as the track continues to progress into a very chill yet heavy banger. Nothing is wrong with this track and it will firmly place itself high in the pantheon of favorite INTRONAUT songs.
Eighth track Pangloss brings you right back into the mindset of Habitual Levitations and it has the echoes of that time while also breathing new life into your eardrums. The riffing is sweet as honey and the drum fills are utterly elegiac in their brutally executed fashion. Seriously, Alex Rudinger was a perfect choice to take the throne for this release and he commands it with finesse and an untamable sense of urgency that can be heard with every fill and cymbal crash. The track goes into more dreamy psychedelic territory before ending on a heavy Pelican inspired stomp.
Closer Sour Everythings is semi triumphant, which is very different for INTRONAUT, who have mostly trafficked in emotions that are triumphant in the intellectual sense rather than the heartstring rending kind. Lester once again takes center stage for a smooth passage of jazzy bass before the sludgy axes come crashing in once again. The song rides a post-rock wave of melancholy for a short period before wrapping up nicely with some rather emotive piano and keyboard work to close out the record.
With Fluid Existential Inversions, INTRONAUT have not only crafted a true marriage of jazz, sludge and prog, but they have also released their most mature and inventive offering yet. It is an album that can be loved and appreciated by longtime fans and those like high school me who have just barely become aware of the audial magic that INTRONAUT traffic in. The way that jazz and metal are often combined in the modern era is something that often irks me because something is always missing. However, I can always count on INTRONAUT to fully embrace their jazz influences and fuse them with the fantastic riff heavy music we all are here for. So I ask, like Barry B. Benson in a general and musical sense, "ya like jazz?"
Fluid Existential Inversions is out February 28th via Metal Blade. Pre-order yours HERE.