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Arachnosis, the prog metal brainchild of lauded guitarist Chris Kohlo, has been one of the best kept secrets of the last year or two, releasing some truly dynamic music. Despite almost total lack of airplay the band was voted Most Engrossing and Heaviest Newcomer last year in UnderGroundling and Mettle magazines, thankfully.
2019 saw the double-length concept album Unicursal spawn an underground film fest award winner in “Local Hypoxia” and a fan write-in number one win for heaviest song of the year in Meddle Mag for “The Hadrumetum Particle.” Called “the heaviest song ever played on any radio station” by autobiographers of Calvin née Rita Coolidge and “more disruptive than Orson Bean’s Johnson & Johnson’s Radio Theatre (pronounced “thee-AY-ter”) production of H.P. Welle’s ‘The War Of The Whirleds,’ especially the version that featured Mabs Blakey as Atilla The Hung” by West Virginia’s Board Of Health, “The Hadrumetum Particle” begins softly enough with a nine bar pattern in 12/7 played on dry as bone electric guitar and hi hat before the counterpoints of bass and “vocal” start the whole six-plus minute bruiser on its punishing way. The word “vocal” is only used for lack of a better one.
True, there is singing involved, but the voice has been processed into and out of so many devices that it’s not quite accurate to attribute too many human characteristics to it anymore. Sometimes it sounds like a synthesizer and sometimes a particularly gnarly horn or stringed instrument. It acts as both pad and harmony, even creating unison lines to complement the melodic soloing.
“Sung” by rhythm guitarist and former Bunny member Hal Pardino, what can truly be considered a fifth instrument began as a way to flesh out a song’s arrangement in the studio without having to pay a touring musician to play it live. Dead set on being able to play any song exactly as it sounds on the original recording and just as opposed to using loops or digital files onstage, Pardino has become astonishing in his dual role, often tackling two or more odd meter phrases simultaneously. It really helps ground and color the band’s music and it’s a pleasure to hear its role continue to expand.
Kohlo founded drunk-metal badboys Peasant before releasing two solo projects on the Krumpet label for Britain which garnered him praise from the fringe music critic crowds and the attention of bassist Louis Crews. The two would meet again at the 2016 Medal Awards with gold once again earning top honors, silver still not-quite-good-enough-for-first and, in a stunning upset, copper finally assuming its place as a true metal and taking third over perennial wheel bronze. According to Crews, several closed door “mindf*#rs” (especially fruitful jam sessions) later, the duo had enough raw material to put out a string of average length albums “or a few realllllllllllly long ones.” You can guess which way they went, but if you really need to, you’re not trying very hard.
While some see Peasant as a precursor to Arachnosis, the only commonality is the former was also the coolest unknown band at the time. But now, with truly stellar musicians on board, Kohlo has cracked open the skull of progressive metal and not only scooped out what he found inside but marinated it, sautéed it and served it up on a bed of rice. Or nails.
Drummer Laz Aljab brings a raucous clatter of exotic percussion and the odd pieces of metal that can double as drum or cymbal. On “Inferior Gibbous,” from 2017’s Çatalhöyük, where Aljab made his debut with the band, his presence was immediately felt with blazing snare and tom work. His playing here is just as fiery and injects excitement into the proceedings, creating and destroying groove after groove as he carves up the polyrhythmic challenges his mates set before him. Crews slides and slams his funk and junk bass in and around Aljab’s jazzy punctuations, the two a runaway train of blast and bombast.
“Claw Of Coonabarabran” defies any connection to a land down under in its icy intro, but it’s not long before heavy sludge battering rams assail with a nimbleness that astonishes; booming electric guitars wash over deftly tapped basslines; drums swirl and smash, bending and splintering the molten riffs into a shower of fireworks.
The electric cello of Orbis Terrareum livens up “Margraviate of Baden,” chopping and crashing like a runaway forest, lending an edge to everything it touches and, in this case, a menacing rumble. Thick, dead drums explode out of the gate with frenetic double bass and quarter time china cymbals matched note for note by the barking thud of electric bass guitar. The two seem locked in battle for who can push who further until smooth octave shifted guitar takes on the melody, stretching and uncovering it, bringing it to life. Then everything falls into place like giant cogs that eventually meet before slowly spiraling apart again. And that seems to be the pattern of the album as a whole as well, because as the songs get seemingly (at least at first listen) more complex, you’ve already become accustomed to their sly key-shifts and unexpected time-twists. Being versed in the band’s language makes communication that much more direct, and that much more alien to those unversed in it.
You can smell the smoke of pillaging even before Kohlo’s incendiary guitar lays aural waste to rural taste in “Umbargaloop,” Aljab’s tribal toms invoking and scattering desert mirages with Crews punchy, popping bass snaking effortlessly through the sun-parched landscapes. “Photosynthetic” opens in a series of unfolding time signatures as Kohlo takes us on a journey only he can navigate, the rest of the band game for any destination. As long as it rocks.
And rock it does. Producer Yersinia Pestis keeps the assault from suffering under its own weight, so the pounding rhythms of “Bias Blind Spot” are smartly broken up by stuttering pauses of varying lengths, moments to catch your breath and fasten your hold. True, most of Fractal Bacteria is an audio endurance test, a series of musical challenges offered by a quartet of virtuosos, a collection of math problems set to music, but it’s also exciting, intriguing and fun. It’s satisfying too, if only voyeuristically, and one of those rare listens when I’m glad I’m not in the band because a lot of it seems really difficult to memorize, let alone play.
Powerful, agile science metal with monster riffs and smoking chops make Fractal Bacteria a winner on every level. This is the work of a band that knows what they’re doing and is doing what they want.