Maxi Curnow – ‘STEM’ [Review]
Prepare to have your brain broken.
Maxi Curnow is, I suspect, not really human. As a guitarist, he’s capable of channeling Guthrie Govan, Alex Machacek, and Steve Vai; as a vocalist, Curnow can give any leading tech-metal frontman a run for his money. Calling Maxi Curnow “talented” just doesn’t work. The only option here is to go nuclear and pull out “virtuoso” instead. It may be an overused phrase these days, but it has to be said: Maxi Curnow is a virtuoso. Full stop.
Considering Curnow’s multi-instrumental skills, STEM must be pretty damn tasty – right? Well, yes. It is. STEM is a 20-minute-long piece within which no section repeats. It’s constantly mutating, evolving, twisting and shifting like a kaleidoscope viewed on LSD – and it is a proghead’s wet dream come true.
There are two ways to listen to STEM. You can take the plunge and listen to it in its entirety, without breaks, or you can ingest it in smaller sips, broken down into five separate movements. Die-hard prog fanatics will, of course, choose the former option – but here we’re going to go through STEM piece by piece. If you hate spoilers, scroll to the bottom to listen to STEM, then come back to this point when you’ve recovered. Our STEM-induced stream of consciousness starts here:
Movement 1: Erotic Cakes-era Guthrie Govan guitar and languid bass / piano interplay under fragile and delicate vocals with a touch of King Crimson-grade rhythmic flair. Catchy hooks delivered on a one-time-only basis; one minute in and you already know you’re going to hit repeat at the end of it all. Tool and Karnivool get chucked into a post-djent blender at the halfway mark with some beautiful Vai-esque compositional touches thrown in for extra instrumental spiciness. Thickly layered vocal harmonies, lapping waves and intimate sax that stops short of Kenny G’s tooth-rotting sweetness. Waves to fade.
Movement 2: Tech-metal with a pop twist. Intense polyrhythms falling down a spiral staircase into a mass of electronic-glitch sharktopi. Anti-consumerist lyrics herald hopscotch riffage and a drop into deep grooves given a unique feel and twist. Meaty guitar parts rise out of the ether and share space with pitch-perfect vocal harmonies. This is unique.
Movement 3: Opens with early Incubus vibes, then the kind of math-pop parts that could only be brewed in the South-East. Doesn’t last long, though, because there’s more techy goodness around the corner; not to mention a Sic-era Alex Machacek / Terry Bozzio section. Oh, and a bit of boogie-woogie piano. And a scratchy pop-rock solo. And more tech. Guthrie’s spirit surfaces again. Thick tones and hardcore vocals and an intense beatdown. “Don’t let them tell you what you need” – lyrics to live by.
By this point, we’ve realised that although it is possible to hear Maxi Curnow’s influences on occasion, you’re actually listening to a slab of music that’s not only unique, but a genuine masterpiece. I will even go so far as to say this: STEM REPRESENTS THE FUTURE OF PROGRESSIVE METAL. Bold-face and caps cannot convey how deeply I mean that.
Oh yeah – and there’s a bit of proper ’70s organ in there too. Just because.
Movement 4: Curnow’s SoundCloud tune If Only makes an appearance here. Pop-djent hasn’t been a thing so far (to my knowledge), but now, thanks to Maxi Curnow, it is. The world of music is all the better for this. A stellar tune in its own right; if part of the STEM package were to be released as a commercially oriented single, this would be it.
Movement 5: Maxi Curnow’s now-trademark pop-djent gets assaulted by machete-wielding electronic glitches before more newly minted calling cards: Meaty riffs and soaring, elegant and epic vocal harmonies; piano/bass/drum complexities combined with relentlessly off-kilter guitar; and laid-back jazz-rock soloing. Nearing the end now, and it’s kept surprisingly understated. Gustav Holst meets Kraftwerk for a brief moment before both fade into the distance.
Stunningly Transcendent and Emotive Music. STEM is nothing less than that.
As for the complete and unseparated version of STEM, it’s a real beast. The release-day package may not, however, have been supposed to contain If Only as the single-track fourth movement; during the fourth part of the non-stop STEM we get treated to some extended organ soloing, heartbreaking piano, skipping-record electronics, and more Curnow trademark riffs and vocal harmony moments instead. As oversights go, though, it’s a very rewarding one!
After all those words, there’s still more to say. If you made it this far, you know you have to buy STEM. And just to add still another motivating factor, all proceeds from STEM’s sales go to the Nayee Asha Orphanage in India. Dig deep; it’s for a good cause, and there is that extra bonus tune in there too!
I don’t normally end reviews by thanking a musician for existing, but I’m going to right now. Maxi: Seriously dude, thank you for this. I have no idea how you pulled it off, but every hour, every minute, every second has been more than worth it.
Don’t stop – and keep going!
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