Four Seconds Ago – ‘The Vacancy’ (Album Review)
Although Periphery are primarily worshipped as all-conquering djent overlords, they’ve never been the kind of band to go in for constant, unrelenting brutality. Even Insomnia, the opening track from their self-titled debut album, started off with clean, faded-in backward swells and electronic glitches before kicking into the first of many now-classic riffs. Check out the brief interludes that follow the likes of Light, All New Materials, and Totla Mad on the same album for more now-old-school examples of Periphery pushing their most digitized side to the fore.
Eight years and four more Periphery full-lengths later, Jake Bowen and Misha Mansoor are ready to unveil a predominantly electronic album that represents the latest stage in their development as programmers, arrangers, and synth masters. Bowen’s 2015 solo album Isometric and Mansoor’s extensive production experience have fed into the development of Four Seconds Ago, a project that’s been sitting on the pair’s overcrowded back burner since Bowen came aboard the good ship Periphery in 2006. Be warned in advance: The Vacancy is not metal.
It does, however, contain more progressive elements than your average synth-heavy voyage into the world of sequencers, code, and keyboards. Opener and early single Fadeaway begins with some familiar yet striking clean guitars, less familiar vocodered Bowen vocals, and the realisation that the whole thing is in 7/8. Later comes a blissful electric and acoustic piano section, slowly building into a classic djent groove, brutal guitar tones replaced by solid bass programming and a cheeky synth melody. This is playful stuff, born of a creative process free from expectation and pressure.
If The Vacancy were put out as a Periphery album, people would lose their shit – and not in a good way. As the first release on that band’s new 3Dot Recordings imprint, it’s an obvious one on paper and on record. With a new Periphery album on the way, die-hard fans are already clamouring for something to fill the gap, and as relatively light as The Vacancy is, it sounds likely to satisfy the most patient and open-eared progtronica fans out there.
Again, this album remains defiantly progressive. Jake Bowen and Misha Mansoor aren’t aiming for the mindless-EDM-bullshit market here; although Four Seconds Ago seems primarily a vehicle for two great musicians to burn off some excess creative fuel, they know exactly who will end up hearing the results of their labours. A good many of those same listeners will either immediately appreciate the many highlights strewn throughout The Vacancy, or grow to enjoy them – and given how widely respected Periphery will remain regardless, a smaller amount of praise and acceptance looks likely to be enough to declare Four Seconds Ago a success.
The Vacancy’s standout moments come right at the end, in the form of climactic tracks The Great Silence and The Vacancy. The former drips with neo-soul attitude, bringing Submotion Orchestra to mind while Jake and Misha toy with one-beat harp bursts and luscious string lines; the latter brings in Misha’s brother Axel, who lends some appropriately smooth vocals to an 80s-style ballad with multiple modern twists. Then things get increasingly fucked as Periphery’s lead programmers take a pounding four-to-the-floor beat and set it against a series of unsettling off-meter stabs.
Relief comes in the form of one final beat-free pad-and-melody section, before more rhythmic headfuckery slowly follows. Long before everything dissolves into a gradually degrading ambient mush, The Vacancy’s main weakness becomes clear, pushed into the spotlight by Axel Mansoor’s performance. This album as a whole does provide an interesting glimpse into the minds of two of progressive music’s most forward-thinking musicians, but it leans too heavily on instrumental parts. It may be clichéd to say that a primarily instrumental album would be massively improved with extra vocals and “real songs,” but that’s definitely the case here.
Apart from the dull, plodding Listening Post Alpha, each track on The Vacancy is still worth more than a few listens. From the quirky melodies found during the misleadingly-named Bloodfrenzy to Shadow Devil’s fastidiously manipulated guitars and second single Galaxy’s densely-mixed layers, returning repeatedly to each Bowen-Mansoor composition reveals new details worth discovering. But given the dearth of vocals and lyrics, The Vacancy is best consumed in small portions.
Running at 50 minutes, this isn’t a quick rush through a high-energy environment that’s over before you know it. Depending on your mood, The Vacancy may chill you out, or it might prove tiring in a less positive sense. Either way, with the spectre of Periphery lurking in the background, it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore a nagging restlessness and craving for far greater intensity the longer The Vacancy continues.
Periphery have always struck the perfect balance between light and shade, elegance and grace and sledgehammer-to-the-balls brutality. By its nature, this project does not. That doesn’t make it bad; it just means that The Vacancy is most effective as a set of brief rest stops to retreat to when Djent Overload becomes too overwhelming.
Is this album’s low-key nature a sign that Periphery 4 will beat us to within an inch of our lives for its entire duration? Perhaps. Only time – always too much time – will tell.
LTK RATING: 7/10
Buy The Vacancy on iTunes here.
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