Awaken The Reason is the third full-length album by French technical/progressive/extreme quintet Outcast, and it’s an album that has left me severely conflicted about how, precisely, to score it. You see, whereas some bands take the approach of throwing every idea they have at the wall and seeing what sticks, Outcast take the less-travelled path of stuffing all their ideas into a cannon facing the wall, lighting the fuse and hiding behind the sofa. Some of their ideas stick, some of them bounce off and whack them in the spuds, and some smash clean through the wall and severely perturb the neighbour’s cat – however, throughout it all, you sense that the band are having a ball – and, depending upon your tolerance for thunderously heavy, technical metal whose performers seem afflicted with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, you may well find yourself giggling along with them.
The band’s chief influences are pretty immediately apparent from the moment the first riff comes vaulting, frothy-mouthed, out of the speakers – the spectres of fellow Gallic goliaths Gojira and Swedish rhythm-manglers Meshuggah waft companionably over proceedings. However, Outcast also throw in dashes of Lamb Of God-esque groove/thrash lockstep fiddliness, digit-reconfiguring technical spazziness a la Sikth or The Dillinger Escape Plan, and occasional pinches of Devin Townsend-ish epic sensibility – and they juggle these disparate plates, with varying degrees of success, over the course of eleven songs that span from just over two minutes to nearly nine-and-a-half minutes long.
Outcast‘s ability to marshall planet-smashing heaviness (ably helped by a sterling production job that foregrounds bass guitarist Clément Mauro’s velvet roar of a tone to ample effect) along with a knack for a catchy, hooky riff, and then to make those elements play nicely with twitchily-timed polyrhythmic shenanigans pays off in spades many times throughout the course of Awaken The Reason. In fact, perhaps the band’s most reliable songwriting trick is to set Nicolas Soulat and Jean-François Di Rienzo’s guitars in motion, looping an insistently pummelling riff, and have the rhythm section do handsprings and cartwheels around it – drummer Mathieu Santin’s endless supply of percussive salvos coming in particularly handy on these occasions. Second track ‘Abysmal’ opens with such a display of headbanger-wrongfooting tomfoolery, and even the relatively stodgy riff that comes in 45 seconds into ‘Man’s Last Failure’ is enlivened considerably by the rhythm section concurrently performing the musical equivalent of running around with bees in their shorts.
They’re not bad at all at creating monstrous, mid-tempo grooves, either – the last two and a half minutes of ‘Spin Angular Momentum’ showcases a bloody-minded mauler of a beat supporting a riff that swings like God’s own conkers, which itself builds gorgeously into one of those Devy-esque moments of soaring ‘aaaahhhh’ choral vocals swirling around hair-raising, billowing chords. On the flipside of that coin, Outcast aren’t at all shy about spending thirty seconds or so flinging a dozen riffs at the listener at once – parts of ‘Fallen Years’ sound as though they were recorded when the band realised that any unused riffs would self-destruct the moment they left the studio, and the effect is either invigoratingly hell-bent or exasperatingly spasmodic, depending entirely on your receptiveness to sudden clouds of riff-shrapnel.
The last part of that sentence is a pretty good yardstick to measure the album by as a whole, actually. Outcast have so many things going on in each of their songs that your enjoyment may rest on your ability to withstand the bombardment of time changes, riff-mutations, tempo shifts and unexpected choruses. Hell, one of my favourite moments comes when the band apparently decided to have a go at including a more anthemic, melodic vocal hook during ‘Abysmal’, despite singer Wilfried Fagnon seeming to have a range that extends mainly to varying shades of ‘the biggest of the Three Bears bellowing after banging his shin on the coffee table while chasing Goldilocks out of the cottage’. I’m glad they did it, though – hearing Sagnon applying his stentorian roar to the line “THE SUN IS SHINING DOWN ON ME” has, perhaps unintentionally, made me happier than almost anything else has recently. Still, while Awaken The Reason is liberally festooned with fantastic moments, whether it hangs together as a coherent, satisfying whole is another question.