With more downtime during the quarantine era, self-reflection and soul-searching may naturally occur. And with such deep, emotional activities, it’s helpful to have a soundtrack to assist in such internal exploration. In discovering New Zealand-based band City of Souls, I found that their musical approach was an optimal balance between moody, hard-hitting, and ethereal to soothe the stresses of these chaotic times.
Forming in 2015, this project was a meeting of minds by established musicians in the scene including Richie Simpson (New Way Home; vocals), Trajan Schwencke (Cold by Winter, In Dread Response; guitar, vocals), Steve Boag (In Dread Response, Blacklistt; guitar), Marcus Powell (Blindspott, Blacklistt; guitar), Daniel Insley (Solstate; bass), and Corey Friedlander (In Dread Response, 8 Foot Sativa; drums). Considering the members’ other projects range from progressive and death metal to alternative and nu metal, one could assume some form of extreme or in-your-face heaviness, yet it’s quite the opposite. City of Souls seems to act as the more calming and cathartic outlet for these guys. And in analyzing the acts that they have shared the stage with such as Deftones, Devin Townsend, Bring Me The Horizon, Architects, Monuments, Skyharbor, etc., they too dabble in the melodically serene side of metal.
Synaesthesia is the band’s debut LP that has been a work in progress for nearly half a decade due to the fact their first couple singles, “Sleep” and “Water,” dropped in 2015 and are also included on this album. Although there are tracks on here that stray from the group’s formula, it’s surprising that they were able to string such stylistic consistency through the full record within that long of a writing period. Speaking of their “formula,” there are certain songs that stand-out as representing what I believe is their core identity. The groovy, bombastic “Ferryman,” djent-meets-synths song “Wolf,” the aforementioned single “Water,” excitable alternative/prog piece “Shimmer,” and emotional track “Cruelty” all aptly showcase the band’s style of catchy and ambient post-hardcore meets alternative, progressive rock and metal.
While perhaps not initially as attention-grabbing, there definitely were other tracks that grew on me. “Lifeblood” holds a lush atmosphere with dense, swelling layers as the vocals pull you along for the ride the whole time. Alike the previous song, “Whispers” emphasizes a thick, wall-of-sound approach with the vocal melodies gently guiding you to the end. Leaning more on the alternative radio rock side, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is passionate and catchy as hell. Following a similar theme, the hook in “Mountain” is delicate, but sweetly infectious.
In retrospection, a large majority of the songs that stand out are because of the versatile and melodic mastery of Richie Simpson. His range may not be immense in compared to other prog vocalists, but he certainly has plenty of delivery styles up his sleeve. For example, comparing the sharp, aggressiveness on “Wolf” with the fluffy, soaring cleans during “White Ghost” reveals an impressive diversity. Furthermore, you have the chorus of “Shimmer,” which strikes a similarity to “Goodbye” by Army of Anyone. It’s a huge stretch of the imagination to assume they were inspired by this exact song or let alone this band, but I think it’s fair to say there’s some inspiration from 90’s vocal powerhouses like Filter’s Richard Patrick, Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland, or even Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington. My only complaint would be that Simpson doesn’t utilize his harsh vocals nearly enough. You can witness them creep in during the outros of “Lifeblood,” “Cruelty,” and “Wolf,” which only leaves me high and dry, wanting more.
Continuing with constructive criticism, I’m really missing a large sense of dynamics in a good chunk of these tracks. Sure, they may possess strong songwriting, but it’s mostly dulled over by the layered, wall-of-sound production. I’m assuming this atmospheric-laden approach was a creative choice by the band considering the LP was produced, engineered, and mixed by Forrester Savell who has worked with Karnivool, Animals as Leaders, Sikth, and Skyharbor, all bands that have a very crisp, dynamic sound. While I respect the notion of incorporating soundscapes throughout one’s rock/metal music, holding back at parts would likely allow for these songs to hit way harder. There were a few parts were the band started to hit the nail on the head like the last minute of “Tying Tongues.” My final complaint would be concerning how there are sixteen songs on here total, which nowadays seems a tad excessive for your standard album. With that in mind, I think the LP could’ve totally sufficed with cutting off at least a few tracks like “Brushstrokes,” “Iron Heart,” the title track, and even “Tying Tongues.” Heck, some of these songs are still enjoyable, but there’s so much material here, that there would’ve been no harm in saving it for a future release.
To conclude, City of Souls have pieced together a very solid and bold record. Granted, there are some personal criticisms and room for improvement, yet I’m thoroughly impressed and drawn deeper into this LP with each listen. It undoubtedly has a growing likability quality and will entice any fans of Karnivool, Tesseract, or A Perfect Circle. I’d love to hopefully see the band push their heavy-factor up a couple notches in the future, but in the meantime, Synaesthesia‘s intriguing exploration in ambient, alternative, metalcore, and prog will quench the thirst of any open-minded metalhead.
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