Massachusetts-based metal band Revocation‘s 2009 album Existence is Futile was one of the best releases of that year. The band seemed to have achieved the perfect synthesis of modern metal styles, combining the catchy yet brutal riffing of Lamb of God with the shredding guitars and complex bass eruptions of Death and Atheist. The group was defiantly a showcase for guitarist David Davidson; the album opens with an instrumental called “Enter the Hall,” for hell’s sake, and songs frequently (d)evolve into complex breaks that verge on jazz fusion (check out what bassist Anthony Buda is doing behind Davidson’s guitar solo on “Pestilence Reigns”). But two factors vaulted Revocation out of the pack of ultra-skilled death metal bands playing to diehards and no one else: 1) Existence is Futile, while still sonically dense and overpowering, was produced in a slightly more organic manner than the airless, punch-in-the-skull sound typical of modern metal, actually managing to sound like human beings performing music together; and 2) the songs were catchy. Yes, they were still barked in a hoarse, guttural roar, but you could almost sing along with some of them, if you wanted to.
Revocation’s combination of breathtaking instrumental skill, ability to write fist-pumping hooks, and ferocious live shows made them a sensation within the US metal scene. As a result, anticipation for their follow-up has been extremely high. Which makes the band’s decision to die on the hill of extreme technical complexity a baffling and disappointing one.
Chaos of Forms abandons almost all of the hooky, crowd-pleasing fervor that made Existence is Futile (and its self-released predecessor, 2008’s Empire of the Obscene) so sensational. There are a few songs here (“Harlot,” “Cretin”) with the kind of hooks that were dangling off every corner of the two previous albums, but the production is over-dense and punishing. The airiness that had once allowed Davidson’s guitar and Buda’s bass to create complementary patterns is now crushed out of the music not only by the mix but also by the addition of second guitarist Dan Gargiulo, who started out as a touring member but has now shoved his way into the studio lineup as well. And the compositions are overly complex; “Dissolution Ritual” cycles through movement after movement, style after style, until exhaustion sets in. Once upon a time, Revocation understood what so many of their peers don’t—that a collection of awesome riffs and high-wire solos is not the same thing as a song.
Don’t get me wrong; there’s plenty of impressive guitar playing on this record. Some of what Davidson gets up to on “Conjuring the Cataclysm” is downright beautiful, in an almost John McLaughlin-esque kind of way. But the rapid shifting between soulful, artistic guitar work and bludgeoning, mechanistic riff-storms grows wearying, and then really weird shit happens, like a Rush-aping riff or the crazed organ break (and, buried in the mix, horns) on “The Watchers.” But the album’s relentless closer “Reprogrammed,” which starts off at a Megadeth-in-1990 gallop before veering rightward into Fear Factory-style crunching, making time for the obligatory shredtastic guitar solo, going back to Thrashtown and repeating the whole cycle all over again, is probably the track that sums this record up the best. It’s loud, “aggressive” in a really unimaginative way, and like the rest of this album, it shows that Revocation are giving in to 21st Century metal’s worst impulses instead of trying to move past or beyond them. I’m gonna keep right on listening to Empire of the Obscene and Existence is Futile, but I don’t really see myself returning to Chaos of Forms much going forward.