One of the greatest benefits that has come about as a result of the shifting nature of the music business is the establishment of a relative meritocracy. If a band is good enough, no matter where they come from, and no matter if they are signed to a label or not, word will spread and they will find an audience. At no time has there ever been such an ability to hear music from all corners of the earth, to uncover the gems that in earlier days would have remained hidden forever.
Bad Salad are one of these gems, a band who have gotten their name out in progressive music circles not because of which established musicians are doing their tenth side project, but because the music they make has forced people to stand up and take notice. There are hundreds of progressive rock and metal bands that bear the hallmarks of Dream Theater, but few manage to capture the element that elevated them above the rest of the technical virtuosos who populate the field; songwriting. Far too often prog bands indulge their inner musician at the expense of the listener, making music that is fun for them to play, but excruciatingly introverted to listen to. Bad Salad manages to not only avoid this trap, but flourish with the best progressive metal album of the year so far.
The first two minutes of “Crowded Sky” tell you everything you need to know about the music that will unfold throughout the album, a blend of dizzying instrumental runs, propulsive rhythms, and vocals that anchor the songs with plenty of melody. The shortest song on the album, “Crowded Sky” is tantamount to a warm-up, tempting listeners with a perfect blend of complex rhythm and memorable songwriting. Guitarist Thiago Campos churns out those familiar technical style rhythmic riffs, while singer Denis Oliveira uses his mid-range and throaty voice to add on a melody that is anything but pop, but is instantly memorable. This is the kind of songwriting progressive metal so often lacks, and it is done with expert precision.
From here on, the album turns into a progressive monster, with the shortest remaining track measuring a full nine and a half minutes. It seems like a daunting proposition, but the ride is well worth the effort. “Nemesis” uses the keyboards to build a massive, dramatic atmosphere that connects the sections of the song. Campos alternates twisting riffs with open spaces, letting each member of the band take a turn in the spotlight, all proving to be more than up to the task. All of the challenging instrumentals are well-balanced by the breathing room given by the other band members, the song tying all of these together with vocal sections once again showing a deft touch with melody.
It's hard not to be impressed with the skill of the music on “Uncivilized”. While clearly taking influence from the fore-bearers of the genre, the playing never feels like an excuse to show off, a complaint that weighs down many similar albums. Everything flows seamlessly, masking the difficult nature of what is being heard. This is demanding music done with such grace that you forget the effort that must have gone into writing and recording these songs, which is the mark of the best progressive music.
“Mourning” takes things down to a slow burn, focusing on keyboards and more traditional Brazilian beats as Oliveira delivers another strong melodic chorus. It's a very somber affair, bringing diversity to the palate, before the second half unfolds in a dizzying display of musicianship leading into one more run through the soothing chorus. Equally dizzying are the twisting time signatures throughout “The Second Calling”, picking up and dropping off seemingly at random, but always coming together at just the right time. That drummer Caco Gonçalves is able to navigate the labyrinth of music is commendable, that he is able to do so while putting forth some memorable patters is astounding.
The most unexpected surprise on the album is the performance of Oliveira, who doesn't fit the mold of what a progressive metal vocalist is assumed to be. He is not a high-pitched wailer piercing the sky with the most challenging notes he can muster. Instead, he uses his mid-range voice to great effect by focusing on what he's singing, rather than how he's singing it. Maybe not as skilled as some other vocalists, he more than makes up for it with a better understanding of melody, easily elevating the band over countless peers simply by understanding the importance of his role. Snobs may take offense at this approach, but it makes for better music, giving listeners who aren't as well-versed in understanding the puzzle being pieced together by the instrumentalists something to grab onto. His performance on “Sights From Within” cannot be denied, fitting the kind of melody from melodic rock into the more challenging framework, making the song a fascinating hybrid that elevates both components.
The only drawback to “Uncivilized” is the limited attention span most listeners are likely to have. At 78 minutes, there is too much music on the album to be easily digested all at once. “Uncivilized” is an album that will take repeated listens to fully sink in, and even then, it's a draining experience to make it all the way through the album in one shot. It may be a strange complaint to say there's too much of a good thing being offered, but that's the case here. By the time the last two songs come along, signaling only half an hour to go, so much has happened already that the prospect of that much more still looming isn't as joyous a thought as it should be.
What “Uncivilized” is as an album is a wonderful encapsulation of what progressive metal can be when everything comes together. The songs are complex, technically demanding, and still highly melodic and memorable. Few bands with legacies and reputations can manage these feats, making Bad Salad's success even more remarkable. Endurance is required, but when you get to the end, you know you've just heard something special.