When approaching any album tagged with the label 'progressive', it must be kept in mind the two connotations the word carries. Progressive music can be an ethos, eschewing conventional structure to tell stories, or it can be a tightly defined form of music celebrating the virtuosic talents of the players. Oddly enough, for a genre of music that carries an air of intellectualism and musical sophistication, the expectations and tastes of the fans can be as narrow and insular as those of any other metal sub-genre.
Pigeon Toe requires an open mind, because they take the term progressive at face value, using the span of “The First Perception” to tell a story with their music. They aren't interested in showing off their skills, or proving their heaviness, only making music with a purpose. Listeners who think progressive metal begins and ends with Dream Theater and their imitators will be disappointed, as Pigeon Toe feels like a throwback to the early days when metal didn't follow rules, and it sounds as if it was ripped from the past as well. The guitars rip through the louder moments with a vintage distortion, the tubes breaking up with every hit of the strings. In a day and age of ultra-high-gain amplifiers run through myriad pedals and effects, the raw tone sets a striking atmosphere for the band to work off.
The title track opens the album and the audible influence of Opeth dominates the soft early minutes, before the guitars swell and the song takes several metallic turns in the remaining running time. The combination of three guitarists work together seamlessly, never fighting for their time in the spotlight, to the detriment of the song. Even the off-kilter riffing at the beginning of “The Chase”, among other moments, doesn't feel like the band is showing off their ability to play an odd meter. They are songs that need to play off the straight beat at times, to emphasize the return to normalcy.
But like every story, there are places where Pigeon Toe loses their way. Whether the out-of-nowhere shred solo stuck in the middle of “Sneak”, or the sometimes overlong somber moments, the album never finds and maintains a sense of momentum. The good moments, like the title track, stick out from the rest of the songs, which feel like role players serving the whims of the star.
Many progressive bands do their best to avoid writing in a verse/chorus format, but fail to understand the format is not a limitation on creativity, but a tool to help the listener understand the music they are listening to. By taking twists and tangents throughout the album, the progressive nature makes it difficult to follow where the music is going, and to remember where it has been. The hook is not dug in deep enough to make an impact. “The Man With The Cat” has an uncomfortably addictive melody, but it is forgotten in the instrumental second half of the song, never returning to give the listener closure.
That is where “The First Perception” comes up short on its title. On a first listen, there is little to remember about what you have heard. There are good moments, but the refusal to bring back those musical ideas enough times to imprint, combined with a string of interchangeable instrumentals leading up to the close, leave the album feeling stitched together, and not like a cohesive and captivating album.