For the last decade or so, one of the paths down which metal has gone involves the fusion of genres that don't, on the surface, seem to go together. It started with Opeth's unique brew of death metal and somber folk, but grew from there to include everything from the death metal meets jazz of Farmakon, to the 'super metal' of Monsterworks, and the kitchen sink approach that typifies bands like Between The Buried And Me. What they all have in common is a desire to do something unique in a space where it seems every good idea has already been explored. Some of these bands are more successful than others, while some prove that there was a very good reason why the disparate genres had never yet been combined.
Super Massive Black Holes can be added to that list, a metal band that doesn't care about the conventions of genre, instead throwing a little bit of everything against the wall to see what sticks. As is the case with any band that tries this approach, there's virtually no chance of everything working. The sounds are simply too diverse for them all to hit a particular listener the way the artist intends. We seldom see all of these styles played together, not because it can't work, but because few people are fans of all the styles to the point where the combination can still be loved as much as any of the individual pieces.
Take a song like the opening “(Sub-molecular) Transmogrification Of The Orify”, which combines death metal, classic metal, and moments of technical excess all within the guitars. It's a unique tapestry, that much is for sure, but the three types of playing are so different that I can't see many fans sticking around and bobbing their heads all the way through. When the next song, “Dyatlov Pass Incident” goes off into free-jazz territory, it pushes not so much the boundaries of metal, and the boundaries of patience.
In a band like Opeth's best songs, the parts have transitions that allow them to make sense in the larger composition, smoothing the shift from one mood to the other. Most bands are not able to properly accomplish that feat, which is what I find on “Calculations Of The Ancients”. Leaving aside any question of the quality of the songs for a moment, the simple construction of them leaves something to be desired. There isn't enough attention paid on how to properly integrate all of the elements they bring to the table, which makes parts of the album feel like cut-and-paste jobs.
Moreover, the album suffers from one of my biggest pet-peeves. For all the work and thought that went into making the album a diverse amalgamation of every style under the sun, the vocals are a hoarse croak throughout the record, showing nary a hint of the effort that went into the music. It is a huge missed opportunity, as the wild shifts in mood that the album is going for aren't given a chance to stand out, because of a vocal performance that is only capable of one tone.
There are moments here and there when I can see what the band is going for, and where they sort of pull it off. There's definitely room for forward-thinking music in the metal landscape, and I applaud the ambition behind the project, but the album doesn't live up to its own expectations. The pieces are in place to make something interesting, but they were hamstrung from ever being able to make the statement they were aiming for. I wouldn't say “Calculations Of The Ancients” is a bad record, it's a misguided one. It is a missed opportunity, one that hopefully will teach the band what to do better the next time around.