Allegaeon took the internet reviewing world fairly by storm with their heady debut "Fragments of Form and Function" in 2010. Critics saw an aggressive but honest extreme metal band, tap-dancing on the boundary between noise and craft. 2012 sees the band follow up with "Formshifter," an album that takes cues both visual and musical from the latest incarnation of heavy metal stalwarts Fear Factory. While commonly seen as European, extreme metal is mostly a shared invention of countries on both sides of the Pond, with Allegaeon simply carrying the torch for those before.
There are two basic elements of "Formshifter" and they boil down to the entirely-too-simple-but-appropriate columns of "percussion" and "guitar." In the Venn diagram of those two ideals, "Formshifter" is borne from the common space. The mix for this album is dominated by the constant thudding of drums, which is odd given the fact that Allegaeon has no full-time drummer.
On the other front, the combined guitar work of Ryan Glisan and Greg Burgess is really what the album is all about. As an album, "Formshifter" lives under the banner of that seemingly long-gone late '80s war cry: "wait, there's still time for another solo!" The soloing is nearly constant and always top-notch, moving aside all other instruments and musical ideas in order to take center stage.
Burgess is a classically trained guitarist, which should be an incredible asset to the proceedings, but instead this is where the seams on Allegaeon's newest effort start to show. Unlike their debut, "Formshifter" is content to be a more academic affair, leaning heavily towards a planned-on-a-chalkboard style that lets the pieces fit in a musical way without having them fit with any kind of emotion or, in particular, soul. Burgess and Glisan combine for some impressive guitar acrobatics, but fail to connect on an emotional level. Burgess, for all his training and ability (and he does have a pile of both,) seems more content to rip off scales at high speed, over and over again. The album would have sounded less hollow and more genuine if the two had played in tandem, dueling each other for supremacy.
"Formshifter" is an album that wants to come off as extremely intelligent, but it's hard not only to tell what's going on beneath the noise, but to discern between the different tracks. Like a dart board with only one score, eight of the album's ten tracks begin immediately with either a vicious double kick or blindingly repetitive, high-speed snare, which not only snubs the band's creative versatility, but becomes numbing after a while. This results in songs like "Iconic Images" or "The Azrael Trigger" which can't get out of their own way. This is as much a problem infecting the entire genre as it is a failing of Allegaeon, so they can only be blamed so much for staying dedicated to the established, if flawed, calculus.
Before we carry on and make it sound like "Formshifter" is worthy of no higher treatment than the dumpster, that's not the case. While the album lacks a definable groove or emotion, the pieces are artfully arranged and manage to form a cohesive whole. To that end, Allegaeon demonstrates a talent for composition, and the resultant product is much more defined than simply an undecipherable morass of cacophonous noise. "From the Stars Death Came" is one of the album's songs that works, and the middle section of "Twelve" contains a nearly brilliant mixing of song and style elements. One finds themselves wondering why that kind of innovation isn't evident on the entire effort.
For those fans who love their metal to be an exercise in technical acuity and academic time signature crunching, Allegaeon's "Formshifter" will hold some value. There are solid structures, textbook solos and a complete effort of the most modern forms of American death and extreme metal. For those who prefer groove, over-the-top free-form virtuosity and a rolling, bravado-soaked good time (arguably the majority,) there's not much here for you.