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Supergroup Tech-Death: Continuum’s Wild and Virtuosic “Designed Obsolescence”

designed obsolescence

Supergroups: a contradictory archetype within the world of heavy music, it often seems that the highest-profile collaborations also prove to be the some of the most disappointing. At times they even appear to operate on a formula that is indirectly proportional: as the volume of talent involved in the project increases, the quality of its output falls drastically. Not only do they fail to live up to the individual legacy of any one member, they unfortunately create content that is stale, unnatural, and aims for the lowest-common-denominator between all contributors’ previous material.

One subgenre that routinely and holistically defies this convention, however, is technical death metal (or just “tech-death” as we call it). Rife with formidable coalitions, unlikely partnerships, and jaw-dropping Justice League-esque alliances, the tech-death scene is a veritable international spiderweb of hyper-savvy musicians constantly forming ambitious new connections. Perhaps it is because they are so dedicated to virtuosic artistry and innovative composition that tech-death’s constituents are readily capable of putting individuality aside and letting music itself take the spotlight.

Enter Continuum, a tech-death supergroup to end all supergroups which boasts an inconceivably stacked cast of genre veterans. Comprised of guitarists Chase Fraser (ex-Animosity, ex-Decrepit Birth) and Ivan Munguia (Deeds of Flesh, ex-Arkaik), vocalist Riley McShane (Allegaeon, Son of Aurelius), and bassist Nick Willbrand of Bay-Area death metal outfit Eviscerated, Continuum harnesses the sheer power to remotely scramble brains by reputation alone. Rounding out their current lineup is drummer Ron Casey (Inanimate Existence, ex-Brain Drill, ex-Rings of Saturn), who joined the group late last year, replacing Son of Aurelius drummer Spencer Edwards.

This mind-bendingly talented congregation first began working together all the way back in 2009, but as the majority of each member’s time is committed to their own primary groups, Continuum’s output is understandably sparse: having released their first and only studio album The Hypothesis in 2015, they now triumphantly return after four years of silence bearing their masterful new full-length Designed Obsolescence (out today). Although this long hiatus has had a trying effect on the patience and loyalty of dedicated listeners, it also means that Continuum’s re-convergence will bring with it the wealth of innovative musical ideas and techniques that each member has unswervingly honed during their time apart. In the words of guitarist Chase Fraser, “Designed Obsolescence encapsulates the feel of our first album while adding many more layers and expanding on the concept of what Continuum can do as a band.”

With The Hypothesis already standing as an impressive demonstration of the group’s abilities, it is now time to find out what’s in store on this enticing new record.

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Opening track “Theorem” charges out of the gate with a blistering sense of warpspeed annihilation: the group chooses not to waste time building tension with an atmospheric introduction to their material, instead delving straight into the complex viscera in which they specialize. A brief, churning instrumental passage serves as the track’s prologue before the entrance of McShane’s ghastly growled vocals, whose grating mid-range timbre meshes perfectly into song’s overall tone, his utterance neither shrill nor overly guttural. The progression of musical concepts presented herein shape-shifts almost hyperactively as both meter and tempo fluctuate by the second, leaving the listener bewildered and clinging on for dear life.
The relentless nature and breakneck pace of “Theorem” accurately set the stage for Designed Obsolescence’s next eight tracks, which maintain this breathless feral pulse throughout. It also establishes the sense of spiraling claustrophobia that defines Designed Obsolescence, and thus its decided lack of ambient or atmospheric elements that might provide respite to the listener: from this savagery, there are no digressions. Contrary to this fixation on compositional conciseness, however, the record’s wide range of stylistic influences quickly begins to unfold as we venture further into its vicious depths.

The album’s second track “Release from Flesh and Blood” (which also served as its first single) brings the chaos down to a more manageable yet still frenzied tempo as it begins to delineate some of the album’s groovier elements, providing a sturdy anchor to the haphazard unpredictability of its wild licks and discordant shredding. If the goal of “Theorem” was to get us accustomed to the sheer velocity of Designed Obsolescence, the aim of “Release from Flesh and Blood” is to demonstrate just how crushingly heavy this record can get; during its latter half, the subtle presence of brutal death metal is revealed with a breakdown straight out of the slam bible woven perfectly into mechanical tech riffing, complete with pig squeals and a machine-gun double bass assault. The song then bursts into a frenetic, wailing guitar solo with an overdriven tone and discordant melody strongly reminiscent of late 1980s thrash and OSDM. This retro soloing style, rife with hammer-ons, dive bombs, and atonal intervals, returns several times throughout the album, most notably on its seventh track “Into the Void,” which ventures as close to Slayer-worship as possible without becoming distasteful.

The record continues to surge forth with increasingly sprawling textures which find their climax on the title track. Serving as a sort of conceptual centerpiece to the album, “Designed Obsolescence” is by far the most unique and experimental piece Continuum has yet composed, undoubtedly the highlight of the entire album. Pushing their groovy, progressive elements to a logical extreme, the track consists of bass-heavy, fractally polyrhythmic riffs that encroach on the hyper-calculated territory of djent. With eerie, otherworldly lead tones gliding over this seething electric swamp, “Designed Obsolescence” is also the only track on the album to incorporate atmospheric, synthesized elements into Continuum’s sound, with programmed strings sending the final minute of the song into a massively blasphemous symphonic passage. Serving as both the album’s most diverse composition and also its most modern, the title track stands as definitive proof that Continuum’s ability as a collective supersedes the sum of its parts.

From this point on, each successive track contains its own miniature experiment into a different subgenre of death metal, with Continuum offering their own interpretations of several highly niche styles. “All Manner of Decay” performs a high-dive from the lofty djent impressions of “Designed Obsolescence” into the record’s beefiest, most grinding moments. There is a palpable amount of deathgrind throughout this album, with the highest concentration occurring on this pulverizing, menacingly palm-muted track. We then enter into the uncanny realm of blackened tech with “Autonomic” and “Remnants of Ascension.” Featuring diminished broken chords, blast beats, and despairing screams, “Autonomic” makes the strange yet satisfying transition from cascading blackened lamentations into a chugged tech-death breakdown, and closes with an almost frightening tangle of undulating, effects-heavy guitar harmonies. “Remnants of Ascension” is noticeably horror-themed, a cosmic, interstellar romp carried onward by frantic tremolo riffs that slither into a galloping triple-meter, drilling their way between the tightly wound folds of your cortex.

Designed Obsolescence’s final track “Repeating Actions” brings the entire album full-circle as it returns to the holistically tech-death species of riffs first introduced on “Theorem.” We are presented with a kaleidoscopic vortex of rapidly shifting rhythms that once again demonstrates the mathematical proficiency of which Continuum is capable, showcasing their true musical identity by displaying ideas nested within ideas that sprint and maneuver faster than the ear can follow. Furthermore, the song imbues a sense of reprisal, a feeling of returning to center after a long and arduous journey — it is only fitting that after layering their compositions with a wide array of alternating styles, they choose to strip away all excess decoration and close out with a straightforward track that conveys the essential core of their sound. The thematic significance here is thus self-evident: with musical and conceptual motifs from “Theorem” recurring in the album’s final moments, the cycle begins anew: fittingly, the song ends with a chorus of voices chanting “repeat, repeat, repeat!”

Despite this revolving door of varying influences and stylistic infusions, Designed Obsolescence presents an overall sonic quality that is thoroughly consistent, with every concept conveyed logically and dutifully. Crystal-clear, razor-sharp production balanced against the gruff timbre of late 1990s tech-death from which Continuum draws inspiration helps to maintain the album’s unstoppable forward momentum — all nine tracks are void of awkward moments or jarring transitions, despite being riddled with abrupt and sudden turns. The album’s percussion avoids the genre’s common pitfalls, coming across as organic and vibrant rather than sterile or overproduced, with crisp and thunderous double-bass and bright, shimmering cymbals. Even though it is thought-provokingly complex and immaculately executed, Continuum’s performance on Designed Obsolescence retains a certain human element, though it may be trapped deep within the tangled wires of this technological prison.

The thematic concepts of the album outline a sort of fear or disillusionment in the face of the oppressive, equalizing might of the digital matrix, the chilling feeling of being surpassed by technology such as artificial intelligence. With track titles like “Remnants of Ascension,” “Into the Void,” and “Release from Flesh and Blood,” the album echoes out across our decaying world like a biological life form’s final lament for the mortality of all species, screaming for respite from the inescapable industrial maze that consumes us all. Eschewing interdimensional or cosmic universal themes for highly relevant human ones, Continuum has tapped into the very real uncertainty of our modern era, the lurking notion that we will lose our individual identities and be consumed into some sort of collective, thus rendered obsolete.

continuum

The overall experience of Designed Obsolescence is akin to a hyper-sleek roller-coaster tour through many potential flavors of tech-death, with each relatively short song pummeling through ideas one after another with extreme discipline and laser focus. Continuum has compacted a veritable full hour’s worth of riffs into just 32 minutes, cutting off every last cell of fat and excess from their streamlined compositions and letting no track linger or bore the listener. Although its sound may at first seem highly mechanized, the album contains a wealth of unexpected and awe-inspiring moments that keep it spry and unpredictable, with clenched-teeth ferocity often blooming into bombastic moments of virtuosic creativity. Like the band’s lineup, these tracks incorporate elements from many far-off corners of technical and progressive death metal with moments that writhe, grind, and grandly sweep through the dark void of altered consciousness.

However, this conveyor belt assortment of styles also results in the slight obfuscation of their individuality as a group: at times it becomes unclear whether Continuum has a strongly established sound of their own or if they are simply emulating the highlights of previously existing tech-death. It does feel that there is a unique baseline structure undergirding the entire album, on top of which they build using borrowed materials from recognizable styles, but at times we lose sight of Designed Obsolescence’s overall vision. Perhaps this is one of the many philosophical messages of the album, which is thematically centered around a loss of personal identity and the fear of collectivization: with the first and last tracks serving as narrative brackets for the LP, it can be viewed as a sort of descent from “Theorem” into the hivemind as one’s psyche is dissected, pulled apart, and eventually replaced before surfacing once again as the self in “Repeating Actions.”

With Designed Obsolescence, Continuum has presented a high-caliber sophomore release that ultimately exceeds the parameters established on their previous album and suggests staggering potential for the band going forward. Incredibly brutal and violent yet inspirationally adventurous, this record expertly tucks elements of dazzling melody between thickly distorted guitars and blistering percussion. With material that is neither contrived nor artificial, Continuum has achieved the challenging task of creating tech-death with a naturalistic flow and stylish, airtight production. And although Designed Obsolescence includes a healthy dose of old-school throwback tendencies, it stands out confidently in the realm of modern tech death as a thoroughly progressive release for 2019; in a subgenre that has become increasingly fixated upon infusing lengthy compositions with ethereal atmospheric elements, Designed Obsolescence is unabashedly direct, hard-hitting, and visceral, with no diversions or breaks in intensity.

Designed Obsolescence released today via Unique Leader Records.

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