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Contrarian – “To Perceive Is To Suffer” (Album Premiere)

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With impossible tempos and busy arrangements that make it difficult to discern the goings-on, many modern technical death metal practitioners straddle a line between impressive displays of musical chops and coming off as cold and inhuman. Invisible Oranges Editor Andrew Rothmund put it well in the first installment of his Technical Ecstasy column. He described the general perception of technical metal as “songs made by musicians for musicians […] metal wherein virtuoso musicianship is the primary focus: how fast, how complex, how mind-bending, etc. Something is lost when the focus shifts from how it sounds to how it’s played, especially when it comes to guitar. At that point, music transforms into mere demonstration, a performance, something to gawk at rather than absorb on a deeper level.”

Fortunately, Contrarian live up to their moniker and buck virtually all recent tech-death trends on their refreshingly organic sophomore full-length To Perceive Is To Suffer. Featuring Nile’s George Kollias on drums and vocals, the band finds him swimming in decidedly different musical waters than his main gig, or his underrated 2015 solo album Inferno. He barely makes use of his double bass pedal with Contrarian — surprising, since he is arguably the fastest drummer this side of 1349/Satyricon skinsman Frost and widely known for his innovative, leg-swiveling double bass technique. On To Perceive Is To Suffer, Kollias’s playing relies on feel rather than sheer velocity, and he even incorporates jazzy elements in the cymbal work. Vocally, he favors black metal rasps over death growls, and pairs masterfully with the legendary Paul Masvidal’s soaring voice on the lovely “At Fate’s Hands.”

Kollias’s understated technique here stems directly from guitarist Jim Tasikas’s approach to songwriting. Tasikas’s style feels in line with Chuck Schuldiner (Death), Paul Masvidal (Cynic), and Rand Burkey/Kelly Schaefer (Atheist), and his riff complexity stems from the use of atmosphere and melody rather than overt displays of technical skill. He and bassist Ed Paulsen have played together in the progressive death metal outfit Delirium Endeavor for the better part of the last twenty years, and it shows. Paulsen’s fusion-influenced style and warm, round tone are given prominence in the mix and allowed room to act as a foil for Tasikas’s riffing. The duo uses this deep familiarity with each other’s styles to intricately layer and intertwine their respective lines, and together they create enjoyably knotty textures without sacrificing any of the music’s compositional euphony.

Most importantly, everything Tasikas and lead guitarist Brian Mason play on To Perceive is to Suffer feels designed to best serve the song, not themselves. On tracks like “Memory Eternal” and “Purpose Seeker,” the uncharacteristic amount of space between notes feels vital to the overall composition of the song, just like negative space in visual art. The same goes for the frequent use of brightly-toned clean guitars. On more aggressive tracks like “Transcend The Mundane,” outright heaviness helps avoid dips into the genre-wide resurgence of “hyper-blasting” and high note-per-measure densities, all in favor of relatively straightforward riffs. Mason’s lead breaks are impressive while still supporting the songs’ overall motifs rather than relying on sweep picking and other shred-gasm fret board calisthenics.

While To Perceive is to Suffer has its mind-bending and gawk-worthy moments, the album’s defining traits involve subtlety and restraint. Realistically, most listeners need an entry point to truly delve into tech-death. Bands that don’t offer one tend to write music that impresses but doesn’t quite resonate. Those that do, however, coax listeners into devoting time to parsing and (hopefully) growing to appreciate the genre’s complexities. Contrarian falls into the latter category, offering easily digestible tech-death without spoiling the richness that deeper fans enjoy.

To Perceive is to Suffer will be available on July 28 via Willowtip Records. Until then, we are pleased to present an exclusive full stream of the album below.

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