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Potmos Hetoimos and the Shaky Brilliance of “Vox Medusae”

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It’s tempting to think about the new Potmos Hetoimos album through a sociopolitical lens. The Baltimore-based prog/sludge/doom/jazz solo project of Matt Matheson has tackled plenty of grand themes on past records, but Vox Medusae touches on personal, transgressive themes. His allegory of pornography addiction invites discussions about the intersections of gender, sex work, and violence.

But while those ideas certainly underpin much of Vox Medusae’s 55 minutes, what’s explored is far too inward-looking for such thoughts. It explores insular themes with cosmic scope, much like maudlin of the Well’s astral projection-influenced meditations on love. It’s grandiosity with the intent of telling one focused story, a masturbation fable.

There’s a lot of lore to explore here; the album has a full cast of nine characters, some of whom can be identified by the musical modes used or by Matheson’s vocal inflection. It’s hard not to think of it as a “rock opera.” It tells a mostly coherent story about a porn addict struggling with his inability to kick the habit. Vox Medusae seems to ultimately posit that pornography can (or will) lead to the objectification of women; a disputable claim, but one that will certainly raise eyebrows.

Toby Driver’s work, both as maudlin of the Well and Kayo Dot, is an obvious reference point both instrumentally and lyrically. Matheson concocts a brutal stew of sludge and jazz, always knowing when to let one overtake the other. The record is full of punishing movements which immediately give way to sax noodling. That it manages to do this without sounding painfully derivative of Shining (not that one, the other one) is impressive enough; that it’s often exhilarating even moreso.

That’s not to say it always works. Making all these concepts fit together is quite the balancing act, and there are moments when it falters. Wistful instrumental interludes sometimes go on longer than necessary, and the sheer volume of instrumentation can sometimes verge on cacophonous. Prog metal is at its best when the listener isn’t left wondering how much isn’t just improv.

Largely, though, Matheson keeps things moving with restraint. His previous work as Potmos Hetoimos dealt in excess, full of hour-long tracks and album trilogies. Here, he pulls back, and it’s a good look for the project. He glides between passages delicately, knowing when to kick things up with a fist-pumping chorus and when a reverberant piano is all that’s necessary.

But it’s the rowdy moments on Vox Medusae that are the best. The chest-beating, sledgehammer delivery of “I’ve got my finger on the pulse” in opener “Idyll Anathema” sets the tone nicely, a near-spiritual cry of self-loathing. These explosive moments echo the boom and bust of orgasms, reaching a crescendo before quickly crashing into jitteriness. It’s an uneasy flow, not quite frightening but certainly disquieting.

Unlike other prog metal albums, the mixing on Vox Medusae deserves special praise. Rather than a constant wall of sound, the album is free to move about dynamically, from soft lows to thundering highs. The auxiliary instrumentation, particularly the horns and keys, play nicely with the more traditional guitars and drums, augmenting rather than obscuring their melodies. The occasional synth patch makes for a delightfully Goblin-esque vibe at just the right moments.

But while the album proper is tightly wound, the occasional song-length interludes (“Fits & Fevers”, “E Pur Lei Muore”) force the momentum to a screeching halt, distracting from the catchiness of the songs that precede them. These tracks are already given plenty of time to breathe, and don’t need extra space to do so. This album significantly tightens the Potmos Hetoimos formula, but could still benefit from another round of edits.

Whether or not the throughline of a mythological analogy for porn addiction is your cup of tea, it’s difficult not to find something to latch onto in Vox Medusae. It’s focused (most of the time), and the jazziness can be downright intoxicating. Its best moments hint at brilliance. With a tighter focus, Potmos Hetoimos might just sit among metal’s best and strangest.

— Michael Siebert

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