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In Your Head: Sons of Ra’s “Cognitive” EP Massages the Brain

Sons of Ra Cognitive EP Album Art

Mixing metal and jazz is an unpredictable venture, mainly because both genres are unpredictable themselves. In a way, that makes the combination creatively lucrative, since neither is likely to put much off the table. At the same time, it can give prospective listeners pause as well — labels aren’t much use when they can’t provide an indication of what one’s getting into, and somewhere in the back of all our minds is a primal fear of the words “smooth jazz” winding up next to “metal.” Fret not, however, as Chicago trio Sons of Ra draws from both progressive metal and jazz fusion, essentially picking up all the weird and heavy stuff from both sides and creating a sound that’s heavy, weird, and unmistakably theirs. Their upcoming Cognitive EP lands on Saturday, but we’re streaming it in advance now (it’s a playlist, so hit next if it doesn’t auto-play after the first song):

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Constant across these four songs is a theme of development and escalation: tracks like “Anti-Fragile” lull unsuspecting listeners into a spaced-out calm before unleashing a metallic, mind-altering volley of leads, and the rest of the EP possesses a similar breadth of character. Careful listening reveals a subtle evolution of every riff or drum pattern worthy of being played more than once, with twists gradually integrated for subliminal transitions toward oncoming cavalcades.

At times, the sheer battery of notes and frequency of changes coming from the band can be daunting, but the rhythm section provides a reliable focal point: basslines operate as a predictable heartbeat that the fill-packed drumming never forgets to accentuate. I’m certain that the drum/bass mix of the Cognitive EP would be interesting all on its own, but the guitar wizardry added in can’t be ignored. Never feeling excessively note-heavy for its own good, complexity here is wielded as a tool to create dynamics and convey intensity more than a way to show off skills.

Sons of Ra sidesteps some of the formulaic conventions of progressive metal by weaving in its eclectic influences, working in its jazz fusion element in ways that evoke the progressive rock of the 1970s — King Crimson, namely — while also engaging in the loud, high-speed antics more in line with today’s acts. Getting this all to work together requires some staggering talent and chops just to figure out how to play it, let alone record it, but the performance feels real — not sloppy, but not glossy machine-like perfection either, and that gives extra weight to each hard-earned note. The result of their labors, long in the making, is a rewarding foray into progressive metal that doesn’t forget to keep things exceedingly strange.

The Cognitive EP releases on February 1st, 2020. Preorder via Bandcamp.

Sons of Ra will be playing an album release show at Brauer House in Lombard, IL on February 14th.

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