Four years after a promising debut EP, the Austin (Texas) prog-metal/post-rock artist Scaphoid returns with Absent Passages, revealing a musically dexterous, hugely skillful and fascinating soundscape that flows freely between aggression and atmosphere, from incendiary roar to infectious groove to intoxicating delicacy. Each track is impeccably composed and, allied to a scintillatingly clean production, this is a total surprise and revelation that I would recommend to all!
Scaphoid is actually multi-instrumentalist Matt Hobart, who has created and plays all the music on this album. It’s mixed and mastered by longtime friend Jamie King, and the front cover artwork is by Corey Meyers.
In a way, Absent Passages is the most apt moniker for this collection of songs. Multi-instrumentalist Matt Hobart credits instrumental metal as a primary inspiration but notes that, as much as the concept has always drawn him in, he has found himself long in search of a specific stylistic approach that had eluded him. One of his goals is to find that sweet spot, and as a result Absent Passages represents the sound that has burned within Hobart’s heart and mind without any previous outlet to represent it.
The album paints an intriguing range of images and the song-set progresses, it’s a varied soundscape that will draw the interest of fans from a wide spectrum spanning prog-rock, post-metal, post-rock, space rock, psychedelic, djent, and more. It is formed out of diverse lifelong influences ranging from Opeth and Meshuggah to Pink Floyd and Steven Wilson, as well as less obvious artists like Corrosion of Conformity, but ultimately exists more as a tour of the spaces between those diverse artists.
Album opener and lead single Marauder sets the tone for what’s to come, with space rock melodies floating above a staccato rhythm with crystal clear, ethereal leads acting as the thread tying everything together. It’s a lovely production and sound-mix, impressive without being showy, and consistently and thoroughly engaging. It’s a perfect introduction to an album that paints a striking and unique vision of progressive metal.
Shores of Ruin continues the same compositional approach of complex, interesting, syncopation underpinning two levels of fluid lead guitar work bubbling away in a style very reminiscent of Opeth and, especially, The Pineapple Thief. None So Blind mines the same vein, it’s melodic and smoothly flowing, mesmerising stuff.
Melpomene (no idea what it means) drops the pace right down and features piano to the fore. As well as an accomplished guitarist, Matt can clearly tinkle the ivories like a good’un! Halfway through, the bridge section again has some great percussion before a soaring solo swoops over, and for the first time a degree of beefiness enters the riffs. The track reminded me a little of the Zep epic Kashmir, simply for the sense of heat and aridity as it builds towards the climax. Perhaps my favourite track of the album.
Celestial Ego certainly does have that space-rock feel to it, bubbling away and giving an echoing sense of distance. The arrangement is spot-on in creating a cavernous, reverberating composition that builds and fades in much the same manner as Steven Wilson would do – and in all seriousness it’s on a par with St. Steven, its that good! As the final, piano-led section fades away you involuntarily heave a deep breath.
The Coldness of Clarity creeps in with piano again before some fascinating percussive effects start building. Over the course of the track, guitar-led sections vie with the piano to create a immersive six minutes. The Narrows is very Porcupine Tree or The Pineapple Thief, the skillful use of creative rhythms and percussion provides the perfect canvas for Matt’s guitar and keyboard cadences – in this case an unusual oboe-like keyboard sort of droning away in competition with strummed guitar.
The album closes with a 14 minute epic titled Infrastricken. Again very Porcupine Tree, again right up there in terms of composition, the interplay of some chunky riffing and beefy rhythm section before the trademark clean finger-picking sequences float through and introduce different phases of percussive effects. A sweet burst of lead guitar effortlessly soars across before a series of sections, each with a different guitar-led style, sweeps across a musical panorama. It’s really hard to believe this is a solo project! As with other tracks, Infrastricken holds your attention throughout simply because of the quality of playing and arrangement. Mr. Wilson would be proud!
In summing up, I have to say that instrumental albums (ie no vocals) normally bore me after a few tracks, no matter how “a-maz-zingg” the technical proficiency of the musician. This is so different though, I can absorb and enjoy this album from start to finish then immediately play it again, the compositions are that varied and diverting. A crystal clear mix and production also aids and abets the flow of the music, seamlessly and effortlessly drawing you in from one soundscape to the next. The fact that this is one musician plus one producer is a massive tribute to the skills of the two-some!
My only problem in doing the review was the paucity of images and videos for Scaphoid (hence the separate video below, it’s not on the album but gives a good idea of what to expect) – despite the regal image of the photo above, he’s an elusive character!