June 4, 2008

CD Review: Ascension of the Watchers - Numinosum

The year was 1995, I had recently seen the movie Mortal Kombat. Liking the music in the film, I went out and picked up the soundtrack. The disk is packed with great tunes; one of the cuts that jumped out at me was "Zero Signal" by a group called Fear Factory. This led me to a remix album called Fear is the Mindkiller and finally onto Demanufacture. By this point I had fallen head over heels in love with this fascinating industrial metal act. The extremely tight precision, the brutal pairing of guitar and drums, the unique (to me at the time) combination of melodic singing and raw throated growls and screams, all drew me in. To this day I love the band, despite the drama that has surrounded them over the years. What does that have to do with Ascension of the Watchers? Well, this is Fear Factory frontman Burton C. Bell's side project. Now, if you are expecting anything like Fear Factory, you will be sorely disappointed as it would be harder for him to get any further away.

The Ascension of the Watchers project is a huge departure from the heavy styles of Fear Factory. There are no jackhammer riffs, no skull crushing drums, no vocals that make your throat bleed. This is not a metal album, pure and simple. This is Burton expanding his horizons, stepping away from his metal roots and displaying another side of himself, a side that he claims is the real him. In an interview reported at Blabbermouth.com, Burton essentially outs himself as a non-metal guy. Now, I do not believe this was the complete intention, but it can be interpreted as him distancing himself from what has been the bread and butter of his career, thus threatening to alienate a good portion of his fanbase. I am more apt to believe that he merely wanted to express another part of himself. As an artist grows and matures it is natural to want to express oneself in other ways, Ascension of the Watchers is Bell's way of doing just that.

Is he successful in showing another side in Numinosum? The answer is unequivocally yes. Whether or not you think the music is successful is another question entirely.

The first time you listen to Numinosum you will likely be taken aback by what you hear, I know I was. No matter how many places you read about this not being a metal release, it is hard not to expect that trademark Bell style that has served him so well for so many years. Frankly, it may take a few listens to get dug in with this enough to feel comfortable. There are many who will likely never feel comfortable with this. There is no denying that it will have a different audience than Fear Factory. Still, once you become accustomed to the new style, you may come to really love what he is doing here.

This album is fascinating in the way it grows on you. My first listen was a little awkward as I tried to work around what Bell is presenting us. The music is atmospheric, swirling, mellow, introspective, personal, mature, and distinctly not metal. For those who have not yet sampled it, but are Fear Factory fans, the best way to describe it would be to liken it to those long quiet tracks that appear at the end of a number of Fear Factory albums. You know what I am talking about. Those would appear to be trial runs, or a build up of ideas leading to the creation of Numinosum.

The album opens with "Ascendant," a track driven by a steady heartbeat with swirling keyboards, an audio sample, and acoustic guitar before Burton's whispery effects-laden voice enters the mix. This leads into "Evading," opening with acoustic guitars and programmed percussion, and featuring Burton singing in a more familiar manner.

Lyrically, the album has a fiercely personal edge. It is like Burton is letting himself pour out over the music, exorcising himself of deeply felt pain, love, something, anything. A desire to get these trapped thoughts and feelings out into the open. It may take a few listens, but it is all rather beautiful.

This is not perfect by any stretch, and at times it seems to be out of the range of Bell's ability as he takes his voice to the brink, dancing along the edge of destruction. There were moments where it sounded as if he was going beyond what he could do, where it sounded like he was trying to hard and not quite making it work. While he does a good job overall, I feel that his voice may not be quite strong enough to pull off what he was attempting. However, I also feel that with the personal nature of the content, it is more about the journey and the attempt than it is about the skill to pull it off perfectly. I am not saying this as an excuse, as it does hurt the album, but I am not sold on this being made for commercial purposes, although there are those considerations.

Lest you all think this is the Burton C. Bell show, far from it. He is joined by John Bechdel and Edu Mussi, plus guests Al Jourgensen (of Ministry), the late Paul Vincent Raven (Ministry, Killing Joke, Prong), and Ben Bell. All of these individuals perform on Numinosum.

Bottomline. It is true that I did not really enjoy this upon first listen, I did not hate it, but was rather non-plussed. After a couple of more listens I found that it dug itself into my head and took up residence, drawing me ever closer to the other side. Yes, I like this album, I like it a lot. I appreciate what Burton C. Bell has put into Ascension of the Watchers. In the end, I really, really like this album.

Highly Recommended.


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