In contemporary terms when we think of Progressive Metal, often the first thought (and arguably nowadays the most prevalent style) is of the overtly technical, calculated and near mechanical sounding; that or the likes of Opeth with their marriage of extremity and growled vocals with progressive rock’s expansive structures and complex arrangements. Beforehand, years ago, progressive metal was arguably spearheaded by a vastly different type of beast; the likes of Queensryche with their thoughtful yet anthemic nature and armed with towering, often falsetto vocalists. Howling Sycamore certainly remembers this time well, as their self-titled début (Prosthetic) shows a love and influence from such time period as much as it marries with more modern stylings; creating a sound which in today’s progressive metal climate, actually stands out effectively.
With alumni from the likes of Obscura, Ephel Duath, Watchtower and Necrophagist to name a few, Howling Sycamore holds a considerable pedigree and it really shows on this début release. Far from the confounding technicality of the likes of Obscura, Howling Sycamore does offer a level of extremity but one due more to its melancholic atmosphere, a rawness in production and a diversity in pace from a menacing crawl to near blast-beat territory, complete with some off-kilter transitions and piercing jazz instrumentation which amplifies the intended uncomforting feel.
Vocally is where the clearest nods to the earlier Progressive Metal acts come in to play with Jason McMaster’s (of Watchtower and Dangerous Toys) piercing screams and delivery which is reminiscent of the likes of Crimson Glory’s Midnight and Geoff Tate. It is these vocals which give the album its most jarring nature, most likely intended, as they stand out so much against the musical backdrop, and whilst for the most part it’s a clash which emphasises an experimental nature and fully works, there are also occasions where it seems too mismatched.
Despite their long and storied works separately, these collectively combining together has given something widely different to much of their more well known works and therefore is a striking début which stands out from the crowd and shows the forward-thinking notion that progressive music is supposed to showcase. It isn’t a perfect blend just yet, with some great ideas that aren’t quite executed seamlessly just yet, but minor issues aside, Howling Sycamore is a thoroughly intense and enjoyable effort, and a collaboration which will hopefully see the light again.