Bands: Want to make a splash in 2014? It's still enough to make an album full of great music, but it helps if you give something more. Something to talk about. In an ideal world the music would drive the conversation. But today's musical playing field is too crowded and too competitive for you to play the wallflower and hope the masses take notice solely on the strength of your sound.
That's not to say Lazer/Wulf, Athens/Atlanta's mostly instrumental metal trio, had its eyes on the prize when it structured its new album, The Beast of Left and Right, as a musical palindrome, symmetrical in shape and with a clearly defined center. Of course, any album with a plainspoken concept is only as good as the music that communicates it. When a band builds an entire work around one specific idea, it walks a tricky line between using the idea as a springboard to new heights and getting trapped by its limitations.
Lazer/Wulf's concept is an eye-catcher, and one that demands explanation. The first and last of the album's nine songs share guitar chords, riffs, and drum tracks, but the former is in a major key, whereas the latter plays out in minor. The second and the second to last tracks are lyrical opposites. The process repeats in various fashions, tumbling inward until it reaches the album's fifth track, "Beast Reality (Center Piece)," which stands alone but incorporates parts of its neighboring numbers.
This concept shows the kind of ambition that would blow up in a lesser band's face, eliciting eye-rolls and snarky blog posts encouraging the band to focus on what's important: writing and playing songs. But Lazer/Wulf has skillfully concocted an antidote to that kind of criticism. Beast is packed wall-to-wall with sonic gut-punches that showcase the thunderous technical abilities of guitarist Bryan Aiken, bassist Sean Peiffer, and drummer Brad Rice.
"Choose Again (Right Path)" sets the tone as the trio packs an inhuman number of zigs and zags into eight and a half minutes. Rice and Peiffer sound like a pair of thrash-funk machines playing in perfect time, while Aiken provides six-string support as needed, with freedom to roam, melodically. Its counterpart, album closer "Mutual End," runs half as long and does, indeed, sound like a cosmic inverse of the opener.
"Lagarto" evolves from a chugging rhythmic experiment into a breakneck stoner rock bludgeon. Its conceptual twin, "Who Were the Mound Builders," spends six minutes thrashing around before downshifting into an astral jam complete with heavy-prog coda.
One pair of tracks doesn't work as well as the others. "A Conflict of Memory" feels more like a meandering interlude than a song, while "Choose Again (Left Path)" is a bit of a math-rock slog. The latter suffers, however, from following two of the album's best songs: "Concentric Eyes" is a soaring pop song fighting to escape a brilliant music theorist's brain, and "Beast Reality (Center Piece)" is the most successful amalgam of Lazer/Wulf's heavy, technical, and hooky inclinations. It's also the song that's least beholden to the whole palindrome thing.
Perhaps this is no coincidence. Clearly, Lazer/Wulf is a band with a wellspring of ideas and the chops and ambition to pull them off. And The Beast of Left and Right is a strong set of songs built around one of those ideas. It's a fun and fascinating listen. Even more fun: imagining how high this band could fly when it's not tethered to a concept.
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