Italy’s Sadist starting doing angly and jangly death/thrash back in the early 90’s that fit in comfortably aside more heavily spotlighted bands like Death and Atheist and Cynic, and you can hear those bands in the six albums that have followed over the years, all of them quality, save for the obligatory nu-metal slip with 2000’s Lego. Sadist set themselves apart by layering their technical chops with more sort of obvious progressive sounds, like flute, chamber strings, and harpsichord – sounds that, instead of reaching to the future like some of their contemporaries, leaned backward for a nifty contrast of modern progressive rhythms and composition with really old-timey sounds. It was a bit of a risk because these sounds can come off as cheesy at times but, wisely or not (Lego), the band has never let risk get in their way.
Sadist’s new record, Hyaena, is at least loosely conceptual, referencing African themes in its cover art and song titles, and a whole bunch of sounds that could have been sampled from the savanna, within its familiar technical progressive death metal framework. And, although it’s always been part of the repertoire, there’s a heavier jazz influence on this new one, especially well executed in the guitar solos and bubbly, bendy bass. It’s definitely an amalgam of pretty disparate styles, and though not a new thing, it is really hard to pull it off without it all sounding like a hungover pastiche of last night’s best ideas ever. These guys do pull it off, though. It’s one of their great strengths, and it comes from selecting the right pieces for the musical idea, so what you get is an organically whole reflection of the muse. Sometimes beautiful, often ugly, always engaging.
The contrast of sounds works really well on Hyaena to capture the spirit of the African plains. A bevy of tooth-and-claw riffs, coming in fits, starts, and the occasional extended sprint, paint the picture of a severe and unforgiving place, whereas the overlay of classical and jazzy accoutrement reminds that – at least here – there is grace even in violence.
After a relatively straightforward opener, the second track, “Pachycrocuta” imagines… Wait, what the fuck is a Pachycrocuta? Oh, it’s a prehistoric giant short-faced hyena. Of course.
– Aw, who’s a good boy!?
(And, also of course, Google image search has all the vaguely porny pachycrocuta art your little heart could desire.)
“Pachycrocuta” imagines the vicious chomp of the one-time Alpha of the Plains while elevating the sad beauty of his place in the cycle of life with a sweet solo. Much of the contrast is driven by the keyboards, which are still likely to be a sticking point for a lot of listeners because they can be pretty weird, but weird, after all, is mantra to these guys and, as usual, weird fits the theme: Africa is alien to most of us (but is it because it’s inherently strange or because we’ve lost touch with something?).
Most importantly, the use of apparently orthogonal elements on Hyaena does more than dress up ordinary ideas: it’s fundamental. The keys in “Bouki” range from scifi B-movie soundtrack to classic prog-metal bombast, but both elevate the most viciously scraping vocals on the record. There’s a sort of synergetic incongruence to the chorus of “The Devil Riding the Evil Steed,” wrapping guttural vocals in eerie, childlike chorale backing, barely there, but adding that subtle beauty to something overtly cruel, like sunlight glinting off a bloody fang. It works at the album level, too, “Gadawan Kura” coming off as a sort of a smooth jazz interlude playing the ghost of grace to the ferocity on either side, “Scavenger and Thief” and “Eternal Enemies.”
It all works well enough to suggest that Hyaena’s African motif might be a little more than a convenient way to tie some songs together; it’s hard not to wonder whether this isn’t so much a musical peek into the animal kingdom as a thinly veiled metaphor for, you know, us. Though we’d surely be slow to (honestly) admit it, even to ourselves, maybe we never really left the Dark Continent but just redefined our prey and perfected a cleaner kill.