One of the foremost preoccupations of science fiction is imagining the myriad ways in which new technologies affect society. Science fiction written after the advent of the computer age was thus given a new set of scenarios – both miraculous and disastrous – to consider. One of the recurring themes in such science fiction is the notion that, past a certain point, computer technology will escape the bounds of its creators and become self-aware. Think SkyNet. Think HAL 9000. Think the Borg, sort of.
Now, whatever malign influence technology has had – and will continue to have – on our world, it seems like the predominant harm inflicted is still purposive and human-directed rather than accidental or automatic. Which, if you think about it, actually gives a tinge of bittersweetness to all our futuristic imaginings that posit sorrowful but yet unfulfilled eschatologies: we haven’t quit using technology to find new ways to hurt each other long enough to succumb to the perils of emergent technological intelligence.
New York’s technical death metal quintet Artificial Brain sounds, if you’ll permit the stretch, like an entity very much on the cusp of escaping its artificers’ grasp. The tools they wield feel charged, kinetic, as if, at any moment, they could catapult away from plucking fingers and pedaling feet and clutching wrists and hover, blast-powered and electric coiled, singing songs of their own synthetic determination. For now, though, this noise remains subject to its makers’ mastery, and while it seems to sprout a profusion of new circuits at every turn, the home directory is still recognizable, and even nameable: think the brawling intelligence of latter-day Gorguts filtered through the jittery, discomfitted prism of fellow Profound Lore artists like Castevet and Dysrhythmia.
All of that said, Artificial Brain plays unabashedly weird death metal, but they do so cunningly. For the most part, these songs aren’t out to lose you in uncountable time signatures or unfollowable tempo changes. Listen to the opening of “Frozen Planets,” for example – the underlying meter is a straightforward 4/4, but the guitars of Jon Locastro and Dan Gargiulo (the latter also of Revocation) spindle off into paranoid interior conversations, and the band as a lurching unit swings with a crunching, seasick cadence. Vocalist Will Smith chars his terrain with a mostly humid, subterranean belching, but every now and then he splinches up into a shrill hoarseness or a mid-range bellow.
Look, let me level with you: I don’t know how music speaks to you. So, I can’t say for sure if the trailing out midsection and outro of “Bastard Planet” will make you feel like you’ve been transported to an alien planet and dumped unceremoniously in the howling maw of an ice tornado. But if it does, then high-five me, cosmic brothers and sisters, as we ride a space floe into a thousand blazing sky-furnaces. Labyrinth Constellation is, simply put, an astonishingly good album, filled with memorable songs and an impossible-to-ignore cohesion: the whole thing hangs together beautifully like some tremulous interstellar amoeba, even as individual motes rise up and declare their intentions to the void. The freakout-worthy organ tones in “Absorbing Black Ignition” eventually bleed into an outro that sounds like J.S. Bach getting sucked into a carnivorous modem, while the breakdown in the title track sharpens the ear’s focus on just how quiveringly loose and buoyant Samuel Smith’s bass has been all along. The mellow section that follows, then, is just as beautiful as it is unexpected.
By the time the album reaches its final two songs, which are also its longest, one is left with the sense that a precognitive intelligence is in the final stages of stretching itself out, and although in many other hands a forty-five minute album as dense and visceral as Labyrinth Constellation might begin to feel cumbersome and even overwhelming, I continually find that by the time my ears dance their way to the album closer “Moon Funeral,” they are even more primed to pick up on the confounding intricacies of interplay between the guitars and bass, and the endlessly nimble, snare-fill-heavy drumming from Keith Abrami, clearly the band’s secret weapon.
Have you ever looked at a painting, and thought, “Well, I have no earthly idea what that’s supposed to be about, but I can feel it”? I have no idea what Labyrinth Constellation is about; I haven’t read a lick of lyrics, and I can’t particularly decipher the vocals. But right now? I kinda don’t care. This album speaks profoundly to anxieties I didn’t know I had, or at least that I wouldn’t have known how to name. And even though I’m not sure what it’s saying, I feel like it’s saying, “I don’t know if everything will be okay.”
There’s a certainty in that, at least.