Last year, I used the metal hive mind’s tendency to overreact to musical evolution (one way or the other) to soapbox a bit. The subject was the growth of a few Swedish bands, chief among them Morbus Chron, and I quite audaciously over-simplified sound changes into a few broad categories: the inspired maturation, the honest misstep, and the sellout. In reality, there are far more reasons for and results of a band changing or developing their sound, but that didn’t fit my ranting/comedic purposes at the time. The point was that it was illogical to aim vitriol at already-talented bands when they choose to evolve both honestly and successfully.
The fourth album from Code, the simply- and curiously-titled mut, resurrects this discussion. As is almost always the case when a band moves in a new direction, this does not fit cleanly into any of the above scenarios. If anything, it is somewhere between the first and the second, but much closer to the first; mut is The Transitional Album. It is neither a failure that will be quickly discarded nor a complete and 100 percent successful move into a new musical realm. Many a fan will likely be taken aback by the band’s removal of not only the black metal, but all metal entirely. Because of the album’s general success, however, Code should be praised for not simply resting on their stratospheric past.
Curiously, the biggest shift in Code’s sound comes the first time they have kept the same lineup together for two albums in a row. Back are all of the same musicians who created Augur Nox’s intoxicating progressive black metal, including vocalist Wacian, who more than merely filled the shoes of the seemingly irreplaceable Kvohst. But on mut, Code takes their melodies out of the cold and into softer neo-prog terrain. This quite often calls to mind modern Anathema, the less heavy or technical material of Porcupine Tree, and carries shades of Katatonia. This is stripped-down, barren, and largely understated rock, but calling it simplistic would be a mistake. All musicians maintain an ear for dynamics – particularly drummer Lordt – in order to give a talented vocalist a featured arena in which to shine.
And shine he does. Wacian is absolutely electrifying throughout mut, revealing a masterful talent for dynamics, phrasing, and inflection. While this kind of vocal performance is nothing new for the man or for Code (“Garden Chancery,” folks), the softer sounds mean that he is the constant focus. A lesser talent might seem exposed in such a situation, but Wacian runs with it. In “Dialogue” alone, he ranges from nervous whispers and weeping wails to a crescendo of captivating soars in the chorus, while in “Afflicition,” he gets ranty, adding in a touch of growl in a distinctly unmetal section. This ability to adept and change throughout absolutely carries the album.
Admittedly, the rest of the band does not always sound quite as confident in their new roles. While every song is at least a pleasant listen, a few feel a tad underdeveloped, and with a total run time of just over 35 minutes, mut is the rare case where an album could actually use to be longer. Additionally, there are moments when the album feels as if it is missing the extra heft, if only a little. For example, the blunt hits in “Undertone” would surely benefit from a heavier guitar tone, as would a particularly would-be-impactful moment in “Cocoon.” Of course, yearning for this extra push of dynamics may only happen to listeners that are deeply familiar with Code’s past work, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that, regardless of the style, mut simply does not include as many stunners as Resplendent Grotesque or Augur Nox.
When taken independently, it remains at worst constantly engaging and at best stellar, with one unforgettable vocal performance leading the charge. And it does have those stunners, with “Inland Sea” – an absolute clinic of vocal phrasing – being at the top of the heap. That track is a reminder that, while the heaviness has been shed, this remains a supremely talented group of musicians. Transitional album or not, that fact should feel quite familiar to fans. Code has entered new territory, but rather than feeling foreign, mut merely sounds like a newly-discovered dialect in their language.