Much of the fun of band side projects is seeing prominent musical talents flexing their skills outside of their well-established paradigms. We get so accustomed to a musician in one particular role that it’s a refreshing change of pace to see them doing something new and separate from their main project. This is part of why I was really excited when I saw a video/song pop up on various rock/metal sites about 2 years ago from a new group called Arcadea: a band from Atlanta which notably featured Mastodon skin-beater Brann Dailor providing the drums, and synths and vocals from both Core Atmos (Zruda) and Raheem Amlani (guitarist of the excellent Atlanta death metal outfit Withered). The three-piece outfit laid a bit dormant for a while after that, but now the group has properly established themselves with the release of their debut album, Arcadea.
Despite being a trio with only synths, vocals, and drums, the band’s sound is assertive and full on the same scale as a four-or-five piece metal act. The opening track “Army of Electrons” warps you to a trippy interstellar realm with its swirling keyboards and airy synthetic vocals. The song keeps itself pretty steady throughout before it picks up speed and heaviness, especially with the more strained aggressive vocal delivery. It’s a great opener that highlights everything one can expect from the album going forward, with the obvious star from the outset being the synthesizer interplay. This is reinforced on the following track “Gas Giant,” with a synthesized version of a classic gallop rhythm playing off the rest of the synth work. There’s some great songwriting and rhythmic chemistry between all three musicians here, especially the tight triplet groove that punctuates the middle and end of the track.
That aforementioned chemistry is the key weapon in Arcadea’s musical arsenal. Every member of the band just naturally fits together with each other and bring out the best in each other for each track. Often, the songs are pretty saturated in synths that created the vivid psychedelic image of a futuristic ruined landscape. Tracks like “Infinite End” and “Electromagnetic” carry some very hazy melodies akin to the bubbling heat of a scorched landscape, and the latter especially has some of the heaviest synth parts on record, akin to the backing melodies of a good Dethklok tune. The melodies interlock and harmonize with each other remarkably well, even when the synthesizers start blaring and spazzing out in their own offbeat tangents. Another standout showcase of these skills are in the track “Motion of Planets,” which opens with a light shuffling drum groove and probably the grittiest vocal performance on the record which both act as an aggressive contrast to the sparse minimalized synth melodies/rhythms in the verses. The song shows some admirable restraint in this regard, as the synths work together to have a sense of atmospheric weightlessness and a heavier low-end vibe at the same time.
The biggest compliment to be paid to the album is how, despite the stripped-down line-up and instrumentation, the songwriting is surprisingly diverse, with each song maintaining its own distinct vibe and memorable moments. A big part of that has to do with Brann Dailor’s drum work. He’s always proved himself as one of the best drummers in the current metal scene with Mastodon, and on Arcadea, he gets to flex his talents even more. His drum work remains as dynamic as ever, with tight grooves and intricate fills mixed in with softer restrained beats. “Rings of Saturns” comes out of the gate swinging with the fastest and most hard-hitting beat on record akin to Leviathan/Blood Mountain-era Mastodon, and the track pulls back for the end as a more massive drum groove allows breathing room for a chaotic mixing of computerized synth bleeps to add another dimension to the hectic nature of the tune.
“Neptune Moons” and “Through The Eye of Pisces” are both considerably melancholic and mournful, as the drums maintain a lower dynamic with the synth melodies being more stripped down to create a wispy hymn-like vibe that is also rather unnerving at the same time, like a dark ominous church sermon. The synths show some strong technical chops on “The Pull of Invisible Strings”, as the melodies shred and bounce off each other like they might as well be guitars, with melodic crescendos and stuttered staccato riffs. All of these elements come together amazingly on the album closer “Magnificent Façade”: the interlocking harmonized synthetic melodies, the wailing keyboard solos throughout, the strong drum work, and the vocals with their synth-coated distortions and deep rumbling group chants akin to sunrise in the land of an ancient Mesoamerican civilization.
Arcadea is one of the best albums of the year and a strong debut for a new and exciting music group. Everything is at the top of its game from the memorable songwriting, the trippy diverse production, the skillful drumming, and the fantastic synthesizer interplay that can easily go toe-to-toe with even the best pairs of axe-shredders currently active. This is not an album to be missed, and I’m highly anticipating what the future holds for the band.
Verdict: Buy it. Who knew synthesizers could be as dynamic and versatile as a six-string?
Arcadea is available from Relapse Records on CD, vinyl, digital download (iTunes, Bandcamp, etc.) and streaming services.
[Note: A pre-release copy of this album was provided by Relapse Records for the purpose of this review.]