Compared to some of the crazier mathcore, grind, and technically oriented metal out there, I didn’t see Utopia’s 2021 debut Stalker get nearly as much exposure as it deserved. Comparable to everything from Psyopus to The Dillinger Escape Plan, Stalker was a frantic and constantly varied listen that would sometimes move from shredding, jazzy riffs, and grooves in a few minutes. It took a kitchen sink approach but had a fun, playful side along the abrasive edges of the vocals and heavier riffs. Since its release guitarist Jonathan Hill joined founder John Bailey to add a second layer of guitars to Utopia’s sound, and drummer Jay Walsh has come onboard full-time. Since Stalker used a variety of guest drummers to bring its vision to life, this makes follow-up Shame the first with a cohesive line-up in place. Adopting a slightly darker tone and more cohesive approach to songwriting where riffs have a bit more time to develop on each track, Shame still has plenty of surprises and impressive technical performances but feels quite different from its predecessor.
It feels appropriate given the album title that the material on Shame comes off as a bit darker and serious compared to Stalker. Stalker certainly had its fair share of chaotic moments that seemed to represent heading into madness, but there were also some brighter spots and a sense of playfulness to some of the abrupt transitions. Songs like “Waking Visions” showcase the group’s renewed focus and emphasis on cohesion, as while you still get technical flourishes and some unexpected transitions the riffs stick around a bit longer than before. This track is a great representation of the album in general, as it spends its first half moving between dense sludge and doom style grooves with sudden bursts of grind and mathcore, but the second half adopts a more black metal sounding tone. Even its quick softer interlude has a melancholic and depressive vibe to it, which makes this sophomore effort from Utopia feel genuinely different even if it’s using some of the same tools from before. The first half or so proves to be another wild ride, as tracks move seamlessly from chaotic blasting and harsher tonality over to free-form jazz sounding instrumentation and everything in between. Songs like “Machiavelli”, “Sun Damage”, and “Zither” rival anything from Stalker in terms of sheer technical prowess and moments that stand out upon repeat listen. But the second half is where Shame didn’t quite click with me, and while the technicality and amount of ideas Utopia has put into these songs is still impressive there are some elements holding it back. “Withering Away and Laughing” starts off with plenty of angular riffs and abrupt transitions, but it spends a little too long exploring creepy orchestration during its second half and starts to drag. “Moving Gently Towards the Grave” opts to close the album out with a much slower tempo and synth driven instrumentation, which I can best describe as doom meets Europe, but again the pacing drags and ends the album with a bit of a dampened impact.
Chris Reese’s performance impressed me on Stalker, and he continues to deliver the type of over-the-top screams and growls that match the schizophrenic sound of the instrumentation. Utopia tends to spread out its vocal verses, giving plenty of extended period for instrumental jams and jazzier almost improvised sounding passages, which makes each time Reese comes roaring back in just as intense. Sometimes the vocals stick towards the high end of the spectrum, where they remind me of a slew of different mathcore bands from the 2000s, but the growls bring in more of a sludge and death metal tone to the material. I imagine with how quickly the music changes gears that it can’t be easy to keep up on vocals, so it’s impressive just how smooth the performance is here as Reese makes it completely seamless.
Utopia’s sophomore effort builds upon the foundation laid by its debut, opting for a bit more cohesion and a darker overall tone. It’s still really impressive from a performance standpoint and has some crazy, out there moments that will appeal to fans of anything grind, mathcore, or avant-garde related. But some of the emphasis on slower tempos and atmospheric soundscapes made the second half drag for me, and that makes Shame stand out slightly less than Stalker. Songs like “Waking Visions” and “Sun Damage” are easily worth the price of admission though, and it’s exciting to see Utopia trying different things. With two albums under their belt, it’ll be interesting to see where they go from here and what madness they can concoct.
-Review by Chris Dahlberg