Utopia was formed last year by guitarist John Bailey in collaboration with Chris Reese of Corrupt Moral Altar, as well as a slew of guest musicians from across the metal world. Though Bailey’s main career as a touring guitarist has him supporting various classical/pop artists, here he brings together a love for metal, jazz, and other forms of experimental music on Utopia’s debut Stalker. It’s the type of album that shapeshifts from one minute to the next, encompassing everything from grind, death metal, doom, jazz, and even some progressive rock, ensuring that listeners are in for a wild and challenging experience.
There have been a number of releases that have pushed various metal styles beyond their limits this year, keeping the spirit and partially improvised feel of progressive rock or jazz while hitting as hard as possible. Where bands like Diskord and Ad Nauseam have done that through a death metal foundation, Utopia seems like it uses almost every type of extreme metal as a base depending on what track you’re on. Opener “The Bus Station Roof” gives you an idea of the madness you’re in for, as it starts off with spastic and technical grind that leads directly into an extended jazz guitar solo, with a little bit of mathcore thrown in for good measure. Later tracks expand beyond grind in favor of sludge, doom, death metal, and everything in between, with the bursts of jazz and cleaner prog tones coming in out of nowhere. It’s downright weird on some tracks and sometimes brings Behold the Arctopus or Spastic Ink to mind but run through the bizarre qualities of a Mike Patton band. There are so many riffs and tempo changes in a song that’s only three to four minutes long that you’ll likely need a few times through to take it all in, and while it may prove to be a bit too abrasive and dense for some there’s certainly an audience for what Utopia is doing here. There are passages I’d even dare to call catchy thanks to some well-placed keyboard melodies that add a spacey sound to the bursts of jagged and aggressive riffing, though even with that in mind some songs remain just a bit too abstract to latch onto.
Corrupt Moral Altar’s vocalist Chris Reese was a good choice for this project, as that band also mixes multiple genres of punk and metal together in a way that is unpredictable. That seems to have prepared Reese for the spastic transitions and sudden moves from chill instrumental passages into ones that send the intensity through the roof. For those not familiar with his main band, expect highs and lows that fall somewhere between the shrill screaming of grind with the growling of death metal or sludge. Every appearance seems to hit just as hard if not harder than the last, and like the instrumentation the vocals seem to transition in without warning. I have a feeling the high ranges are going to turn some people away with how abrasive they are, but grind and powerviolence fans in particular are likely going to find that element appealing.
In the wrong hands, an album like this would just sound like a jumbled mess but here everything feels like controlled chaos that works. It’s comparable to the experimental madness of Psyopus and Dillinger Escape Plan alongside Spastic Ink or Behold the Arctopus, but with a bit more emphasis on jazz and prog melodies which sets Utopia apart. I do think that some of the eleven songs remain impenetrable even after listening to this one on repeat for a couple of days, and there’s room for Bailey to hit that sweet spot that Dillinger did in terms of technicality and memorability. But what a crazy starting point, and if you’re a fan of any of the groups I’ve mentioned this is a must listen. Stalker is available from APF Records.
-Review by Chris Dahlberg
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