Unexpect (CA) - (1999) Utopia - 9.5/10

Artist: Unexpect
Release: Utopia
Rating: 9.5/10

Otherworldly Wonder

In a few niche circles, Unexpect, the nutty band from Quebec, Canada, is well known for their mindbending, schizophrenic avant-garde metal madness. Their second album, In A Flesh Aquarium, sent a bit of a shockwave through the metal underground and conjured up legions of both die hard fans and die hard haters. However, the band's sound on their first album, Utopia, is significantly different and not nearly as polarizing. Many of the same elements that make up Unexpect's more famous material are also present on this debut, but none of the off-the-wall madness is displayed. Utopia is much more grounded and doesn't really push any boundaries. Nevertheless, it's still a fantastic work and something I revisit often.

Ironically, this album is actually the hardest Unexpect release to categorize into a genre. The later stuff you can simply call "progressive/avant-garde metal." It may leave out a lot of nuance, but it's an accurate label. Utopia certainly isn't avant-garde, but it's still hard to put your finger on it. The band draws elements from all over the metal spectrum. You can can safely point out the numerous death metal and black metal ideas. There's a very strong melodic backbone to most of the riffs which recalls some of the earliest melodic death metal albums. Additionally, the album has a nearly omnipresent symphonic sound courtesy of the keyboards. Using the word "progressive" is also valid. The majority of the songs are fairly long and have more extended, complicated structures to them. So if you add it all up together, you end up with "symphonic melodic black/death metal with progressive influences" or some other silly mouthful like that.

The wide variety of vocals is something that Utopia has in common with the band's later works. The vocal performance here isn't as nutty, but it's still noteworthy and very unusual for extreme metal in general. Syriak and Artagoth handle the bulk of the vocal duties with their poignant twin harsh vocal attacks. Syriak employs the shrieks and more upper-midrange of the spectrum (like a black metal vocalist) while Artagoth takes the gutturals and lower range (like a death metal vocalist). On the clean vocal front, Unexpect makes use of a female vocalist that goes by the name Elda. She's not as nearly spectacular as Leïlindel (who would join later), but Elda does a good job here. Additionally, both Syriak and Artagoth also sing plenty of clean vocals quite well. All these different voices combine in many different ways to form various harmonies and vocal textures. For all of the weird things Unexpect does, their unique, excellent use of vocals may honestly be their most understated quality.

In terms of playing technique, Utopia also isn't as extreme as the band's later works, but it's still very admirable. Syriak and Artagoth are just as potent of a guitar duo as they are a vocal duo. As alluded previously, the riffing is generally rooted in death and black metal with quite a lot of variety and a strong sense of melodicism to it. As a bit of a letdown, this release is before Unexpect picked up Chaoth and his inhuman bass playing. The man on the bass for on Utopia is named Zircon. He does a perfectly fine job mostly following the rhythm and can easily be heard, but you aren't going to get those insane slapped lines like you do in the later works.

Another quirk of the band is their extended usage of violin throughout their compositions. The violin sticks out more obviously in softer, calmer sections, but it does plenty of work during the extreme metal parts as well. The violin playing provides lots of good melody, counter-melody, and texture throughout the whole album. It's not exactly a primary instrument, but it does handle plenty of important, big roles. The backdrop of the violin along with the keyboards give Utopia an otherworldly, ethereal atmosphere. There's a strong sense of wonder and awe that's evoked which I find rather remarkable.

With the exception of Metamorphosis, which is enjoyable but is essentially an out of place super short technical death metal song, Utopia's tracklist flows together naturally and gracefully. The afore mentioned sense of wonder and awe permeates itself consistently throughout the runtime. For me, the entire album is excellent, but the quality does kick up a notch in the second half of the album with the three song trio of Ethereal Dimensions, The Flames of Knowledge Forever Lost, and In Velvet Coffins We Sleep.

Beginning with the appropriately titled Ethereal Dimensions, this song revels itself in magnificent, melodic tremolo riffs. This particular track leans more on melodic black metal and features all sorts of twists and developments. The most potent point is when the softer section with acoustic guitars crescendos into a powerful climax that later transitions into an incredible guitar solo. The Flames of Knowledge Forever Lost starts out with a long keyboard intro, but quickly becomes one of the heaviest, most brutal songs on the album. The double bass sections are extremely intense and the keyboard usage drives home the oppressive feeling.

However, the most stand out track is probably In Velvet Coffins We Sleep. This one has the most in common with later Unexpect and sort of foreshadows their future. Stylistically, it still fits snuggly with the rest of the album, but the songwriting seems a tad more adventurous and daring. This song makes use of a few time signature changes and comes off rather technical and progressive. The juxtaposition of violin (especially in the verse section) and technical riffing works wonders. It's a highly dynamic tune that integrates all sorts of softer sections, climaxes, and anything in between.

In sum, Utopia is a fairly unique mixture of different extreme metal styles wrapped up with strong symphonic and progressive leanings. The riffs are certainly excellent, but so is the utilization of other instruments like the violin. The album has a consistent ethereal, wondrous atmosphere. The songs all tend to be quite long, but they are filled with a wealth of interesting musical ideas and development. Utopia does seem quite normal compared to what the band would do later, but that doesn't mean it's not an amazing album. What they accomplished here is absolutely worth honoring along with the crazy, avant-garde stuff.
Occasionally, I write Western and Japanese music reviews.
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