Few bands in the post-metal genre have ever struck me as being gifted with such a fantastic appetite for experimentation as Callisto have, ever since I heard “Noir”, their second release, back in 2006. I had spent the year on a steady diet of Isis (the band) and Neurosis (the band and the condition), and I was feeling blown away at every repeated play, so when “Noir” came along, I didn’t really have a term for what I felt. It was tremendous, overwhelming, confusing… it was a defining moment for my musical tastes. So when they returned early this spring, after a six year absence, I couldn’t be more excited, and eventually more tongue-tied about finally writing this review.
RELEASE DATE: 03 February 2015 LABEL: Svart Records
True to the spirit I was praising above, Callisto have gone and changed their sound so profoundly, so unequivocally, that it was truly a challenge to readjust and to make up my mind about this new record. It is not merely an exploration of a different aspect of their previous work, it is a complete shift of aesthetics, a bottom-up reimagining of the entire band’s sound. Where “Noir” and “Providence” were challenging their own roots and blending a myriad textures and tempos into songs so complex and dynamic that they reminded one of prog-rock as much as post-metal, “Secret Youth” is a different scion, a different breed of animal altogether. Dark, unrelenting, extremely tense, with an almost aching atmosphere, this album sheds almost all traces of post-rock, of jazz, lets the scintillating textures Callisto have accustomed us with in years past fall away like shedding skin and presents a sleek, cold and menacing aesthetic, marked with frightening single-mindedness and focus.
As hard to classify as always, Callisto have made a record crafted in such a way as to haunt dreams and daylight reveries alike. Going through this album feels like sliding down a frozen slope, with no foothold to speak of – it’s as exhilarating as it is harrowing, and you’re left panting, wondering what exactly just happened and whether you’d be wise to try it again. Nothing seems familiar – “Secret Youth” doesn’t really follow a quiet-loud-quiet dynamic anymore, the vocals are almost entirely clean and soaring, one would be hard-pressed to identify any instrumental passage that feels “ambient” or “lyrical” and gone are the saxophones and oboes that so distinguished their previous work. Instead, one is instantly floored by the opening track – “Pale pretender” – which is a progressive-metal monster, compressing all the exuberance and technical proficiency of that genre inside a very strict and rigid structure akin to post-metal. This process of compression, this feeling of crushing pressure is spread out through the entire record, as the simple and jagged riffs follow each-other relentlessly, only really allowing the vocals and the keyboards to soar and weave conflicting and intricate patterns around the stout rhythmic and melodic structures.
If you’ll allow the metaphor, the instrumentation and composition have definitively moved from the band’s previous models as a horizontal archetype, in which the instruments coexisted equally and were given ample room to breathe in generous tracks in which the textures overlapped as much as they spread alongside each other. This is a new, vertical archetype, in which the attack of the entire ensemble is superimposed at once, in which the players create the music while seeming to furiously battle each-other for space, to such an extent that one can’t really tell whether the resulting discipline is born out of context or out of necessity. It’s a shift to a thoroughly urban musical architecture, as “Secret Youth” conjures images of a clockwork megalopolis rather than ideas of fantastic natural spires and rolling horizons. The album still offers engaging, thought-provoking music for which Callisto have been acclaimed, but in a completely reinvented package, constructed on wildly different principles. It is as though the textural aspersion of the vocals on the previous albums has been shifted entirely to the instrumental side of the music, while the balmy, nostalgic, emotional melodies have been re-forged into distorted, noisy, raging backgrounds for the current vocals, and the splendid sonic arabesques of the keyboards.
The production of the album is probably the most difficult thing to wrap one’s head around, because the furious sonic ziggurat that is 2015 Callisto doesn’t really seem like it has room in the human aural spectrum anymore – the feeling of claustrophobia, of a towering, looming metal structure pressing down on the listener is due in equal amounts to the method of composition and to the cramped sound the overall record has. While it is a challenging album from every angle I approach it, I feel “Secret Youth’s” only real drawback is this aspect. Even among this maelstrom of sound, there is enough contrast to allow the listener to glimpse some truly amazing moments of songwriting, but the task is made all the more difficult by this monotonous, unrelenting compression, and I say this after having listened to the record on multiple devices, multiple systems and in multiple environments.
It is a great reason for joy that Callisto has returned, and even this shocking shift of gears is reason to rejoice and appreciate the mercurial and adaptive qualities of this great band. It is too early to tell whether “Secret Youth” is an isolated experiment or a new path, but either way, the album rewards the listener for focus and mental elasticity, which have always been qualities of music in my system of reference; recommended for the experimentally-inclined. Favorite track: Pale Pretender.