With the release of their debut album, Labyrinth Constellation, in 2014, New York-based metal troupe Artificial Brain introduced themselves to the music world with a project of fully-formed and fully-realised tech-death brutality. There were no ambiguities in their presentation; the group seemed to know exactly what they were doing as soon as they arrived on the scene, blistering through tangled and intricate progressive death metal compositions that somehow managed to retain an ambient edge that aptly reflected their thematic, sci-fi style. For Artificial Brain to have revealed so few chinks in their space-age armour on just their first record was truly impressive, but it also gave rise to questions regarding the direction in which the band would take their definitive stylings in the future. Given that the group had proudly worn their progressive and experimental influences on their sleeves on Labyrinth Constellation, it seemed as if merely treading water on a follow-up album would not be the fate of the Artificial Brain saga and, indeed, their sophomore LP incorporates a handful of significant and audacious alterations to the band’s pre-established blueprint.
Conceptually speaking, Artificial Brain’s modus operandi remains the same; to drag the listener, by force, into the intergalactic depths of the cosmic dystopia constructed through their music. Stylistically, however, the main brains behind the band, guitarist Dan Gargiulo of Revocation fame, seems to be taking far more cues from black metal on Infrared Horizon, with the usual, off-kilter riffage of Artificial Brain being interspersed between passages of blackened tremolo-picking. Similarly, despite Colin Marston once again working behind the desk, the production value of this new record compared to Labyrinth Constellation is noticeably muddier, presumably as a nod to the lo-fi, DIY aesthetic of black metal. It must be said, however, that the production value of Infrared Horizon is perhaps raw to a fault, in that the extent to which the band can effectively translate their detailed, labyrinthine songwriting skills to the listener with such imposing sonic restrictions is notably more limited than on their debut. Then again, the fact that the outfit do, in fact, manage to convey their technical dexterity and compositional chops consistently across the record is an impressive feat considering the arguably flat mixing. Infrared Horizon, therefore, in spite of the few foolhardy risks taken by the band that somewhat restrict their stylings unnecessarily, is perhaps as strong an album as Labyrinth Constellation, even if it is not articulated with quite as much poise.
Perhaps one of the greatest successes of Labyrinth Constellation, in my opinion, was the fact that Artificial Brain were able to take many of technical death metal’s most typical — and some would even say cliché — tropes and amplify them to their most exciting extreme, or toy with them in a particularly compelling fashion. After all, the band’s entire sci-fi, cyberpunk, dystopian image plays directly to the territory of the tech-death archetype, but they also provided substance beyond this in the form of music that was fittingly futuristic. Similarly, on Infrared Horizon, not only does the appropriately alien sound of Artificial Brain show up once again, albeit in a slightly different form, but the arc of the record takes the stereotypical portrayal of a future world, in which humans have been exterminated by their own cyborg creations, and muse over the distinctions between organic and synthetic intelligence, or the human and artificial brain, if you will. This struck me as a likely theme of Infrared Horizon before even listening to the record, with the album artwork’s depiction of a robot collapsed amidst ruin conveying a human-like emotion in the manufactured being’s look of longing at what is presumably a fallen friend. This is wherein the muddier production value of the album strikes me as suitable given the overarching concept of Infrared Horizon. Supposing that the rougher sound quality was an intentional allusion to the record’s overall influence from black metal — a genre known for its heavy reliance on atmosphere and raw emotion, compared to what many people feel is a complete absence of emotion in the mechanical performances of technical death metal — the presence of a slight, looming ambiance across much of the tracklisting sees a meeting of rigorous technicality with a touch of some sort of cryptic emotion. From the expressive and powerful refrain of Synthesized Instinct to the pained, ear-splitting shriek that opens Anchored To The Inlayed Arc, Artificial Brain’s newest album is discernibly more emotive and strangely more human than its predecessor, which stands as an effective and generally refreshing tone shift for the band that sets Infrared Horizon apart as more than merely a follow-up to a great album, but as a definitively unique release in itself.
With the stylistic shift towards a more blackened sound, there is most definitely an apparent difference in the attitude taken by Artificial Brain towards songwriting on Infrared Horizon compared to its precursor, with emphasis moving more towards speedy tremolo-picking and blistering blast beats at times, as opposed to the tight intricacies of melody. For the most part, this change is employed rather successfully, with the black metal riffage of Anchored To The Inlayed Arc bursting forth at light-speed, which is particularly forcible when contrasted with the passages of intertwining melodies throughout the track, just as the razor sharp riffs across Static Shattering are all the more penetrating when placed shoulder to shoulder with the cut’s oppressive, palm-muted chugging. This being said, although this slight change of pace is executed relatively seamlessly by and large, there is something to be said about the extent to which the outfit repeat similar ideas across much of Infrared Horizon. In a similar vein, with Artificial Brain relentlessly churning out killer riff after killer riff, all of which are interwoven throughout constantly changing compositions, it can be a bit of a struggle for the listener to distinguish one song from another. Indeed, it seems that this album would benefit from its individual tracks conveying consistent, underlying motifs and discernible traits, rather than the musical themes being extended across the tracklisting as a whole, as Infrared Horizon can feel as if it sears past the listener at lightning speed without specific moments leaving an impression, as opposed to the sheer scope of the record en masse. Of course, both the songwriting capabilities of the band, as well as each individual member’s musicianship, are as astonishing as they were on Labyrinth Constellation, and it’s not that these songs don’t translate this loud and clear, but the conveyance of some more distinguishable character on a song-by-song basis could really step up the overall impact of an album like Infrared Horizon.
As I have already alluded to, my main point of reservation for Infrared Horizon arises from the production value, or, at least, it certainly did initially, but I have come around to it a bit more. I still maintain that the mixing is somewhat too muddy for my liking, although this is effective during the blatantly black metal-inspired moments, and, although I think the production is a bit too flat to capture the complete breadth of Artificial Brain’s performances, it is certainly successful in more ways than one. Firstly, the presence of Samuel Smith’s buff bass work in the mix is a definite selling point, with his playing beefing up drummer Keith Abrami’s blast beats when necessary, whilst also providing whiffs of melody at times, as to add to the chaos of the clashing guitar work. In fact, I would go as far to say that certain songs would be nowhere near as purely punishing if it weren’t for the prominence of Smith’s bass, with the title track being a prime example. There’s also the odd production quirk featured here and there across Infrared Horizon, some of which come to pass with a surprising amount of success. The end of Estranged From Orbit, for instance, sees the mix devolve into a downsampled mess of cramped chaos, just to burst back into view in full force, which, although gimmicky, is undoubtedly satisfying, especially upon first listen, when it has the benefit of surprise. Other techniques come across as rather unnecessary, such as the abrupt fade out on Mist Like Mercury, which struck me as being slightly lazy and almost antithetical to the usual, meticulous attitude towards composing of Artificial Brain. Ultimately, however, despite viewing the production of Infrared Horizon as the unequivocal Achilles’ heel of the album at first, I’ve come to appreciate enough about it for my overall enjoyment of the record to not be hindered by it.
The attempts made by Artificial Brain on Infrared Horizon to abduct the listener and haul them to their interplanetary plain of cyberpunk collapse are largely successful, with the band’s left-field riffage and disorientating songwriting style being as hypnotising as ever, whilst the added flare of black metal influence sees a subtle but impactful change of pace from Labyrinth Constellation. Even through the rough production value, the group nevertheless manages to convey their technical prowess and overall tightness with a visceral intensity, as they blister through fluid tracks of compositional chaos. It may be rather easy to get lost in the labyrinth of intricate guitar fiddling, crushing drum and bass work and guttural growls, but simply allowing oneself to be taken on an aimless excursion through the cosmos is riveting in itself, and if Artificial Brain have mastered one thing, it’s transporting the listener to the same cosmic plateau of which their music was likely born.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10