The Contortionist – ‘Clairvoyant’

By James Lee

When a band plays together for a long time, it’s almost inevitable that at some point their sound will start to drift away from its original state (unless that band is Slayer, but whatever). There is, however, a difference between simple change and genuine evolution. Bands change their sound because maybe they got bored, or their last record didn’t sell enough copies, or because a different genre is hot right now and they want to make some sweet bandwagon money. Bands who really evolve, though, are a much more special breed. Being able to follow a core thread through a discography, even when much of the detail around that core may change, is a genuine delight, and bands who gracefully manage this evolutionary shift deserve to be revered in their time and long after.

When The Contortionist released ‘Exoplanet’ in 2010, it was a stunning debut – a monolith of technical death metal shred washed over with atmosphere and just enough melody to help it stand out from its peers. Its successor, ‘Intrinsic’, doubled down on the dreamy, spacey atmospherics whilst dialling back the extremity just a tad. It was a little less BTBAM, and a little more Cynic, yet still felt like a natural progression. It was on the band’s third LP, 2014’s masterpiece ‘Language’, that The Contortionist noticeably started shifting the weight of their sound away from the heaviness of their previous two releases. Though there was still a healthy amount of pulverising riffing and gutteral screaming, it was the drastic emphasis on (then) new vocalist Michael Lessard’s angelic, soaring vocals that really pushed this album to the next plateau. Crucially, though ‘Language’ was in many respects a world away from the savagery of ‘Exoplanet’, the growth the band displayed across those three records was a smooth curve, and it’s a curve that continues to arc ever skyward on their fourth full length, ‘Clairvoyant’.

Opening instrumental ‘Monochrome (Passive)’ is the first indication that The Contortionist have continued to move ever further away from their death metal roots and into the progressive rock aether. Its first moments count among the heaviest of the entire album, however it takes no more than a minute or two for the fog of dense chords to dissipate, leaving only a wash of shimmering keyboards and warm, twinkling guitars. It’s a perfect scene-setter before ‘Godspeed’ explodes into life, bringing with it an elevated pace and energy, brought to life again by Michael Lessard’s unmistakable pipes. Though the band are an unarguable breeding ground for musical virtuosity, it’s Lessard that has had the most significant effect on the band’s sound overall since ‘Language’, and his contribution on ‘Clairvoyant’ is one of the finest put to tape on a rock record in recent memory. The power of his performance takes on even greater significance when it becomes apparent that there isn’t a single screamed vocal to be found on the album, an achievement that only two records ago would have seemed ludicrous, yet once again The Contortionist’s evolutionary bounds have made this seem like an obvious and natural decision.

First single ‘Reimagined’ still sounds majestic within the context of the larger album, its gentle verses giving way to a breathless and beautiful chorus that’s among the band’s most beguiling moments. This song also serves to paint a larger picture of the band’s general mindset as a whole, ‘Clairvoyant’ acting as a perfect re-imagining of what progressive metal can be. In fact, despite the odd chugging guitar line, there’s very little that could objectively even be described as ‘metal’ in The Contortionist’s sound anymore. Tracks like ‘The Center’ or ‘Absolve’ call to mind the progressive alt-rock of Dredg more than any truly heavy bands, and though the shadow of Cynic still hangs large over the band’s overall sound, it’s the atmosphere rather than the extremity that has truly taken seed. 

The album comes to a glorious bookended close with ‘Monochrome (Pensive)’, a gargantuan track that starts delicate and small before blooming into a skyscraping close, the band firing on all cylinders to craft a magnificent wall of sound. The song is a microcosm of the album as a whole – this is a thoughtful, dynamic record that showers the listener with lush compositions, unforgettable melodies and a level of musicianship that puts 99% of the band’s peers to shame, even without the blasting and shredding of old. ‘Clairvoyant’ is the next evolutionary step not just for The Contortionist, but for modern progressive rock in its entirety.

JAMES LEE

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