Before disbanding in 2010, it was well-publicized that each album in progressive metal outfit Isis’ discography was thematic in nature and that the artwork for each was as indicative of their respective themes as the compositions contained within. In contemplating the cover for Palms, the self-titled debut collaboration between Deftones vocalist Chino Moreno and Isis alumni Jeff Caxide (bass), Aaron Harris (drums), and Bryant Clifford Meyer (guitar) being released June 25th through Ipecac Recordings, it’s apparent that the immersive formula for which that band was known lives on here to some measure.
The cover itself is a mystery, a depiction of mist rising off the ocean acting as filter for the setting sun over a tropical landscape. Feelers of light—or sound waves, perhaps—mirror the water’s motion, reaching out from sun toward land and listener to entice, draw in. The image made to my mind instant promises of a Pink Floyd-ism as seen through a So-Cal or even Native Hawaiian lense—The Dark Side of the Island, if you will. All leaning toward tasteless LOST jokes aside, what Palms delivers nearly fulfills that promise, but being a music fan more accustomed to what Isis or Deftones has done respectively, it was difficult for me to adjust to some obvious differences at first listen and in general when forces were combined.
The dominant element in creating and maintaining the ethereal mood and ambience present on Palms is Bryant Clifford Meyer’s guitar. Clearly central to both composition and final mix, his work here is strong, consistent, and offers complexity through layers of simplicity. However, this simplicity verges on the somewhat oppressive at times, as echo filters, reverb, forward and backward delay, flange effect, and rotary speaker simulators all vie for attention while still somehow leaving adequate space for singer to sing, drummer to drum, etc. There was a palpable richness and intimacy toward Meyer’s material, but I couldn’t help thinking beyond thematic intentions that some of this might’ve been done just to make up for the absence of a second guitarist/songwriter’s potential contributions to the process. The most unfortunate side effect is the suffering of founding member Jeff Caxide’s bass. Normally impossible to miss, it is near indistinguishable from collision of polished guitar and keyboard, save a few—although not enough—fuzzy, distorted, and subtly funky moments.
“Future Warrior”, the first of the six tracks on this album, is a whispery confession of apparent struggle and disappointment in a relationship and a victim’s attempts to either redeem or dissolve the union by illuminating the truth. The song succeeds in drawing us in right away, a synth-y digital (or perhaps heavily EQ’d acoustic) drum groove coupled with airy keyboards a lead-in to live drums and a less-is-more, spacey 5/4 time guitar prologue reminiscent of The Cure. Moreno’s vocals in the aftermath are breathy and lilting up to and through haunting pre-chorus lyrics: “The closer I am … I notice something’s wrong with you”. Trademark tools from his bag of tricks used here to good emotional effect. Complimented by ramped-up guitar and rhythm section, his intense declaration “You have destroyed us” offers up quite possibly the most satisfying chorus on the album.
In the forefront on most of the disc, Aaron Harris’s steady percussion is top-notch and carries this lengthy set forward fluidly, fortifying a sense of momentum that at times runs the risk of floating away amidst the cyclical, repetitive nature of bits of Meyer’s glassy six-string textures. Harris’s galloping, wood-chop pocket grooves and explosive crash accents on second track “Patagonia”, voted Most Likely Single by this listener, may call to mind Deftones’ Abe Cunningham, particularly with Moreno doing vocal duty. In truth, his style and syncopated stick work throughout feels and sounds more in line with that of A Perfect Circle’s Josh Freese. Stand-outs are track three, “Mission Sunset”, a march-snare-punctuated song with an old west twang evoking the climactic tension of an approaching gunslinger’s duel, and track four, “Short Wave Radio,” a cry for sunlight, bidding the past adieu, and looking forward as driven by Harris’s hi-hat and bass drum.
With the inception of “Tropics”, things take a decided downturn in tempo and give way to minimal instrumentation from all players for the remainder of the disc. The final track, “Antarctic Handshake”, is as appropriate a bookend as it is further illustration of Meyer’s loyalty to theme. This is a sparse, Snow Patrol-esque (or maybe The Daysleepers) tune with a sense of finality as undercurrent that resolves itself quite nicely with white noise that practically masquerades as ocean waves or a waterfall at close proximity. Intended or not, it works.
Coming from the backgrounds that these musicians have, I applaud their effort here. Still, I put down my headphones feeling a kind of audio-visual overload. On one hand, there are so many nuances being thrown at the listener, whether moments of atmosphere or orchestrated instrument, that I felt I was in a jungle by that waterfall being shown all the pretty flora and fauna at once (Look HERE! Now, HERE!) and asked to answer which is more important, Mood or Vocal/Lyrical Message?
On the other hand, Chino Moreno is great here, and after a nearly twenty year career, the man’s still got it. But, he, like what I felt from the boys of Isis this go-around, seems a bit dialed back. Not quite enough fire to make the swim worth-while. For Caxide and crew, the same lengthy format which worked with greater dynamic color and altogether heavier conception with former frontman Aaron Turner at the helm has a tendency here to drone and glisten its way into a chill-out or lounge album that is almost too chilled-out.
In comparison, ultimately, to the catalogs with which I’m comfortable from these artists, the ocean I had perceived within was too safe a place. There needs sometimes to be a shark in the water. Hell, even a rusty bottle cap or a used condom on the beach’ll do. We’ve had our share of Corona commercials, guy sans-cell phone admiring the over-tanned beauty beside him and whistling about the waves. I say: Steal her bikini top! Snap his ass with your towel, girl! Chance a skinny dip whether Jaws pops out of the water or not! And whatever you do, for God’s sake, don’t drop your beer….