Music Review - Tectonic by Trillium
A triumphant return to female-fronted heavy metal, seven years in the making!
Has anyone else noticed that there’s this strange sort of mental struggle going on when you’re a fan of a music artist? The struggle where, when you find something you like, you want more of it…but at the same time, you realize that by expecting more of the same, you are essentially asking the artist in question to never experiment with something new? To never branch out and try a different sound or approach? To stay stagnant as a musician? Which, when you think about it, is completely unfair and just plain stupid to want. The very nature of a musician, and by extension their output, is to grow, to get better, and discover new ways to bring their music to the masses. On a related topic, there seems to be a huge argument bouncing around the internet about what being a fan means. Some people think it means you have to like everything that an artist puts out. If you don’t like it, then you aren’t a fan or you just “don’t get it”. On the flipside of that coin is the counter argument that a fan will continue to support an artist, even if they aren’t enamored with everything that artist puts out. For myself, I’m firmly in the latter camp. I feel that being a fan means you can acknowledge when an artist isn’t at the top of their game, and even if you don’t like something they do, you still have love and respect for them anyways. For me, blindly proclaiming that everything is great, even when it clearly isn’t, is not being a fan…it’s being a fanatic. And there’s really no case when being a fanatic about something leads to good outcomes.
For example, I recall reading a review of Shinedown’s album The Sound of Madness some years back. The reviewer in question gave the album like 2 stars, and the only reason he did so was because the rest of the album didn’t sound like the song Sound Of Madness. Which, I’ll admit, is a super catchy hard-rock song, and definitely worthy of all the radio play it received. It’s no wonder the album was named after it. But to expect Shinedown to make every song sound just like it is just asinine, and extremely disrespectful to the musicians in the band. It’s extremely rare for a band to stick with a standard sound and remain successful. Sure, AC/DC (whom I love) have been doing it for years, but they are the rare exception. Most bands, when they release more of the same, are quickly buried by bad reviews and fan indifference. Times change, and music needs to change with it. Repetition is a slow death, and who wants the same thing, year after year, song after song? Certainly not me.
And even with being fully aware of that, I was initially disappointed with the new Trillium album Tectonic. Even though it’s not a 5-star release, I truly love their initial 2011 LP Alloy, and I selfishly wanted more of the same. And I was so very excited that Amanda Somerville decided to not have Alloy be a one off, so when Tectonic came out, I was eager to give it a listen. Even knowing that seven years had passed, I had high expectations of what Tectonic would deliver. And...to the surprise of nobody, it’s a bit of a different animal than Alloy. And for the briefest of moments, I fell into that trap of righteous indignation. I felt like that Shinedown reviewer. This was NOT the Trillium that I remembered or wanted. My 42-year-old self was in full tantrum mode.
But then I pulled my head out of my ass and actually gave Tectonic a serious listen. I remembered that I’m not a fanatic. I practiced what I preached, if you will, and went back in with an open mind, knowing that years had passed, the lineup of musicians was different, and the landscape of heavy metal had changed. And I’m glad I did, for Tectonic is absolutely a worthy successor to Alloy, overflowing with enjoyable songs, taking the blueprint of the first album while expanding beyond those established boundaries. To put it simply: this is NOT the Trillium of 2011, and that’s ok!
So, then, just what is Tectonic? Well, it’s a female fronted heavy metal album, featuring 11 songs and clocking in at 49 minutes, with a strong emphasis on guitars and the gut-punching voice of Amanda Somerville. There’s a smaller focus on catchy choruses this time around. The songs are tighter, less interested in sounding radio-friendly and more concerned with being just solid musical offerings. The mix favors guitars and vocals, which are delivered with wonderful clarity. Sadly, this means that the drums aren’t mixed as solidly, which renders them somewhat anemic, sometimes getting a bit lost in the overall production. So while the guitar work is great, the songs suffer a bit from the lack of percussive punch, which marginally hurts the overall product. Note that on headphones this isn’t as much of an issue, but even in my FJ Cruiser with 4 subs, it just doesn’t hit like it should.
Tectonic opens with arguably the most “single” worthy song on the album. Time To Shine kicks off with soaring guitars, giving us a taste of what’s to come with some studio touches adding a bit of produced polish. Amanda’s voice is front and center, never lost in the mix, even during the mid-song breakdown when she’s singing softly. As mentioned above, the drums are audible and well executed, they just have very little oomph to them. There’s a bit going on in the background as well, with backing vocals and minor orchestral touches adding a bit of flair to an already rocking track.
Turning down offers of destiny, I’ve got better fates to make.
Things slow down a bit for Stand Up. Keyboards filter through the background, the double kick drums sound great (if not actively hit hard), and Amanda explores much of her vocal range. Again, there are touches of backing vocals and orchestral strings adding a bit of flavor, which only makes sense, given that her primary output is more symphonic metal than straight up heavy metal. A bitchin’ guitar solo kicks in a little past the halfway mark, before the song kicks back in to chorus/verse delivery. A great head-nodding, foot tapping track!
While Stand Up was a bit slower tempo, third track Full Speed Ahead lives up to its moniker, being the heaviest song on Tectonic. With pummeling power chords, a bit of bass guitar that stands out during the quieter moments, and another powerful guitar solo coupled with Amanda’s beautiful yet brutal vocals, this is tied as my favorite Tectonic track. It’s a take no prisoners approach, featuring more of the same production touches as the rest of the album, but with everything being much more “in your face”. If I were going to introduce someone to this bad, Full Speed Ahead is the song I would choose.
Let it breathe, or let it be, I’ve got to figure out what works for me.
Hit Me is next, and it slows things down considerably at the start. Subtle keyboards tinkle behind the vocals, which have a bit of a treatment on them from time to time. This one is a little more experimental, with different vocal tracks fading in and out in between the powerful “hit me!” chorus. It eventually changes the tempo up a bit, becoming a bit more plodding, before switching back to the original template.
If any song on Tectonic has that Alloy sound, it would be Fighting Fate. The mix is more in line with that release, with much more of a focus on power chords over melodic fretwork. A bit of operatic singing provides a counterpoint to a killer guitar solo (honestly, pretty much all of the solos on this album are engaging). Another track that will get your head nodding in time with the chugging rhythm.
Up next is my second favorite song of the LP. Nocturna is a bit of a musical mixed bag, featuring some downtempo delivery before picking up the pace a bit. The impressive guitar work provides a great landscape over which Amanda’s voice simply soars. More orchestral than metal, this track really embodies, for me at least, what Trillium is all about. There’s no doubt that Amanda can sing, but put some really awesome instrumentation behind her voice, and you’ve got pure musical magic.
Embrace the age to come, from God’s own quill.
Speaking of singing, Fatal Mistake features some of the strongest vocals on the album, with Amanda belting out the verses and choruses with everything she has. While the track itself is a more mid-tempo offering, it’s the vocals that elevate an otherwise standard song to greater heights. Ending on a very slow and melodic outro, there’s just something about this song that speaks to me. Chills may be felt...
Did I mention earlier that the choruses aren’t quite as catchy this time around? Well, the biggest exception to that rule is found on Shards. Featuring more in the veins of the previous tracks, with orchestral touches in the background, while the music isn’t necessarily anything we haven’t heard before, the chorus here is supremely addictive. Amanda just kills it, and the bass guitar that follows along just gives it that extra kick. It must be a favorite of the band as well, as there’s an acoustic version to be found as a bonus track on some versions of the album.
Easily the most unique song on the album (and the other one tied for my favorite), Cliché Freak Show starts out sounding very much like a discordant theme song you might find at a sideshow attraction of dubious veracity and safety. Amanda’s vocal delivery is more on the theatrical side with this one, and I honestly wish that she could have done this as a duet with Roy Khan (formerly of Kamelot), who is no stranger to theatrics and stage musical type vocals. Alas, that’s just fanboy dreaming.
But honestly, Cliché Freak Show is a standout track, starting and ending with creepy instrumentation, and filled to the brim with great lyrics and some different vocal deliveries. Just don’t think this is strictly a musical oddity however, as there’s a kickass metal song hidden behind the freaky façade.
Epic distortion of epic proportions, in a world of show me yours and I’ll show you mine.
Unlike Alloy, which had its fair share of slower to mid-tempo songs, Tectonic really only has one ballad. As such, Eternal Spring is sort of a strange duck. Especially given that it follows the track with the most personality. Primarily piano driven, Eternal Spring gives Amanda a chance to croon instead of belt, trading power for beauty. Listening to the rest of the album, I tend to forget that she can make her voice soft and soothing when she wants to. That said, I prefer it when she lets her voice loose, so this one doesn’t really do much for me.
But that’s ok, because on my version of Tectonic, Eternal Spring is followed by an acoustic rendition of Shards. Shards (Acoustic Version) is more what I want from a slowed down Trillium. Again, the vocals here are less ferocious, but still have that power that I associate with this band. It’s the same song as earlier on the album, just stripped down to untreated vocals, acoustic guitars, and bass. It’s the band at their most exposed, and somehow it just works, serving as a great outro to a truly spectacular album.
Could you not forgive? And can you not forget?
So, what started out as something I was unhappy with, Tectonic forced me to swallow my own medicine, and has actually surpassed Alloy, becoming my favorite of the two Trillium albums. No, it doesn’t feature another Machine Gun, but it is undoubtedly more consistent. With only one of the eleven songs not really doing it for me, this is a nearly perfect release, and I hope it gets more recognition than Alloy did. Amanda has done a bang-up job of assembling some great musicians, and I really hope we don’t need to wait another seven years for the next release!
5 out of 5 earth shaking stars!