“Fables of the Sleepless Empire” is the third album of the Canadian band UnExpect. To even try to label their musical style as anything other than the general term “avant garde metal” is futile.
In their own band biography they are being described as: “…a metal laboratory mixing elements of black/death/symphonic/melodic metal; progressive, classical, electro, folk, jazz, operatic, mathcore, ambient, noise, circus music and anything else crossing their minds. The collective includes a violin, keyboards/sampling, a singing contemporary dancer, a 9 stringed bass, 2 guitarists/singers and a drum.”
While the first album, “Utopia”, was already complex but didn’t vary too much with respect to the musical style, their second album, “In a Flesh Aquarium”, already featured the full bandwidth of the stylistic diversity described above. “Fables of the Sleepless Empire” is no different in this respect. The band has been described as a metal circus, and speaking in terms of this analogy: This album is one hell of a bizarre and intriguing show. Sometimes it’s difficult to grasp what is going on. But whether you get it or not, it’s still fun to watch. So let’s take a closer look at the elements of this show.
UnExpect has three vocalists: The two guitarists and one female vocalist, the contemporary dancer Leïlindel. The way they use their three vocalists is a highlight of the band’s work in general and this album in particular: The two guitarists use many styles of harsh vocals, from high pitched screams to low growls and on top of that theatrical clean vocals. Sometimes, though not very often, one of them narrates certain passages.
Leïlindel, their female singer, has a vocal style which is close to female musical vocals, though it should be noted that she can do pretty good high vocals in a classical style as well, which she does in the song “A Fading Stance”. Leïlindel also does high pitched screaming/growls here and there, but not very often.
The strength of the vocals lies in the combination of the 3 singers. Sometimes they produce very strong choirs by having one guitarist sing clean, one growling or screaming and Leïlindel throwing in her clean vocals. This makes for an interesting combination, because while the male clean vocals add a large choir sound, the growls/screams give the sound a brutal and raw element while Leïlindel complements this with a seductive undertone. Another interesting aspect of the vocals is the different rhythms they use for the vocal lines. They are very unusual and sometimes seem to be completely chaotic. This effect is enhanced by their constant switching between vocal styles and singers within a song. It is hard to find 30 seconds on this album where just one of them sings on his own.
When it comes to their songwriting, a quote from ChaotH, one of the band members, helps a lot in understanding their approach. When asked in an interview conducted by Matt Hensch on www.rocknworld.com about the inspiration for their lyrics (note: the interview took place after the second album, “In a flesh aquarium”, was released):
“… Creating music and lyrics is just like playing the role of god. You create from nothing so why would there be any barrier. We just don’t limit ourselves and we try to go as far as possible.”
The songs have structure, but the mixture of different styles together with the songs being composed of many different parts, some of which are not repeated during a song (as opposed to popular song structures where verses and choruses are being repeated in a more or less set order), makes the music seem very chaotic.
To return briefly to the analogy made in the beginning: The arena is set, the artists are introduced and we have an idea of the course of events to come. What’s missing? Right, what fun is a show without the actors talking? Let’s get to the lyrics.
To say that the topics addressed by them are varying would be an understatement. From the healthy pumpkin revolution to a battle of conformity versus creativity and the marriage of two undead people there is a wide variety of topics the lyrics talk about. There is more to them then their literal meaning of course and there are many possible interpretations. One example: In the song “Mechanical Phoenix” they have the sound of a hurdy gurdy as both outro and intro. In the beginning they sing of “orphaned ideas”. This gave me the impression of the whole song describing an abandoned amusement park where an old man plays his hurdy gurdy, representing the withered state of creativity in our modern world. Withered, but not gone yet.
And this is just one possible interpretation. The songs never have one clearly defined meaning. You can always interpret them in many different ways. But it’s kind of hard to figure out what the lyrics mean, because their lyricist, Syriak, has a strange way of expressing his ideas. His metaphors are, like the rest of the music, very interesting, but not easy to understand or interpret.
I know what you are thinking by now: “Yeah I get it. This is one of those highly intellectual bands with sophisticated songwriting and technique mere mortals are not able to comprehend. This is all pretty impressive, but is this music just as over-technical and dead as it sounds?” Not at all. This is the most impressive aspect of the album: The music has an intensity that can be exhausting, it is alive like an erupting volcano! The songs on “Fables of the Sleepless Empire” have one attribute which catapults them into the realm of genius: They are catchy. For all the craziness and complexity, the songs are very fun to listen to, very energetic. For example, in the song Orange Vigilantes there is the following line: “When shall rise the Pumpkins and their organic cohorts The reign of men as we know it will reach its conclusion”. This sounds funny when you read it, but when you hear it the music accompanying one of the guitarists screaming this line into the microphone sounds like the apocalypse is about to begin, like an army of seriously mad pumpkins is about to take over the world. The music is technical, it’s complex, it’s crazy…and it is lively and energetic on a level not many bands reach. You don’t have to worry about overly technical songs which doesn’t manage to convey emotion. Regardless of what, those songs will probably make you feel something.
To sum it up: This album is fascinating and interesting in every possible way music can be fascinating and interesting. From the incredibly diverse vocals to the high level instrumental work, the passion, the crazy lyrics and the puzzle style of songwriting, each song is different, each song is intense. It does take some effort to listen to those songs, UnExpect is anything but easy listening. But this effort is rewarded with an incredible experience. Many bands write chaotic songs. But not many manage to make chaotic songs sound as natural, catchy and memorable as UnExpect.
If you like music which doesn’t care about established paradigms like common song and harmonic structures, if you like music you can explore over and over again and thus enjoy for a long time, give this album a listen. There’s a good chance you will like it.
Songs recommended for listening: “Orange Vigilantes”, “Unfed Pendulum”, “The Quantum Symphony”
01. Unsolved Ideas Of A Distorted Guest Words
02. Orange Vigilantes
03. Mechanical Phoenix
04. The Quantum Symphony
05. Unfed Pendulum
06. In The Mind Of The Last Whale
07. Silence This Parasite
08. A Fading Stance
09. When The Joyful Dead Are Dancing
10. Until Yet A Few More Deaths Do Us Part