I first came across Next to None this year when they accompanied Haken on tour. Loads of action and variety are what I remember about the performance of this band from USA. “Phases” is their second album.
“Answer Me” sets us in the mood with its vigour, heaviness, progressive elements and a strong tendency to hardcore. Oh, and a clean vocal chorus. No-one ever claimed this was simple. It mashes with your brain. Screaming harshness mingles with flamboyant guitar work and keys. For the most part it’s frenzied and aggressive. The clean chorus has more impact. It works. From this to djenty extravagance and turmoil. A short clean hardcore chorus interrupts the deep bass and triggering drums – evidently this is the way it works. It sounds like no-one and everyone. I can’t fault Next to None for their musical ambition. I reflected as I listened to the turbulent “Beg” that this is modern metal but with a twist. Modern metal, whatever that is, doesn’t normally include a twisty progressive keyboard insertion. But “Beg” is short and its instrumental and vocal aggression dominates this new wave metalcore song.
Something I like is the quirky edge which Next to None have in their armoury. The strange keyboard intro to “Alone” puts us on alert and sets us up nicely, and captures our attention before a quiet reflective and post rock section gives way to explosive prog metal. Up and down go the tempo and the style. Hardcore mixes with frantic keyboard-laden prog and high-pitched clean vocal appeals – put together not completely my thing, I must say, but I can’t deny the energy and movement. The quirkiness re-imposes itself in the technical prog extravaganza “Kek”. Prog it is but it’s kind of fun with a DJ mix, djent and classic heavy metal holding it together. The pauses allow in the vocalist with his dark and haunting lyrics. This is very well worked and dramatic song, with all the disparate elements holding their own and capturing our attention. It’s like Haken but taken to another level. Up to this point I had appreciated the creativity, but I particularly appreciated “Kek”’s brilliance. But there’s plenty more and next up is the dark djent vibes of “Clarity”. After the ethereal heights of “Kek”, I’m not sure I really wanted modern metal hardcore, but it’s not just that. The singer has a great, vulnerable voice for the catchy clean choruses, reminding me in tone bizarrely of New Musik (“World of Water” and the incomparable “Warp” amongst others) from the late 70s / early 80s. His voice has that innocent, child-like quality. This is something I didn’t pick out of the live set. Moods change and dark clouds appear. The scene is one of epic drama. The more I listened to this album, the more came out. “Phases” transcends genres. “Pause” is commercial in its way but it’s got the hardcore energy and aggression, and the progressive sophistication to make it something else. It is typical.
The playful “Mr Mime” and melancholic keyboard piece “Isolation” present yet another side to the band. The latter didn’t entirely fit in for me, but I sensed we were leading up to the final phase. The eight minute “Denial” is a soul-searching piece of heavy prog, which is uplifting, ponderous and colourful all at the same time. We’ve had plenty but I sensed a majestic finale with the nineteen minute “The Wanderer”. I was suspicious of the quiet and sinister opening section. I knew a flower was going to bloom. Sure enough the atmosphere intensifies, intricate patterns emerge as if a multitude of paint pots of different colours had been thrown in the air at once. There’s a little 60s style guitar section to tickle our fancy briefly but we’re now going into the heights of progressive metal sophistication. Djent irregularity signals the start of the next phase. Clean vocals, weird programmed noises and heavy beats intermingle but there’s always a thread. I absolutely love those expressive clean vocals. Now it takes a break. The vocalist tells the story. Sound waves accompany the symphony and steady drum beats. Such is the mastery of these musicians that it builds up seamlessly to a heavy prog technical djent world. The keyboardist is having a whale of a time. So was I. This is absolutely gripping. The last part is emotional and sublime, worthy of and, dare I say, even bigger than the heights than even Haken can achieve.
”Phases” made me appreciate Next to None much more than I did when I saw them live. This album is complex and needs to be absorbed, which is something you can’t do in a one-off live performance. Everything is brought out here. 78 minutes of complexity is a lot to get to your teeth into. But it’s not a case of quantity alone. “Phases” manages to be technical, atmospheric and personal. All the styles and flavours and moods are bound together in materials and structures of the highest quality. This is an album you could listen to over and over again and always find something to delight you.
(9.5/10 Andrew Doherty)