“I’m neither angel nor a demon spawn
Though some will call me god
Gravity is just a feeble plot.”
In April 2010, Washington-based progressive metal band Periphery released their eponymous debut album, and with it, the unashamedly djenteel and deliriously grandiose track Icarus Lives! Detailing humankind’s impressive ability to dismiss genuine obstacles and coast on its own arrogance and self-delusion, it was a song which I admittedly didn’t give much thought or listening time to once I got my hands on more of Periphery’s material. Yet upon listening to Periphery’s latest studio effort, I found it drifting back into focus. Not necessarily the track itself, but certainly its themes: inspiration, ambition, failure… All notions that came to mind, one at a time, upon my first listen of Periphery III: Select Difficulty.
Select Difficulty is a good album, but listening within the wider context of Periphery’s phenomenal oeuvre is likely to evoke some substantial disappointment in even the most ardent of fans. Time after time they’ve released records of hard-hitting progressive metal, catchy enough to appeal to a wider audience than their chosen style would usually reach, but without lowering themselves to fit the standards of some mainstream metal bands signed to larger labels. But when a band releases two full-length albums in one year, both of which are excellent, and then rushes out yet another full-length album in the next, it should come as no surprise when the most recent offering falls somewhat short of the mark.
Select Difficulty admittedly retains most of the qualities which made Periphery’s prior work great, in some shape or form. The jagged, imposing riffs which throw their weight around without hesitation, the yearning melodies and soaring clean vocals, and their consistent ability to steer clear of the worst traits of modern progressive metal all serve as reminders of what the band are capable of. The album also retains the quirky format of Periphery X: Clichéd Catchphrase. This is neither here nor there, really, but there’s something to be said for the fact that five albums in, Periphery still aren’t taking themselves all that seriously.
More to the point, the new record does throw in some worthwhile new ideas. Periphery don’t have the greatest understanding of how or when to interpolate orchestral elements into the mix, but their interspersion throughout Select Difficulty is fairly impressive, and permits the band a whole new method for tugging on the heartstrings of their listeners. Some of the album’s finest tracks benefit from the new timbres – songs like Marigold and Habitual Line-Stepper, although great songs in their own right, are improved by twisting and tense orchestral refrains, which add to their slick, compelling atmospheres. Absolomb’s awkward introduction is counterbalanced by its wonderfully grand and sweeping orchestral conclusion. What’s more, there’s no pretence of any kind here. Periphery aren’t pretending to branch into classical music – they’re simply experimenting with a wider palette.
Select Difficulty doesn’t have any major flaws, but it is peppered with minor ones which accumulate over the course of the album. Most of these are simple excesses – too this or too that. Spencer Sotelo’s screams often feel rushed and blundering, as though they’re running too fast and tripping over their own feet, which is a weakness that often works to dismantle the groove that Periphery’s music has displayed for so long. Likewise, some of the heavier tracks of the album are pretty half-baked. Far from the mastery of off-kilter riffs and melodies Periphery once could have boasted, the album’s heavier sections often simply bounce around, searching for a compelling theme but never quite finding one, and ultimately acquiescing into jarring, atonal sprawl (and not in a good way). The Price Is Wrong is a perfect example of this kind of thing, whilst Habitual Line-Stepper, for all its glory, features the worst breakdown Periphery have ever indulged in.
Select Difficulty is certainly worth a listen. The production is exceptional for a self-produced LP, and the majority of the music is considerably well-written and impeccable executed. Lune, in particular, is one of the most accomplished, fully-realised and well-balanced tracks Periphery have ever spawned to date. Considering it’s the worst record Periphery have released, Select Difficulty really isn’t bad at all – so why do I keep feeling the need to assert this to myself with each and every listen?
I was reminded of Select Difficulty’s availability by a post on the band’s Facebook page, of all things. It featured a montage of each member gurning light-heartedly, after which each image was warped for the purposes of added frivolity. I’ve mentioned that there’s something to be said for the fact that Periphery still aren’t taking themselves particularly seriously, but in light of this lapse in quality, perhaps it’s time they started doing just that.