Howling Sycamore, an impressive form of rhythm and loudness
Among old furniture and flickers, the charismatic Michael J. Anderson treads a measure gracefully in the shoes of the „man from another place”, under the dazed observation of Dale Cooper… All are painted with intense red and here comes the wonderful Jimmy Scott performing his awe-inspiring “Sycamore Trees” throughout the haunting arrangement written by Angelo Badalamenti. This was part of the ending of the widely acclaimed “Twin Peaks” series back in 1991, which built a solid association in a certain collective consciousness – by the agency of music and images – for what was known in the ancient Egypt as the tree of life and subsequently received other sacred and religious meanings. “Howling Sycamore” is a name which may expand the contemporary takes on the sycamore’s symbolism through music. What type of music are we speaking of? Well, the same name gives clear hints which relate to mysticism, shivers, screams, extremeness, and more than these. This sort of music is really well rooted in the present age given its straight metal affiliation, although the means of writing are damned unpredictable for the genre’s devotees.
Davide Tiso, the mastermind of the project Howling Sycamore, made already clear the fact that his music is guided by otherworldly threads. The last album by Ephel Duath is a sheer instance of this direction, not to mention the debut of the beloved Karyn Crisis, the Gospel of the Witches, where Tiso’s guitar work gets beyond the musical conventions of these days, while there is an interesting enhancement of the canonical means as well. What he created with the debut of Howling Sycamore relies definitely on pure progress. The riffs and themes and the overall guitar sound provide some of the finest contents found in progressive, heavy and extreme metal music during the late decades of manifestations.
All the musicians involved in the Howling Sycamore group had the ability to represent their well-known signatures and to give forth a freestanding work at the same time. Kevin Hufnagel’s guest appearance is not an obvious link to his most renowned works from the Dysrhythmia albums, but his solos bring a pretty dim semblance with the most melodic features from the latest Gorguts records. However, Howling Sycamore got Hufnagel doing spectacular melodies, genuine sonic explosions which cannot be found in his previous works and they replenish the complexity of the main guitar layers with beautifully hazardous structures, like what we hear on the opening track, “Upended”. Another guest called to provide some more melody for the Howling Sycamore’s album is Burial’s Fester, who participated with sections which are more tempered than Hufnagel’s action, but that was what the pace of the song “Let Fall” asked for. On the other hand, this album might have been the perfect opportunity for drummer Hannes Grossmann – who came to the fore with his past experiences within Necrophagist and Obscura – to reveal his shiny dynamics. Throughout the album, the rhythm changes for so many times and covers various forms of expression which are so diverse that Grossmann’s skills proved mandatory for such endeavour. On top of all this intricacy comes a very powerful tone. The vocals are by all means educated in the range of that certain progressive style which grew from heavy and power metal and many would not consider such approach as being suitable for an avant-garde album, but they work fantastic actually. Sometimes is necessary to have a musician really well trained in the traditional repertoire in order to surpass the conventional. Jason McMaster’s performance on the “Howling Sycamore” is brilliant and he also goes beyond the imprints left in the other bands, from his early contributions to the cult prog band Watch Tower and his cheerful mood in the hard rock Dangerous Toys to his present-day activity in Ignitor and Evil United. McMaster is that type of singer who can be easily included in a top listing the giants of heavy metal music, getting a pretty close spot to Rob Halford, Brian Johnson and other big singers with acute voices. It is exactly the vocals which bring the fascinating loudness on the “Howling Sycamore” album. This is somehow the darkest singing manner touched by McMaster so far, who stops at nothing and gets even to express by screaming, like on the third track where the vocals go deep in the listener’s mind with their brutish nerve. Last but not least, Bruce Lamont’s interference with his baritone saxophone turned this whole record into a trippy experience, although his remarkable input comes only in two or three songs. His instrument got a particular sound than what we could hear on Yakuza’s or Circle of Animals’ records, for instance. On the second track, “Obstinate Pace”, which appears as one of the greatest pieces of this album in my view, the saxophone lines flow like a curved river, making the listener feel that is about to reach the bottom of the world. Further, there are some nice acoustic fragments as well, and the song “Chant of Stillness” brings some good old folk on this release and reveals uplifting feels.
Davide Tiso led Howling Sycamore into a challenging avant-garde act and such creation cannot get too clever definitions in my opinion. There is no need for references in the description of Howling Sycamore’s music, even if one can detect various influences from Rainbow to Death, for example, and what not. This debut is worthy of being understood as a whole, and not as a set of musical tendencies which can be split in different bands’ names and legacies. In a Decibel Magazine issue from the last days of 2017, writer Kevin Stewart-Panko described Howling Sycamore as a mix of Portal, Anacrusis, Akercocke and Voivod, which is conducted by John Zorn. Some would be surprised to read that Howling Sycamore’s music is somehow connected with the demolishing energy of Portal, but there are a few fragments filled with such thing based on blackened death patterns and madness. The openness found in the style of writing is a good reason for a parallel between Howling Sycamore and Anacrusis or Voivod. While the mention of John Zorn has obvious explanations in the case of a project featuring Bruce Lamont, the Akercocke analogy doesn’t deal out justice for Howling Sycamore’s musical quality. An eclectic mix is not enough to convey what Howling Sycamore is about, especially since Akercocke is totally opposite in terms of musical development and atmosphere.
The flashbacks with the “Twin Peaks” episode from the beginning of this description didn’t pop up in vain, since there is a very blurred reminiscence of a Lynchian atmosphere on this first album by Howling Sycamore. Tracks like “Obstinate Pace”, which I’ve mentioned before, and “Descent to Light” have the ability to change the listener’s perception of reality, affecting all sorts of emotional and fictional happenings. That red tinge in the “Twin Peaks” has its equal in terms of sound on this album, given the intensity. The cover, designed by Dehn Sora, shows also red tints and it’s a pretty adequate representation of the spiritual tension sung on the Howling Sycamore’s debut. However, the feelings I got after spending pretty much time with this album, didn’t place me exactly in Lynch’s bleary dimension, but in a world where the characters started a dramatic quest, attempting to get out of darkness.