Atmospheric death metal. On paper, it’s an incongruous mash-up of genres that should work about as well as crunkcore did; in practice, it’s an approach to extreme music that has made Fallujah one of the most exciting names in the scene. Their second LP, 2014’s The Flesh Prevails, was much lauded in the world of properly heavy stuff for the manner in which the band balanced soul-crushingly intense technical death metal with otherworldly melodic elements. Granted, the attempt at transcending the foundations of extreme music was somewhat brought to earth by a brick wall production job that made many of the nuances hard to appreciated, but Fallujah undeniably made the case for themselves as pioneers for the level at (and skill with) which they dabbled in light and dark, brutal and beautiful. It’s a natural step for the band to continue to magnify the flickers of ambience that set them apart, and Dreamless does just that. However, the album struggles at moving between the serene and the punishing as effortlessly as its predecessor did, and the two faces of Fallujah have come to feel fractured.
First and foremost, this is the work of a death metal band, and in that respect Dreamless does often succeed. Lackadaisical bends within the riffs amplify the atmosphere of the album but don’t detract from the intensity elsewhere. Andrew Baird’s drum work is consistently brilliant, machine-like precision running through frequently complex patterns that are at their best when he lets loose with frantic double bass runs. As the heady title would suggest, much of Dreamless focuses on feeling more than impact, but that is not always the case. When Fallujah put their foot on the gas, as they do on “The Void Alone” and “Amber Gaze”, they demonstrate how good a straightforward tech-death band (albeit one with a taste for soaring lead guitar) they can be. The former is a particular highlight of the album thanks to its incorporation of female vocals, which when they do crop up always provide a welcome additional melodic element.
The promise does not however last, and particularly towards its end, Dreamless gets bogged down in glitch effects and painfully basic space rock synthesisers. The melodramatic “Fidelio” fails as a conceptual piece and sits too long on repetitive piano before finally, belatedly igniting; “Les Silences” would have worked as a two minute interlude, stretched to six it’s reduced to a navel-gazing exercise in killing time that then leaves closer “Lacuna” dead in the water. There are highlights among the calmer sections of the album. The centrepiece title track balances instrumental skill with transcendent songwriting, and has a purpose despite its ambient approach that the fully instrumental pieces lack. The Flesh Prevails worked as well as it did because the melodic sections worked as a counterpoint to the heaviness, rather than throwing together some airy synth chords and pushing them between the metal tracks. Only in its much improved, more dynamic mixing and mastering does Dreamless better its predecessor.
As impressive as Fallujah frequently are as musicians, they have struggled this time around to concoct an album that is engaging from beginning to end. The riffs and song structures aren’t varied enough across the lengthy runtime, and Alex Hoffman’s growls are disappointingly monotonous, particularly when we know he has more in his arsenal. Guitar solos where they do appear have a fantastical, over-the-top bent that works well within the atmosphere the band creates, but they are repetitive with no real standout among them. The biggest failure of Dreamless is a startlingly apparent lack of ideas. The haunting calm-before-the-storm introduction to “Abandon” is bizarrely reprised almost identically on following track “Scar Queen”; the Pink Floydian intro to “Wind for Wings” develops nicely, but the thudding kick drums and simplistic riffs that ensue fail to live up to what has built to them. There are moments in which the band do soar and show how brilliant they can be, but they’re clogged up by massive blocks of music that do little but build up to the next set-piece.
For the most part, Fallujah have failed to reconcile the extreme metal and atmospheric elements of their sound this time around. The band have concocted a great many exciting sections of music, but the way they have been put together does not do them justice. Dreamless is by no means a bad album, and is frequently an extremely good one, but is frustrating when it does not press home its obvious upsides. The artwork is excellent; the musicianship is top-tier; the songwriting shows flashes of genius. It is thus frustrating that the end product does not live up to its potential.