Sadist as a band has gone some interesting places in their career. Starting off as a relatively standard prog-death band just weird enough to interest people, but accessible enough to be somewhat popular in at least a few crowds. And of course, as is the story of most somewhat popular acts metal from the 80s and 90s, they went through a steady decline in quality until finally succumbing to the alt metal/nu metal pandemic of the mid to late 90s. And of course, after a bit of disappearance they come back revitalized, trying to recapture their old sound and vigor, to mostly strong acclaim. And then of COURSE, they digress into a different, more modern sound altogether which, while acceptable, certainly doesn’t quite capture how magnificent they were when they first started out. Thus the band either dies, or continues making only pretty good albums until the members die of old age. It’s a story that’s been played out (literally) many, many times before, almost to a T. And in the official RYM score canon, that’s just about where this band stands as well.
Except, what if that wasn’t what happened? What if Sadist didn’t follow the script like everyone thinks they did, and instead told their own tale? What if they were actually a confused, yet well-intended band that made music with potential, but no substance, then went on to make even shittier music, only to actually start making good music in their last few albums? Because as you could tell by the oddly specific scenario I wrote down, that’s exactly what I think is the story of Sadist. Hyaena takes that narrative to a whole new level, and over 20 years after their debut, have crafted their best album yet.
The first element that has defined Sadist’s new material is the off-beat chugging during the vocal sections of the tracks. I would almost call it djent if not for the fact the distinct djent guitar tone is thankfully absent. This chugging even develops into these chug “riffs” which act as a fantastic backdrop to the barked vocals. If I were to compare it to anything in music, it’s almost like a beat backing up a rapper in a hip-hop track. And no, this isn’t nu metal, there are no actual hip-hop influences here, but it does feel like if you put on actual rapping to those back-chugs you’d get a pretty nice sound (great, now I’m imagining what rap-infused djent would sound like and it’s giving me sad feelings inside). These back-chugs work so well because the vocals are not full death vocals but, as mentioned before, rather rhythmically based, almost punkish death-shouts. So sure, plenty of people might not even call this death metal on that alone, but on that logic you might as well call OSDM thrash metal.
Unfortunately enough, that actually has been a major complaint of Sadist in the present tense. And even aside from the vocals, there’s plenty of very un-death metal things to hear on this record. The opening track includes a soft flutes used not as an interlude to, but in accompaniment with the harsh, psuedo-death vocals. Not exactly the most brutal thing you’ll ever hear, and things like that don’t exactly help a band who put an angry snowman on the cover their last record regain it’s metal cred. And the entire album is filled with symphonic bits, even including actual orchestral parts (yes, real instruments!) on some of Hyaena’s tracks. Despite these not exactly sounding like what a hardened death metal musician would make, I feel like these symphonic bits are paramount to the success of this album. The fact that they use real instruments gives the album an actual sense of grandeur, making you feel at least a bit like the album is larger than the individual listening to it. But at the same time, it’s combined with some quite low key acoustic guitar parts that bring the listener down to earth a bit. It’s a nice contrast that includes the best of both worlds, amplified again by the use of NOT computer generated instruments that are so common in metal. But of course, Sadist isn’t Blind Guardian, and they can’t high and orchestra to record with all of their tracks. So while there are those gosh-darned midis I hate so much spread out through the album, I feel like they’re done tastefully, and without too much emphasis, making it acceptable, dare I say enjoyable at at times.
What isn’t exactly tasteful are the other non-metal influences on this album. For starters, the album is not called Hyaena by accident. Intermixed into the record are African instruments and field recordings from the Congo and Savannah. They act as nice little breaks in the tracks, a way to chill out a bit and maybe gaze out into the heart of the heart of the plains, perhaps just in time to catch some giraffe sex in the distance. Or at least they would act that way, if not for the fact that they only tend to appear at the beginning of the song as an intro. Now I admit, there are certain times where I feel the crescendoing African drums are a perfect way to start the track. However as a whole, I feel like the African influences are not done in a “hey let’s create a progressive death metal album with a distinctly african feel” way, but rather they had already finished the album and then realized “shit we forgot to put the african stuff in there, let’s just throw it at the beginning of the tracks and call it good”. This difference in feeling is not as distracting as I might lead you to believe, but it’s noticeable if you pay attention at all.
Now the electronic shit? Yeah, that’s noticeable as hell. And it’s really fucking distracting. Sadist already had the pseudo-djent thing going on, they didn’t need electronic riffs to remind people “hey, this is a big label album”. It makes the album feel more produced than it already does, and it already feels like a pretty high budget production. And it’s not even just the production aspect that turns me off, it’s the fact that these electronic parts are just annoying. There really isn’t any other way to put it. I hear them, I acknowledge their existence, and then I immediately want them to go away. They’re like those tiny gnats that always buzz in you ear, always trying to wander up your ear canal despite the fact that there’s nothing but ear poop (and possibly spider eggs) in there. Fortunately these annoyances tend to only last a few seconds, but they occur often enough to be a noticeable peeve throughout the entire album.
But despite what mostly minor complaints I have about this work, I can’t deny how much it flips all the right switches. The groovy, jazzy, and melodic counterpoint-producing bass. The sweeping technical solos that don’t sound like just skill wank. The quiet, downtempo chill sections with just the perfect amount of noodling. Did I mention how much the bass is absolute sex? I’d do some naughty things to that bassline, some of which may or may not be illegal in 5 countries. For all the little things Hyaena does wrong, it does the majority of things very right. Despite all of the eventual criticism this album is going to get for not being as hard as their earlier work, I’d absolutely rate this as their best album, even improving on their last record, which was already fantastic. This is absolutely one of the death metal highlights this year, and worth a listen to anyone who loves jazz-influenced prog-death like I do.