For better or for worse “Scenes” define the evolution of rock and metal. I am generally of the opinion that it is very rare for something truly original to happen; every band is an extension and development of its influences. However, once in a while an innovative band will come along and spin its influences in a brand new direction that was hitherto unheard and un-hinted at. A bunch of other bands will then jump on that sonic template and either distil it or develop it, depending on your opinion. While saturation and over-proliferation is inevitable, at least the initial stages of a Scene are exciting times, with bands pushing each other to improve on the original template in a sonic arms race. That is what happened when Van Halen and Def Leppard created the template for hair-metal. That is what happened when Nirvana broke grunge through to the mainstream. That is what happened when Meshuggah dropped Destroy Erase Improve out of nowhere.
However, in…um…less developed parts of the world, there are no Scenes. Rock and metal are seen as alien and imported art forms and fans and musicians alike look outside rather than inside their countries for innovation and inspiration. This means that bands in those countries aren’t competing with each other to innovate, but playing catch-up with their western contemporaries in order to find relevance and popularity. Heretic’s debut album Words to Epilogues is the perfect example of the conflicting tensions felt by young Indian bands to conform to changing foreign aesthetics on the one hand and to innovate and develop an original sound on the other.
Heretic’s characterization of themselves as an “Alternative Metal” band is rather misleading. Like any Indian children of the ‘80s, Heretic was doubtless raised on a steady diet of Iron Maiden and Metallica. The Iron Maiden and Judas Priest influence is very noticeable on the earlier tracks on the album, particularly in the riffing and the, occasionally harmonized, lead guitar lines. This classic metal aesthetic is updated for the 21st century with some double bass drumming and prevents the music from sounding completely anachronistic. Reprise in particular sounds like it belongs on one of Maiden’s recent albums, and while the intro to Choice begins to show a little bit of originality with its clean rhythm and lead guitars, the second the distorted guitars kick in the band immediately sounds like a Maiden clone again. However, as the album progresses – after a brief detour into Nu Metal on Slaves and the System – it finds the band finding its own voice, which incorporates Post-Hardcore’s dissonant riffing and melodic repetitive lead guitar lines, punctuated by clean sections and the occasional djent-ing. The zenith of this is the title track, which melds an unmistakably modern sound with classic metal in what is probably the highlight of the album.
While the title-track displays what the band is fully capable of in terms of composition and its unique melding of styles, the band is unfortunately not brimming with ideas on how to twist this sound in consistently interesting ways. Except for the 7-minute long title-track, which is ironically the longest track here, all of the tracks on the album feel overlong and repetitive. Thoughts and Ring of Colours are also strong tracks – with the former’s dynamic shifts providing some of the most gorgeous moments on the album – but aren’t consistently interesting musically speaking.
Undoubtedly Heretic’s unique selling point is Akhil Unnikrishnan’s vocals, particularly his clean singing. Unnikrishnan is by no means a run-of-the mill metal singer. His voice is unique and much closer, in terms of tone and range, to Incubus’ Brandon Boyd than conventional or modern metal singers. He also sings unique melodies that flutter through scales in unexpected ways in a manner heavily influenced by Carnatic (Indian Classical) music. This Indianization of the sound is often echoed in the lead-guitar melodies, providing the music with an exotic vibe that sets the band apart from its contemporaries. The best example of this is probably Alone which is the least musically interesting song on the album, but is almost saved from mediocrity by the strength of Unnikrishnan’s vocals and the guitar melodies. I say almost because Alone is also an example of the worst parts of Unnikrishnan’s vocals and the music in general: everything that isn’t melodic singing. Unnikrishnan’s harsh vocals aren’t terrible, but they sound hoarse and weak rather than gruff and intimidating. This is echoed on every song on the album. Heretic attempts dynamic shifting in the vocals to match the dynamic shifts in the music, much like Opeth/Periphery/Skyharbor/[insert band here] do, but Unnikrishnan is no Åkerfeldt when it comes to harsh vocals. Unnikrishnan’s harsh vocals on Alone are the absolute low point of the album, and his harsh vocals in general are the low points of the songs, ejecting the listener unceremoniously from what was often otherwise shaping up to be an enjoyable song.
Words and Epilogues has definite moments that hint at the immense potential of the band. However, what’s also obvious is that the band is not sure how to develop its own sound and is often too busy chasing after the sonic templates created in other lands to spend time developing and improving its own musical vision, which is, in a nutshell, an apt description of India’s entire rock/metal scene. Hopefully, if the band stays together long enough to record a sophomore album they’ll hone their own sound and play to their own strengths rather than chasing the wraith of someone else’s “Scene”.
Rating: 3.2 / 5
1. Echoes from a Canvas
4. Slaves and the System
5. Words to Epilogues
7. Bleed to heal
9. Ring of Colours