By Gary Wright
Signs Of Life 'Versatile' (2015)
For this review, I am going to throw all of my previous conventions out of the window. This will be an unconventional review, for an unconventional band.
Signs Of Life is a 5-piece 'metal' band from Des Moines, Iowa. The band are self-proclaimed as 'metal mash-up', and you can hear why. Their ultra-modern sound has elements of metalcore, mathcore, progressive metal, melodic hardcore, and djent. The band's only release so far, the 'Versatile' EP (2015), is a 5-track parade of musical prowess that is just under 25 minutes long. Indeed, the relatively long duration of this release versus the small number of tracks, is down to the progressive nature of the music. Each song feels much longer than what it actually is, as there's just so much going on throughout. The name, 'Versatile', was given to this release because the band basically mashed up all of the metal genres that they like, and therefore ended up with something that is, versatile. A quick search on the internet will bring up several other bands with the name 'Signs Of Life', but this, ladies and djentlemen, is the one that we're going to be talking about.
The band had been trying to start for about 4 years, but due to some members living outside the city and scheduling conflicts, not to mention life just getting in the way, it took a while to nail down the line-up. However, they finally got together and ended up about one-and-a-half to two years playing shows. The band are currently on hiatus, as their vocalist moved out of state.
So let's meet the band. Zachary Beckman, vocalist, delivers a spewing of disgusting contempt that you would expect from a primarily metalcore-style vocalist, harshly expelling his way through all songs with no clean vocals sterilizing the intensity at all. Andrew Raes and Eric Fosnaught, guitarists, work together to provide the empowering driving force of this release, churning out huge walls of sound as readily as they are able to tinker at the more refined and signatory sounds with their djent-influenced dual-riffing. RJ Ellsworth, bassist, provides a sound and depth akin to a mechanized infantry platoon hastily pulling up then disembarking in anger. Miles McClintock, drummer, displays a truly impressive competence for the skins, as he dynamically changes tempo to seemingly ever-shifting time signatures, that are the underlying, chaotic foundation of this truly mind-boggling monster. In fact, if you try to headbang to the drums, you'll find yourself getting caught out quite often as just when you think you've found the rhythm, it changes.
The EP was recorded, mixed, mastered, and produced at Audio Aggregate Recordings in Des Moines, Iowa, by Ben 'B-REX' Monroe (who himself is a solo math/metal/prog/djent artist). Intriguingly, the band chose to use the names of colors for the songs. The words 'Green', 'Black', 'Purple', 'Red', and 'Yellow', started out as working titles for the tracks until the vocalist could add his lyrics and stamp to them, but in the end the band decided to settle with colors as they were easier to communicate onstage, fitted their style better, and appeared less pretentious than to give the songs titles with an overly-deep meaning.
To describe this band's sound effectively is extremely hard, as I, for one, have never heard anything quite like it before. There's a level of technicality that make Mudvayne look like an amateur highschool band at the local talent show, with more breakdowns than found in a psychiatric hospital, and enough melody interspersed throughout to force you to pull a cheeky side grin at the sheer ingenuity of the composition. The only band that I have previously heard that I can relate to when listening to the Signs Of Life, is New York's Gizmachi, who also display a combination of metalcore/mathcore/progressive, but with nowhere near the level of complexity and isolating itself further by featuring clean vocals. Signs Of Life's unforgiving vocals throughout are the absolute exhibit of strength and reason. Numerous high-gain guitar riffs, alongside several riff changes, bulldoze their way through, laying the foundations, while clean and catchy melodies are only overshadowed by ethereal, and often emotive, guitar effects layered on top of spacious and atmospheric soundscapes. Indeed, some of the heavy, crunchy guitar riffs have a tone similar to that of the aforementioned Gizmachi, along with the sometimes punchy start-stop method of Mudvayne. Nifty and discontent basslines add a systematic resonance that works in cohesion with the percussive flair. As I am a massive fan of drums, these are the real treat for someone like me. Salient snare and crashing cymbals set a relatively modest pace while the footwork goes about adding the fills, flavors and variation. Bursts of double-bass can change tempo midway without pausing, and extended double-bass sections are all capably handled.
The stand-out track on this release, for me, is most definitely 'Black'. It is a neat display, in a single song, what the band are capable of. It starts out with super-catchy guitar riffage that will stick in your head for days. Multiple guitar riffs, multiple riff changes. Blissful, almost spiritual guitar effects. Uncompromising vocal delivery. Relentless double-bass throughout. The outright irony of a gentle tinkling piano in the background contrasting in mood to the dense guitars, bass, and jackhammer kick drums at the forefront. This track is beautifully organized chaos.
Only time will tell whether or not the band decide to try and give it another go, with or without the same vocalist. One thing is certain, this band is made up of incredible musicians who present a truly awesome dexterity with their respective instruments. Not happy to settle for one genre, what's normal, or what's expected of them, they took it upon themselves to achieve what others could never do, let alone own.
All songs are free and available for download at the band's Bandcamp page.
Thanks to Miles McClintock and Ben Monroe for taking the time to shed some light on the finer points of some of the details.
This review wouldn't be complete without me urging you to check out Miles' current and active band, Submerged. In fair contrast to Signs Of Life, this Des Moines hardcore/metal band has a more straightforward, no-holds-barred approach that also aptly displays McClintock's drumming ability... although on a somewhat lesser scale.
Note that this review was written for the [Midwest Mayhem] website, where an edited version of this review is published. The version that you are reading on this page is the original. This review is published on this website with permission.
Further note that this review also appears on the [HammerFist Rose] website, in its unedited, original form.
Signs Of Life's 'Versatile' EP is available to download now for FREE on Bandcamp.
Signs Of Life (Bandcamp)
Signs Of Life (Facebook)