Disperse: 'Living Mirrors' roundtable review
Disperse, the Polish progressive metal band featuring guitar prodigy Jakub Żytecki, are releasing their long-awaited sophomore album 'Living Mirrors' tomorrow, February 15th. Over the past few years Jakub has managed to build a substantial fanbase through his solo work, so a lot of people are looking forward to this album. We decided it was time for another roundtable review!
We talked a lot, so for easier reading the discussion is divided into seven sections. Scroll down to the end if you're interested in the scores. If you aren't familiar with Disperse yet, check out the song 'Unbroken Shiver' and the video clip for 'Enigma of Abode' below.
The participants of this roundtable review are:
How familiar are we all with Disperse's debut album, 'Journey Through the Hidden Gardens', and Jakub's solo work? A lot of the material on this album is based on songs that Jakub has previously released under his own name.
benanne: I've been following everything that Jakub has been doing ever since we started covering him on the site, which was early 2010. I've heard their first album, but it's not really my thing: it's a little too 'ethereal'. But I'm a huge fan of his solo work.
Clarity: I'm also quite familiar with Disperse's first album and Jakub's work. The former was a bit too proggy for my tastes, but Jakub's solo work is pretty cool, and I've been following him for a couple of years or so.
xCessivePressure: I was aware of Jakub's previous solo work, but I didn't know a great deal about Disperse's first album. I gave it one or two listens, and I quite enjoyed it, but it's different.
Meowzer: I didn't really know anything about anything! I knew that Jakub played a guest solo on David Maxim Micic's 'Bilo 2.0', so this was really the first time I'd heard Disperse, aside from hearing the pre-production version of 'Unbroken Shiver'.
Zyglrob: I listened to Disperse's first album briefly about six months ago, and I thought it was really cool and smooth, but I too thought it was a bit too over-the-top with the prog and a little unrelenting with that aspect of the music. I'd heard the first version of 'Unbroken Shiver', which was pretty groovy and which got me more interested. I know Jakub's solo work quite well: he's soloed for countless artists from around the world. I first got into him because I really like David Maxim Micic and Modern Day Babylon, whose work is quite similar. It was because of their music, along with Jakub's solo material, that I decided to check out Disperse in a bit more detail.
What were your initial thoughts on 'Living Mirrors' after one or two listens?
benanne: I was very impressed. It really lived up to my expectations.
Clarity: It made a good impression on me. It was similar to what I expected it to sound like, so I wasn't that surprised by it, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I suppose I expected it to sound more djenty and heavier, because of 'Unbroken Shiver' which was released before the album.
Zyglrob: That set a bit of a precedent, yeah.
xCessivePressure: The first impression for me was quite deceiving! I enjoyed the album, but I was surprised by how similar it was to Jakub's solo work. From what I'd heard on the first album, I expected something different.
Meowzer: I can't really say I thought too highly of it. I listened and couldn't really find anything outstanding, unique or catchy, but overall it was a nice listen. It wasn't something I felt compelled to sit through and analyse over and over.
Zyglrob: It was similar to what I expected, but I thought it was a quite convoluted, especially in the first half, which I felt was oversaturated. Also, I expected a little more from Jakub, in a sense. His solos are still very complex and technical and convey a lot of emotion, but considering his technical abilities I was expecting something a little more 'out of the box'.
Quite a lot of the motifs and riffs on the album sound similar to other artists: you can hear a lot of Animals As Leaders and Periphery in there, which is perhaps to be expected: this is, I guess, where a lot of his inspiration comes from. But there was also a lot of similarity to the work of David Maxim Micic and Destiny Potato. And actually, in terms of catchy riffs and how well the songs are composed, I think David has a slight edge. After one or two listens, I thought, "this is 'Bilo', but a bit lighter".
benanne: It's interesting that you'd bring up that comparison, because most of the material for this album was written before David's EPs.
Zyglrob: I'm not saying that one copied the other, I'm just saying that they write and play in a similar style, and I think that David has a better grasp of how to compose in this style than Jakub does. But David is older, and I think it shows that he has a little bit more experience.
Album version of 'Unbroken Shiver', track 9 on the album.
What do you think about the compositional balance and the pacing of the album?
xCessivePressure: I think they tried to put too much into one album. The ambient element, which is normally present in the background, worked well, but the vocals were a little overdone. On their first album the vocals were very subtle, but on this one they took up too much space within the sound.
Zyglrob: I think you've hit the nail on the head about the vocals. On the previous album, the vocals had a good spot in the mix: they didn't try too hard, they glided over the music, as it were. On 'Living Mirrors', I felt that the vocals were really forcing their way into the mix, especially in the first half of the album. That put me off from the start.
Meowzer: I think they did try to put a lot of content in there, especially in terms of vocals and heavy riffs and ambient runs, and yet nothing particularly stood out. If things did stand out, they didn't give much of anything else a chance to come through. The vocals were all over it, and they completely outshone the gimmicky tossing in of instrumental tracks across the album. I thought it was funny, looking at the press release, how many of the songs were labelled 'instrumental'. It's like they were trying to give everything breathing room in individual tracks, and it made nothing really stand out.
benanne: I disagree. They've placed an instrumental track between every two other tracks, roughly, and it really helps to pace the album.
xCessivePressure: I agree with Meowzer. Yes, there are interludes which are interesting and focus on other aspects of the music: for example, there is one with a bass solo. But when the vocals come in, they take over everything and you can't concentrate on the instrumental sounds.
benanne: I really don't think the vocals are that overpowering. It's not at all how I heard it. But I agree that compared to the first album, the production style focuses a lot more on the vocals and the heavier side of the guitar sound. I guess it's a lot more commercial in that sense. Personally, I think it really works.
Clarity: I agree with benanne: this album was not oversaturated, and especially not in terms of the vocals. 'Periphery II' is oversaturated; this was just fine.
benanne: I agree, Spencer is an awesome vocalist, but sometimes I wish he would just shut up for one minute!
Meowzer: I found myself thinking the same thing with this album, honestly.
benanne: In fairness, on 'Living Mirrors', the songs that do have vocals have them throughout the song.
Meowzer: Exactly, which is why I wish he'd shut up! There are these really entertaining and catchy low end pedalling grooves on some songs, such as 'Unbroken Shiver' and 'AUM', and as I listen I just think: "Let it breathe! Let it come out! At least make it crunchier or something!" Zyglrob was comparing it to David Maxim Micic's work earlier. The production in David's solo work is a lot more biased towards the rhythmic end of the music, and that's what I was expecting to hear on this album, especially having heard Jakub guest on David's work before.
benanne: Maybe that's the legacy they have from their previous album, back when they were more of a straight-up prog band. Even through they've discovered djent now, they don't seem to want to go all out with that sound, they want to keep their prog roots. What you hear on the album, compared to the demo version of 'Unbroken Shiver', is a lot heavier, but they didn't go all the way. I think that's a good thing actually, because there's a nice balance of the chugging, and the airiness of the previous album.
Zyglrob: Overall I found the instrumental tracks to be some of the more interesting material on the album, but like Meowzer said, they were a bit gimmicky. They felt a bit forced. If, rather than splitting these ideas up and putting them in separate tracks, they had tried to incorporate them into the main tracks and cut out some of the vocals, it would have made for a much more flowing and entertaining listen overall.
I felt that they included a good amount of ambient sounds, and this worked well. I'm not sure whether they just didn't realise that this sound was a strength of theirs, or whether they felt that by including more vocals they would appeal to a wider range of listeners, but I feel that if they had stuck with a more instrumental set-up and used the vocals a little more sparingly, it would have made for a better album.
I'm not saying cut them out of a whole song, but maybe just give the music a little more breathing room and let the ambient sounds come out a bit more. For example, the album closer 'AUM' was one of my favourite tracks because they allowed that to happen, and it felt a lot more natural than some of the tracks in the first half of the album.
benanne: You said they should have incorporated some of the instrumental bits into the songs; perhaps to some extent, the fact that they didn't do that was a psychological decision. I thought the interlude before 'Unbroken Shiver', 'Be Afraid of Nothing', was more like an introduction to the song than a separate track: it leads into the song very nicely, and it's one of my favourite moments on the album.
Zyglrob: I actually quite like that moment as well: 'Be Afraid of Nothing' isn't overstated as a song, and felt like a nice balance. However, there were other ones, such as 'Butoh' and 'Wow!', which felt slightly unnecessary. In 'Wow!', I didn't really like the use of sampled speech. I think that it was unfitting, and that they should have let their instruments speak for themselves instead. It seemed to undermine the talent these musicians have to me, in a way.
Music video for 'Enigma of Abode', the second song on the album.
When comparing 'Living Mirrors' with their previous work, do you think Disperse have progressed as a band? Do you think that this is a stronger album than 'Journey Through The Hidden Gardens', or do you think that maybe, if they had gone in a direction more similar to their debut, they would have made a better album?
benanne: I really, really like the direction that they've taken. And it's not just about the style of music: I also think it's been a really good decision for them, because this is a commercially viable album. It will sound fresh to a lot of people who have been saying "djent is growing stale" and "djent is just metalcore with slightly syncopated chugging". This album shows them that djent can be something else as well.
Zyglrob: I never looked at it that way. That's interesting.
Clarity: Of course they have progressed with this new album: the vocals especially have improved a lot. Composition-wise it's also more elaborated and sophisticated. And I also think the album makes them even more accessible to people. Not to say that the first one was inaccessible, but I feel this one brings some new elements as well.
benanne: Actually, I would say that the first album that they did wasn't very accessible. I gave it a couple listens, but I couldn't really get into it. It doesn't have any growling or screaming or whatever, but you have to be very focused to get into it.
Zyglrob: You have to be within the 'prog niche', as it were.
benanne: Yeah, the new one is a bit more 'easy-listening'. I mean, I can just put this album on in the background, though it will attract my attention of course because there's some very interesting stuff going on there.
Meowzer: Yeah, how do you ignore autotune, right?
benanne: I think they used it very tastefully! And it's not that he needs it, he can pull it off live as well.
Meowzer: Well, I can't really comment on their progression since I know almost nothing of the band's prior work, but I can agree that it is easy-listening. For me it was a bit of a background album: it's not as though it's something I'm never going to listen to again, and it's not an album I would deliberately skip past, but it's just not terribly outstanding to me.
xCessivePressure: They definitely took a different direction compared to the debut, I'd say this is not so much Disperse playing as a band; on this album, you can hear that Jakub really leads the band.
Zyglrob: I agree that it is a much more accessible album than the first one: there are some really big choruses and catchy hooks, especially in the latter part of the album. Track 12, 'Choices Over Me', has a really big chorus, on a level with anything you'd hear on the radio during the day. Anyone could get into that. Another really memorable moment on the album was the ending to 'Message From Atlantis'. It's really well-written because it takes one melodic riff and uses it over and over again, but it still manages to create a huge climax and gives a really good aesthetic to the music. It's really good to listen to, and it's a moment in the album I kept returning to.
benanne: When Meowzer said the album was easy-listening earlier, I think he may have meant something different than I. He implied that he put it on in the background while he did some work or something, but what I meant was more similar to what Zyglrob said: it's catchy, so you don't really have to dig into it to appreciate it.
Zyglrob: Yeah, you don't really have to think while listening to it, as you would with some bands. It's a very catchy album, but I also think that if they'd found a bit more of a balance between the catchiness of this album and the musicality of the first album, and if they'd taken a bit less of a polarising turn with things like the autotuned vocals, it would have been more effective.
The autotune was something I really disliked about the album: for me, 'Unbroken Shiver' was one of the songs I was most looking forward to, but the autotune felt really wrong to me. It stuck in my head for the wrong reasons: whenever I remembered it, I just thought "fuck, this is awful!" instead of "I really like that bit". So perhaps they took it too far in that direction.
But, like benanne said, it's still a solid release, its going to open a lot of doors for them. And actually, now that you've mentioned it being a new way of expressing the djent sound, I think that that's very true, and it will probably get a lot of attention from that. It doesn't really have many chugs or breakdowns, but that's not because they consciously chose not to, it's because the music doesn't need it. It's a completely different type of music, and that's obviously going to be something that they can draw on in future work as well.
xCessivePressure: My favourite was 'Unbroken Shiver', but I really disliked the autotuned vocals, the Cynic influence. The riffs and the instrumental work on the song are impressive, and I wish we could have heard more of that side of the music instead.
Clarity: My favourite songs are 'Touching the Golden Cloud' and 'Message From Atlantis'. They both have a lot in common, and most of all I loved the subtle female vocals at the end of both songs: when they join in with the main tune, its sounds so amazing. If there were more songs like this on the album, it would be a masterpiece.
Meowzer: my favourite song is the last one, 'AUM'. I found that it had not just the most progressive sound, but the most progression within the song. It was long, and that doesn't necessarily have to mean anything, but it gave it a lot of breathing room. I think it needed that, because every other song just seems so crowded with trying to do too many things and throwing them all on top of each other. It gave a lot of breathing space to the vocals, and also to the heavy rhythmic parts, which really stood out, but also weren't maintained unnecessarily throughout the entire song. 'AUM' was the only song which I could recognise when it came, aside from hearing autotune and thinking "oh, this is 'Unbroken Shiver'!".
benanne: Both of my favourite songs have been named already! I think my absolute favourite is 'Touching the Golden Cloud'. I like its atypical song structure: the first half is a big build up, the second half is the climax, and that's basically all there is to the song. The transition between the two halves is my favourite part of the album, and the female vocals were also a really nice surprise when I first heard it. My other favourite is 'AUM', basically because of the things Meowzer said: it's a short prog epic! It's very versatile: you can listen to the one song and get an idea of all the aspects of the band's sound. As a song, it's very representative of the album as a whole.
Zyglrob: 'AUM' is one of my favourites too. It's like a microcosm of their sound, and it's probably the strongest song because of the way it allows all the different elements to come through in their own time, rather than all at once. This happens partly because it's the longest song, but also because it's the last song. They probably wanted to let things go a little bit and try new things out, perhaps to show the listener where they're going to go next with their music. I know Jakub had already written the song, but it's a reworked version and it is different.
'Message From Atlantis' is by far the most memorable song, but overall the second half of the album is more memorable. At first, I wasn't really so aware of the second half, but as I listened to the album more it grew on me a lot more than the first. It's interesting that two of you have named 'Touching the Golden Cloud' as your favourite song, because I've listened to the album 8 or 9 times and I can't remember for the life of me how it sounds! I don't know why, but it seems to have completely passed me by. I'm not sure why that is: maybe it will grow on me more in time, but at the moment it's not one that sticks with me. I'd say that 'Unbroken Shiver' has the most momentum as a song. It's the most metal song on the album, and the djentiest song, and it has the most kick with it, with the chuggy riffs.
benanne: Actually, there are some pretty heavy moments in 'AUM'. Certain parts of that song are probably the heaviest moments on the album.
Zyglrob: Yeah, but I think 'AUM' is a bit less intense overall, with it being at the end of the album and being spread out over a longer period. The ambient sounds that surround the grooves in 'AUM' even it out a bit, whereas 'Unbroken Shiver' doesn't have that so much. It has a pretty intense solo in it, like many songs do across the album, and that's probably why I felt it was the most energetic.
The band's current lineup, from left to right: Jakub Żytecki (guitar), Rafał Biernacki (vocals, keyboards), Maciek Dzik (drums) and Wojtek Famielec (bass).
Does the album flow well?
benanne: I think it does. As I said before, I think the instrumentals provide some relief during the album, and I don't think anything should be changed.
xCessivePressure: for me, it's not that it didn't flow well, more that it flew too well! The whole thing went by too fast. There was a lot going on, and compressing it all into a bunch of short songs makes the album listenable, but you can't appreciate things like the groove of a song or the little touches of guitar. Although it flowed well as a song, I think the vocals in 'Unbroken Shiver' could've been reworked, maybe a little like the song 'Letter Experiment' by Periphery, to make it flow better and create a little more breathing space for the rhythm and groove.
Meowzer: I like the comment that it 'flew too well'. Everything just went by when I was listening to it the first time. It sucked me off of the bank of a river, and I thought "ok, so I guess I'm going to the end". I listened all the way through, but not terribly intensely: my mind wandered, I started thinking about other things, and now and then I would tune back in and realise that the album was still playing.
xCessivePressure: I got the same feeling. I had to give the album a lot of listens: I listened to it about 10 or 12 times just to get the elements I felt I'd missed. You miss a lot of things on a first listen.
benanne: I think that's a good thing.
xCessivePressure: yeah, it's a good thing that there's a lot going on, but like I said, the music is a bit too compressed and you can't truly appreciate much of it.
benanne: I was talking to Zyglrob earlier about the female vocals, and he replied, "what female vocals?"
Meowzer: I was thinking the same thing when Clarity first mentioned that there were female vocals! I've listened to the album 8 or 9 times and I didn't notice them.
benanne: They're quite subtle, but this sort of shows that perhaps Clarity and I were slightly prejudiced towards liking the album. When I first listened to it, I was listening really intently, and I don't usually do that with an album, I usually just stick it on while I'm working. For this album I really just sat down and listened. Maybe this affects our perception of it.
Meowzer: I guess, but I did try to listen to it thoroughly, I just found it impossible. I'd get to the end of the album and go "I'm on this song again! That was so fast!"
Zyglrob: I was in a similar frame of mind to xCessivePressure and Meowzer: the album seemed to go past quite quickly for me as well. I wasn't able to appreciate all the things that I knew were there, like all the great solo work Jakub does all over it. It's fine to listen to as you're listening to it, but afterwards it feels like a bit of a blizzard where you don't know what flew past at what time.
But I agree with benanne: if you could hear everything that happened in an album after one listen, then there would be no point in listening to it again so it wouldn't be a great album. With great albums, you pick new things up all the time: for example, when I was reviewing 'Måsstaden' I listened to it twice a day for a month, if not more, and each time I'd hear at least five new things. And I still do, that's why it's a great album. I don't know whether this will happen with me with 'Living Mirrors', but there are quite a lot of things that I'm sure I haven't heard yet, like the female vocals. I'm sure the album has more potential in it than we've given it credit for in this review, because we haven't had it for that long really.
benanne: xCessivePressure and Zyglrob both brought up before that the album is too dense, that there's not enough breathing space, which is interesting because it's actually 55 minutes long, it's not a short album.
Zyglrob: Yeah that's about how long people's attention span is for an album. Periphery's albums are about 75 minutes and that's definitely too long for an album.
benanne: Yes, I thought the length of this album was pretty much perfect. It wasn't an EP, like Veil Of Maya's latest.
Video of Jakub playing through some riffs from the album, posted last summer.
Zyglrob: I thought the production didn't have anything notable about it. It's pretty solid, there's nothing inherently wrong with it. It's not a Structures album, there's nothing that sounds terrible, but at the same time it's not really a very important aspect of the album. I don't think it really adds huge amount to the sound.
Meowzer: I think it's great. The qualms I have with it are only style choices by the band, for example subduing the heavy parts and bringing out the ambience. They did a good job keeping the vocals on the same volume and sharpness level as everything else on the album, which I appreciate because it doesn't scream in your face quite as much as say, Periphery.
Clarity: I don't usually pay much attention to the production but when I was listening to 'Unbroken Shiver' I instantly wanted to check if I really had a high bitrate copy of the album. The mix didn't sound quite right to me and I think this song lacked sharpness.
benanne: I agree that it's solid, but I have seen a few people remark that it sounds kind of muddy. I can't say that they are entirely wrong, but it hasn't bothered me either.
xCessivePressure: Me neither. I thought the overall mix and production were great and I noticed almost nothing that was wrong, except maybe that weird vocal part in 'Unbroken Shiver' that they could have done better. Comparing some of the songs with the originals from Jakub's solo project, it definitely sounds better and I think it really shows there was great production work on the album.
Clarity: I don't know if it's just me but I found it hard to know which song is which. My last.fm account says that I have listened to this album 21 times and I still can't completely be sure which song I'm listening to.
Zyglrob: No, that's not just you, I have exactly the same trouble and I think it's their sound as a band, because they write around Jakub and there's only so many ways you can improvise in a certain mode. I think that's just inherent in their sound as a band.
What can we expect the band to do next? Any thoughts?
Clarity: I think they will continue with the sound they have now. Maybe they'll add more heavy elements, like the djent influence.
benanne: I think Jakub's mentioned that he's going to do a solo record this year. I reckon he still has a lot of material left for future Disperse albums that's already written. Maybe 'Living Mirrors' is an experiment for them, because they've started to do the 'djent' thing, and I think they will see that this was a good decision. It's really going to make them quite big, so I think we can expect more of this in the future.
xCessivePressure: I think they'll continue in this genre. They went into a different direction compared to the first album, a bit more similar to Jakub's solo work. Future material from this band will also be a lot more influenced by Jakub's work than before.
Meowzer: I'm going to hold off on making any judgement calls until I hear what everybody else thinks. All the fans, all the people who are expecting a particular thing from them. They released 'Unbroken Shiver' but I haven't really been paying attention to the response from that. I believe the fans are going to determine where this band goes and what their sound is going to be a like. If this is a new thing, and if most of their fanbase is people like me and Rob, who don't really feel terribly excited about this, then they're probably going to change things a little bit.
Zyglrob: I think benanne's managed to convince me that this album will be a pretty good platform for them. I wasn't convinced the first time I heard it, but his argument that it's actually quite a new thing in djent, I think that's true. Along with Destiny Potato, they have quite a lot in common. They have the catchy riffs, the unique vocals, they tend to be less harsh and they write in a very specific style which focuses quite a lot on a big guitar hooks alongside some mindfuckery on the guitar, with amazing solos. I think it's a new thing that will start to expand within djent in the future. Disperse will definitely be a part of it for some time to come, because they are young musicians and they've shown that they're very versatile as a band. They have a lot of raw talent. They will be well off in the future, I think.
Meowzer: I'm not hoping they'll fall back into the shadows or anything, but I definitely feel that it's possible at this point. Just because of how different this is, and how much more 'chill' it is than the rest of 'djent'.
'Living Mirrors' album artwork.
benanne: I'm going to go with 9/10. I think Alex mentioned that he listened to it 21 times, for me the counter is at least at 30 right now. It's an album I keep coming back to, and I'm not quite tired of it yet.
Clarity: I'll give it 8/10. It's quite a solid album but there is still room for development. It's definitely a step up from their debut. On the next album I would like to hear more songs like 'Touching The Golden Cloud' and 'Message From Atlantis'.
Meowzer: I'll give it 6/10. It was okay for the most part but the autotune just makes me want to cry. I don't want to give it a lower rating because the album does have some merit. Basically it didn't strike me as interesting, I've listened to it 9 times and I can't even recall any but two songs by name. I know it's 'Unbroken Shiver' because of how awful it is, and I know it's 'AUM' because of how actually interesting it is to listen to. Those are the only two things that really caught my interest in the album, the rest was a waste of time.
xCessivePressure: I'll say 7/10. I thought the vocals took up way too much space, and it wasn't _that_ interesting or _that_ great. I can recall bands like Corelia, where the vocals have their place in the music, but with this album, I don't think they have to take up quite so much space. There's not enough breathing room for the content of the album, and I couldn't really identify the songs by name.
Zyglrob: I'll go for 7/10 as well. The reasons why I didn't like this album have already been mentioned, but I'd like to give a little bit of an explanation of why I didn't find this album particularly interesting: I'm probably just a person who likes dark music. Even with classical music, which I listen to a lot. This is sort of like the early Romantic period for me. It's similar to that in context, things like the string quartets of Schubert and Mendelssohn. It's interesting in a way and it's probably an important step for djent, but I just don't find it that gripping or inspiring. I can appreciate it for what it is and I'll probably listen to it again, but I don't think it'll be an album that stays in my playlist for long.
Thanks to the reviewers, and in particular to Rob Watson for taking the lead. Thanks also to Enrique Sagarnaga and everyone at Season of Mist.
Check out our previous roundtable reviews:
Meshuggah: 'Koloss' roundtable review
Veil Of Maya: 'Eclipse' roundtable review
Monuments: 'Gnosis' roundtable review
The Algorithm: 'Polymorphic Code' roundtable review
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