Charismatic Leaders

rating icon 8 / 10

Track listing:

01. Empire
02. Porcelain
03. Submission
04. Saboteur
05. Disciple
06. Caught in the Afterglow
07. The Freeze

Powerful, melodic and pointedly experimental, WHEEL have steadily become one of the most reliably original bands in the post-djent, prog metal world. Many bands have followed in the wake of PERIPHERY, TESSERACT, KARNIVOOL and other pioneering forces in heavy music, but few have found such a unique niche as this shape-shifting Finnish crew.

Their third full-length, "Charismatic Leaders" is almost entirely bereft of the cliches that once threatened to swamp the modern scene, which makes WHEEL true progenitors of originality, rather than just another band pursuing the latest, forward-thinking formula. In much the same way that TESSERACT's "War of Being" deviated from the norm with gleeful abandon, so these songs often seem to come from a self-contained and limitless compositional world, where exploring the possibilities of emotionally charged heaviness is far more important than chucking polyrhythmic riffs at the wall to see what sticks.

Interestingly, WHEEL have mastered both the rambling, intricate epic and the succinct, impactful four-minute detonation. Opener "Empire" belongs to the latter camp: its churning, hypnotic rhythms underscoring melodic ideas that are as finessed as they are immediate. Frontman James Lascelles clear, cool voice swims around in the upper strata of the mix, his soulful charisma self-evident as each delicate melody chimes perfectly with the deceptively complex riffing that WHEEL execute with smooth precision. More so than on any previous album, there is a unity of atmosphere that dominates "Charismatic Leaders", irrespective of the intricacy or magnitude of each individual piece. Thus, a towering epic like "Submission" fulfills everything that fans could ask of it, from constantly evolving bedrock of tech-friendly guitar work to Lascelles's beautifully nuanced vocals, while also delivering endless memorable and straightforwardly melodic moments that emerge from an often-bewildering squall of progged-out heaviness. "Saboteur" is equally startling. Its many twists and turns satisfying prog metal's need for convolution smartly offset by the directness of WHEEL's approach. One or two slight drifts into unadorned indulgence aside, "Charismatic Leaders" is a gripping and absorbing listen, and even when they stretch out into longer form experiments, the Finns never forget to forge the organic, human connection that draws people in.

It all sounds gorgeous too, even at its most brutal, but particularly when WHEEL take a step back and let their ideas breathe. "The Freeze" is a glistening peach of a song, with charm and gentle melancholy in abundance as Lascelles elegant vocal glides across a wonderfully restrained miasma of ghostly guitars and featherweight percussion, precipitating the slowest of build-ups that initially threatens to withhold its payoff, but that eventually erupts into a deeply satisfying maze of riffs and ambient embellishments with hints of spidery, post-punk guitar, and stuttering, discordant riffs that lead guitarist Jussi Turunen uses as a launchpad for a truly extraordinary, out-there solo. Once over that dynamic peak, WHEEL simply head off into orbit, revisiting the song's initial haziness, steering it towards graceful closure, and then erupting once again into craggy, ensemble syncopation. It's impressive, yes, but it also exerts great emotional weight: the WHEEL approach in essence. "Charismatic Leaders" cements this band's subtly unique sound and makes the freshness of their approach more apparent than ever before.

Author: Dom Lawson
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