Instar – The Ex nihilo Cycle

Instar is a narration-driven progressive metal band based in Austin, Texas. Their debut album, the self-titled Instar EP, came out in January of last year, and was a pretty interesting insight into what the project could become. With their debut full-length coming right around the corner, we get a better glimpse into the promising future of their formula. As for what they currently offer, I’ll be reviewing that right here.

First of all, narration-driven music can’t be good if the narration itself isn’t. In a day and age where the posh British accent is revered amongst many media – just think of some popular television series, movies, or video games –, it’s refreshing to hear a new voice. The Israeli accent of Eden Kupermintz, which vaguely sounds like some German accents, will most likely be unheard of for many of you. You should get used to it, though, as it’s spoken clearly and rather slowly, so that no information is missed; more on that later. The Ex nihilo cycle is an ongoing science-fiction series of prose from Eden, which can be read in its entirety here. Instar’s album, The Ex nihilo Cycle takes some, not all, of these works and renders them into music. They are not in chronological order on the album, and they don’t represent a continuous storyline. I’m not even sure they all fit within the same universe, but I have assumed so up to now. The stories narrated go from interplanetary refugees, on “The Waters of Excess”, to more down-to-earth interpersonal stories, like on “Heart Surveying” and “One Word at a Time”, spanning a broad continuum of science-fictiveness quite elegantly.

One problem with the narration, however, is its antipodal nature to the music’s. Spoken word is often better listened to unaccompanied, or only faintly so. Speech has a lot of nuances, and it’s difficult to convey them accurately and clearly over pounding and heavily layered progressive metal music. Especially when said speech is modified by distortions, reverbs, delays, and panning. Sure, it serves some purpose, narratively speaking, but it does so at the expense of clarity. One of the prime examples of this is in “Heart Surveying”, where Eden’s voice gets an awful amount of distortion once the music kicks in. Whenever this effect is abled, the words become almost unintelligible amidst all the distorted guitars and drum hits. That’s the worst example, but you often need to concentrate a lot in order to make out what’s being said, even in other songs. This is a big flaw, for narrative music, and I honestly don’t know if the two sides are reconcilable.

The music is split into six tracks, making up over thirty minutes of material. Most of the tracks are melodic progressive metal with a focus on guitars and keyboards. Instar borrows a lot from djent and atmo-djent, with syncopated riffs in odd time signatures, clean guitars playing arpeggios or other reverberated chords adding to the atmosphere whose foundations were laid by the keyboards just before them. “Narrative Spire” is an atmospheric electronic track that provides an otherworldly interlude to the album. In general, the riffs are quite enjoyable, even if the genre has grown tired to me. It’s also difficult to judge how they reflect the texts they support on a riff-by-riff basis, but there is a handful of moments that immediately make sense and sound truly connected. The structure of the compositions is most fitting, however, which makes the flow of the music follow that of the text. All musicians play their parts excellently, even though I’m not a huge fan of Travis Orbin’s drums on the record. It’s not that the man isn’t scarily proficient on his instrument, but that the parts he play sound very paint-by-numbers, unoriginal. That’s more of a personal opinion and preference, though; if you like Travis’ usual appearances, you’ll most likely love this.

The Ex nihilo Cycle is not without its flaws, but it’s a more than decent experience. Reading the texts along to the songs is not a requirement, but it’s strongly recommended. There isn’t much improvement to be made to the project without throwing away some part of the formula. In my opinion, the progressive metal/atmospheric djent genre is too narrow a genre to craft a suitable soundtrack to elaborate and emotionally complex stories such as those found herein. The vocal effects are an interesting idea, but not a wise one when they are detrimental to the clarity of the message. I hope that Instar, as a band, is mature enough to surmount these obstacles to the improvement of their experiment in the future. For now, The Ex nihilo Cycle is an honest attempt and hopefully bridges the gap between the embryonic state of the Instar EP and the chef d’œuvre that its successor could become. Although it’s a bit imperfect, incomplete, it’s a rather enjoyable listen.

Disclaimer: I received an advanced digital copy of the album that I used to write this review. Moreover, two people from the band are friends and colleagues. I tried my best to remain consciously unbiased, but unconscious biases are inevitable. Take that into consideration when reading my review.

Band: Instar
Album: The Ex nihilo Cycle
Release date: 15 September 2017
Country: USA/Israel
Label: Independent

1. The Waters of Excess – 5:17
2. Heart Surveying – 7:19
3. Stepping Stones – 5:52
4. Narrative Spire – 4:00
5. One Word at a Time – 5:55
6. A Longing for a Home – 5:25
Total running time: 33:48

Greg Greenberg – bass, keyboards
Doug van Bevers – guitars
Nick Maini – guitars
Eden Kupermintz – lyrics, narration
Travis Orbin – session drums

Filetype listened to: CD/MP3
Bitrate: CD/320 kbit/s CBR
Sampling frequency: CD/44,100 Hz, 2 channels