Warforged – I: Voice

Consider the metal albums over the last decade or so that have received near-universal acclaim from critics and fans. The names that come to my mind include such releases as Vektor’s Terminal Redux, Mgła’s Exercises in Futility, and Rivers of Nihil’s Where Owls Know My Name. One common thread among these crowd-pleasers is that they tend to be a band’s second or third album; they’ve taken a couple of releases to find their footing and refine their sound, then it all finally comes together a few years into their career. Comparatively, very few bands launch their careers by throwing 100 miles per hour right out of the gate. Chicago’s Warforged, however, is one of those rare exceptions to this rule: their forthcoming debut, I: Voice, is a full-blown masterpiece that should instantly cement the group in the elite tier of modern metal acts.

A band that excels in its nascent years often has an impressive musical pedigree, and that holds true here: Warforged comprises members of lesser-known but modestly impressive bands such as Vukari, Roman Ring, Screams of Winter, and Enfold Darkness. Seeds of the members’ individual talents and technical prowess can be detected in those discographies, but nothing in their pasts matches the euphoric chemical reaction wrought by the mixture of their elements. Beyond simply the sharpness of the skills each members brings to the table, the compositions are diverse and dynamic, the art and concept are immersive and thoughtful, and the production masterfully balances the intense elements in order to ease the audial burden that sixty-plus minutes of crushing metal can provide (glaring at you, Terminal Redux). Seriously, the first time I finished a full listen of I: Voice, I wanted nothing more than to immediately start it from the top a second time. There was no semblance of fatigue or boredom at any point along the journey.

And that journey! The flow and construction of the album—something that matters a great deal to me—is among the best of any record in any genre I’ve experienced. A novel trick that Warforged pulls is inserting relaxing atmospheric lulls into each track, often stopping a brutally heavy section on a dime to let the track breathe, and then transitioning between tracks gaplessly during one of those massive sections, disorienting the listener from being able to discern when one song ends and another begins. Multiple times throughout my first few listens, I would think for sure that I just heard a track transition, but nope, there’s three minutes left in this song, and then six minutes later, I had never heard the actual track transition that apparently occurred three minutes ago! To be clear, I am lauding this phenomenon, not criticizing it. The seamless presentation of the music reminds me of Meshuggah’s magnum opus Catch Thirtythree and Transatlantic’s prog epic The Whirlwind. The fluidity of the tracks, combined with the insertion of within-track respites, ensnares the listener for the full duration of the album and facilitates rapid onset Stockholm syndrome so that the prisoner enjoys every minute of their mental captivity.

It’s a testament to the quality of this album on an artistic design level that it’s taken me three paragraphs to even get to a point where I’m prepared to talk about the band’s actual music. What is Warforged, for the uninitiated reader? They lie somewhere between a more vicious Rivers of Nihil, a less relentless Slice the Cake, a less mechanical Allegaeon, a blackened Fallujah . . . they fuse pieces of every incarnation of modern prog metal, blackened death, deathcore, and djent, but cannot be suitably tied down by any one of those descriptors.

To get a little more in-depth, let’s take a microscope to the album’s opening three tracks. “We’ve Been Here Before” kicks things off with one of my absolute favorite curveballs, the distorted fade-in that makes your heart race, then suddenly subsides to a clean keyboard motif. (Skagos did this on Anarchic, with feedback building to . . . a sudden pivot to clean electric chords. Brilliant!) After a brief moment, the band properly slams in with some \(\frac{7}{4}\) heavy chords, then initiates their earnest sonic onslaught with a barrage of blast beats. A \(\frac{5}{4}\) transition leads to a quick acoustic segue to another grinding double bass and blast tradeoff, supported by a hefty bellow by vocalist Adrian Perez (who lays the distortion on pretty densely to accentuate his screaming, something not frequently seen among bands of this style). At 2:22, a melodic guitar lead (not quite a solo, but better than anything I can play) accompanies the next vocal segment, as the \(\frac{5}{4}\) bass-and-drums rhythm hammers away. Blasts and chugs at 3:25 are met by an emotive synth solo, which drops out into an acoustic and piano interlude straight out of the peak-Opeth playbook. Solo piano provides a false transition before the band returns for a slower-tempo, blackened-sludge romp to carry the final two minutes of the tune. “I am alone again”, Perez shrieks over the waves of guitar heaviness; the music here, in stark contrast to the dissonant and angular ferocity of the song’s first half, is fraught with pathos and contemplation, extended chord structures bringing a faint jazzy quality to the metallic motives. Prominent bass from Alex Damske cuts through the heavy chords to showcase another tool in the band’s arsenal. One song into their debut, Warforged has already displayed a capacity for combining dissonant chaos with emotional weight that I haven’t seen since I raved about The Hirsch Effekt’s Eskapist in 2017. Just as this sinks in, the first true transition hits, with “Beneath the Forest Floor” opening with a \(\frac{6}{4}\) thrash breakdown quickly girded by a dizzying underbelly of pulsing electronic pads. Perez’s voice dips down to reveal a guttural dimension; Jason Nitts displays preternatural stamina and precision behind the drum kit. The clarity and crispness of the production on the chugging pulses is shocking. A legitimate guitar solo (possibly a guest? this record is loaded with high-quality guest spots) closes the first half of the song’s heaviness, replaced by placid acoustic guitar that eases listeners into another Opeth-inspired set piece before the heavy guitars and drums return to hammer down on a single dissonant chord, then a descending riff for a chorus of sorts. Piano provides the melody element for a bit as the guitars chug away, before another breakneck stoppage sees the return of the chorus motif on acoustic guitar. Another false transition with synth and piano occurs, and we even get a smattering of flute lilting over the atmospherics—an absolutely incredible piece of compositional maturity here, the restraint and simplicity of the harmonic elements evincing a top-flight caliber of musical craftsmanship. Naturally, the band juxtaposes their most beautiful and ethereal part yet with their most chaotic part yet, the introduction of “Cellar”, featuring low-pitched cluster chords on piano and frenetic drum and guitar patterns, approaching Ulcerate and Dodecahedron in their intentional repulsiveness. At the 1:37 mark, this dissonance turns a corner to suspend an unresolving melodic progression, first with held-out chords then recapitulated with more complex guitar calisthenics. This glides into another acoustic-and-flute section—vibes of Xanthochroid, perhaps—which concludes with yet another false transition as the sound actually dies out completely before a variant acoustic guitar and keyboard section fades back in. The band hangs out in this calm musical clearing for a while this time, slowly building and layering another utterly gorgeous harmonic idea, which leads flawlessly into a metallic extension of itself when the full band returns at the 4:55 mark. More jazzy chord structures here evoke acts like 明日の叙景 (Asunojokei), and another solo (almost certainly a guest, judging by the guitar tone) shreds masterfully at first over bass, then over full-band blasts. I have failed to highlight the fact that almost every single heavy part on the album thus far—whether a chug pattern or a more complex technical passage—has been in a nonstandard time signature or combination of time signatures. There is absolutely not one moment of lazy composition or wasted potential. Even when the individual instruments aren’t moving much, e.g. parts I’ve described as guitars hammering a single chord, the overarching structure of the passage is itself wrapped in layers of complexity. Another such dynamic and heady rhythmic pattern leads to a familiar acoustic break and a heavy return to the melodic theme introduced earlier in the song on acoustic instruments. “Cellar” climaxes, then flows into “Nightfall Came”, but I have to stop at this point.

If the album ended here, it would already be a worthy candidate for Album of the Year conversations and Wow, Watch Out for This Band conversations—guys, we have not even covered one third of the material yet, and there is not even a slight dip in quality for the whole rest of the ride. I haven’t even gotten to talk about the howling wails of a guest vocalist on “Voice” or the jazz-noir middle of “Willow” yet, and it doesn’t even matter, because I don’t want to spoil all the incredible creativity Warforged has yet to expend throughout the rest of the album. There are nitpicks, but they are minor and easily forgivable; Perez’s overreliance on distorted vocals (and a total absence of cleans anywhere on the album, although you could pretty convincingly argue they wouldn’t fit well) can be a bit grating, and the individual instrument virtuosity, while far beyond the level of many bands, is not at the absolute pinnacle alongside artists like Allegaeon, Persefone, and Unexpect. That said, when it comes to pure extreme metal—windows-down-car-blasting, shock-your-distant-cousins-with-your-listening-habits, head-banging, fist-pumping, no-frills, capital-M Metal—I think Warforged’s debut is the best album released in that style in at least a decade. I only pray that the band is given their proper due, not penalized for being so good so quickly, and that I: Voice gets listed next to some very small numbers on year-end countdowns as it rightfully deserves.