I really hate being heavily reliant on comparisons to past work in order to form a judgement, but in the case of Paul D'Amour (aka Feersum Ennjin), it's hard not to. As the former bassist for Tool, one of most prolific and undeniably best progressive bands today, it's difficult to take him on his own terms and out from under the spectre of his work with them in the past. Somewhat unfortunately, this is especially with his newest release, the eponymous Feersum Ennjin.
Believe me, I am loathe to rely heavily on a comparison of an artist to a single other band, and in any other circumstance, I wouldn't be. Unfortunately, I feel almost like I have to here, if only because this album sounds shockingly similar to Tool's Undertow, albeit with a much more straightforward presentation. It's almost as if D'Amour is consciously trying to maintain Tool's so familiar brooding façade in order to mask what significant steps away from the band he has actually made.
Unfortunately, the vocal work just can't compare with Keenan, and since the style tries so hard to retain that Undertow-esque obfuscating broodiness, it's hard not to compare the two. Actually, the vocals are especially noteworthy for how incredibly whiny they are. This is especially true of tracks like "The Wilderness" that are hampered immensely by the almost nasal quality of the singing, as well as the otherwise solid ballad-esque "Solid Gold", which feels like it's actively being held back by the limitations of D'Amour as a vocalist.
The standout track is definitely "The Fourth", featuring Tool drummer Danny Carey. This is truly the only song on the album that feels like it has a developed, thoughtful structure to it. It begins with a softer, melodic section, reminiscent of Pink Floyd with its slow, reverent melancholy. This section fades out about halfway through into a moment that really allows Carey's drumming ability to shine, and the entire piece gathers more energy and becomes a much darker rocker until the end. It's difficult to describe accurately with words, but it's definitely the only piece that leaves you truly satisfied.
That's not to say there aren't a few other good pieces. "Fishing Grounds", for example, is another strong track with its heavy bass and inexplicably enjoyable 5/4 main melody; "U-Boats" is a particularly strong melodic ballad with some characteristic grime on it; and "Dragon" has some wonderfully misleading 4/4 patterns to play against the solid vocal drives. But these moments are few and far between, and don't necessarily make the whole album worth your time.
Really, other than those few gems here and there, most of the album seems to fall flat. Again, I hate to bring it back to Tool like this, but the songs just don't feel generally as interesting or inspired as his work on Undertow while still sounding incredibly similar. Since he's staying so close to his work with them, you'd expect it to be at least on par, but the fact is that it's several steps below his previous work. It's not unenjoyable, I grant you, but it is still a bit disappointing as a whole.
Feersum Ennjin is the work of essentially one man with the assistance of a few close friends. All the songs were written by former Tool bassist Paul D'Amour, who has been floating around from project to project since his departure in late 1995. But before you Tool fans get too excited, it is my duty to inform you that the material heard on this EP shares more in common with D'Amour's work in Lusk and Replicants than it does with Tool.
The key to successful album is a great opening track. If you can't catch the audience's attention with that first one, you've failed. That being said, "Lines" is a fantastic opening cut. It begins with on-the-move basslines accentuated with hard hitting drumming. Handling the duties behind the kit is Self mastermind Matt Mahaffey. As the song continues to develop, D'Amour's harmonious vocals flow with the groove of the song, while the chorus features a group of voices quite reminiscent of 80's new-wave. Combine all these elements and you end up with a sound similar to that of 30 Seconds to Mars.
Feersum Ennjin slow the pace down a tad on the next two tracks. "Solid Gold" brings to mind Failure, with its spacey and intricate guitar melodies. On "U-Boats," D'Amour focuses on electronic experimentation, using vocal effects as well as the interjection of a piano. The experience is perfected with a guitar solo from Korel Tunador as the sludgy basslines push the song towards into its climax. There are so many layers to this track, almost as much texturing as there is on a Pink Floyd disc.
The song that contains the extension of Tool circa D'Amour's departure is "Dragons." The guitar tone fits perfectly with that of Undertow. More particularly, the ending sequence faintly resembles the later portion of Tool's "Flood." Coincidently, that is my favorite Tool song. D'Amour brings the album to a close with the electronic heavy "Thin Air," which is essentially an experimental soundscape of various synths and effect-laden guitars overlaid. It's a nice ambient piece and a great way to bring things full circle.
Obviously, Feersum Ennjin is not a vehicle to return D'Amour to the forefront of alternative music, though I doubt that it was his intention when he was writing these songs. In fact it is quite irrelevant. No matter the intentions, D'Amour and Mahaffey have comprised a striking debut that fans of spacey-rock and early industrial-alternative crossovers will enjoy.
6.0 / 10
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