Instrumental music so often gets a bad wrap. “No vocals?!” exclaims the bewildered listener. “How am I supposed to stay engaged? How can there be a story?!” they inquire – perhaps even belligerently. While, occasionally, many bands need the vocal element in their music to create a tether, or bond, between themselves and the listener – something to keep them from drifting off into the abundantly ethereal – this isn’t always the case. Enter Michigan-based progressive, heavy instrumental act I Speak In Calculus. Originally a technically marvelous but too-dense grindcore act, after a brief hiatus, they have returned as an instrumental two-piece, which, rather than rely on absurdly dense and intensely technical grind, utilize beautiful, progressive soundscapes to communicate with the listener. Case in point, their latest album, Giant Ash of the Earth, which is a collection of wonderfully written, masterful displays of musicianship which contrast detailed, hard-hitting heaviness against billowing, Edenic atmosphere to create an immersive and gripping concept album–without a single word being said, sang or screamed.
Giant Ash of the Earth begins much the same as the earth did: with a great, explosive bang. “The Pillage at Lindisfarne” is an enormously energetic kickstart to the album which casts it roaring into being. Driven by catchy, hooky electronic elements and technically brilliant riffing, the track is just what the listener needs to want to continue listening to the album. As I Speak In Calculus continue telling their story, their sound progresses right alongside them. As “The Pillage at Lindisfarne” morphs into “Bellows of the Sun and Moon,” the listener gets their only real hint of I Speak In Calculus’ former selves. Fill-heavy drumming and blistering, savagely dissonant riffs create a dense and grind-heavy feel which gives just enough head bang and energy to the listener without drowning them in it. Whether or not this is due to superior songwriting or just simply the lack of a tense, vocal onslaught is anyone’s guess, however, the fact of the matter is simple: Even when I Speak In Calculus get heavy, they don’t get dense. Their sound stays airy, crisp and fun, breaking the listener’s back without filling their lungs with cement in the process.
Approximately half-way through “Bellows of the Sun and Moon,” the band’s feel changes markedly. Progressing from shreddy, technical grind-influenced musicianship and into harmonic and ethereal riffing with more emphasis on groove, Giant Ash of the Earth makes its first metamorphosis. The new-found groove-centric orientation of the band is not only smooth and subtle at first, but wonderful. After kicking in the door and ravaging the listener with savage, stunning heaviness, the band progresses into a much catchier and metallic feel, providing the same awe-inspiring technicality with more catchiness and hooky songwriting. Case in point; the refrained riff towards the end of “Eight Legged Majesty.” It’s so stupendously catchy and enormously melodic that it will find a way–much like a spider–to burrow into the listener’s brain and stay lodged there for hours, days or, I would be willing to bet, weeks. This change in the band’s drive is not only marvelous for how smooth and naturally it flows, but how much it emulates the concept driving the album. As the nature of the beginning of the album was to serve as a figurative “big bang” to start it off, this second portion is almost a primitive formation of nature and beauty–the beginning of Earth’s true existence.
Like all things in nature, however, the truest state is equilibrium. It is this final stage which I Speak In Calculus reach at the apex of their album. Heaviness flows back and forth with smooth, jazz-influence melodies to create a dialectic so beautiful and natural that it simply lifts the listener out of their seat and places them atop a mountain, watching the world form. Great Ash of the Earth paints a stunning depiction of Earth’s formation, maturation and existence so detailed that it doesn’t so much “tell a story” as it does place the listener in the very midst of the nature that I Speak In Calculus’ music describes. “Secrets Between Scavengers,” one of the lengthier tracks on the release, does this in a two-part dynamic with “Ragnarok The End of Gods,” which bounce spine-shredding brutality and electronically-laced, jazzy riffs back and forth as if they were ping pong balls. While the guitars paint stunning, picturesque portraits of boundless beauty, the drums and electronic elements provide a firm, terrestrial anchor to the album, allowing a pervasive low-end filled with pounding double bass and rumbling bass riffs to reign as king of the album’s underworld. While these elements do, in some ways, contrast, they also work together. Without one, the other would drive the album into monotony and boredom. This is far from the case, as Great Ash of the Earth as nigh a dull moment to be heard.
Normally, I’m a vocal-centric listener, which means that instrumental acts tend to ring their own death knell when it comes to my opinion. However, the lack of a vocal element is just one step I Speak In Calculus took towards their ultimate ascension into their mastery of technical music. Laden with stunning, glorious riffs, catchy electronics and pounding, abrasive drumming, Great Ash of the Earth is simply as beautiful as the planet it describes. Unimaginable highs and boundless lows–along with everything in between–this album has it all. Don’t let the lack of vocals be mistaken for a reason you should lack desire to listen to it.