Wednesday 20 March 2019

Borders of Byzantium - Odyssey (2019)

Country: Hungary
Style: Post-Hardcore
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 8 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

I was in an interesting discussion last weekend. My eldest son, who's a big fan of Alice Cooper, mentioned that his wife listens to screamo. She looked at him like he'd just arrived from a distant planet; she doesn't listen to screamo. she said, utterly puzzled that he'd even suggest such a thing. And, given that the only album of hers I've heard is by the Pretty Reckless, who are variously described as alternative rock, blues and post-grunge, I might be confused too. I'm still unsure as to what she thinks she listens to but the lesson is that genre labels can be problematic.

Case in point: Borders of Byzantium, who hail from Budapest in Hungary and tend to be described as post-hardcore. Now, apparently I've been failing to realise what post-hardcore is. I'd figured that if post-rock was all about creating soundscapes with traditional rock instruments, then post-hardcore must be about creating soundscapes using aggressive music and shouty vocals, which didn't sound appetizing to me at all.

Fortunately, that's not what it is and I'm very happy for this wake up call because I kind of like this. Now I need to ask my daughter-in-law if this is what she really listens to and, if it is, whether I can borrow her collection.

To me, the only evidence of hardcore here is in the shouty vocals of Bence Joó, of which I'm not particularly fond even though he does it well. That's just me; I've never been a fan of that style. The four musicians who play behind him and Marcell Oláh, who handles the clean vocals, don't sound like a hardcore band to me in the slightest. If I'd been asked to describe them blind, I'd have gone with heavy alternative rock or light progressive metal.

Wikipedia tells me that post-hardcore is a punk rock genre that "maintains the aggression and intensity of hardcore" but "emphasizes a greater degree of creative expression". There's certainly creative expression here, with the musical palette explored ranging all the way from Depeche Mode to Dream Theater, with a lot more of the latter than the former.

Initially, they're very progressive, with Alive led by the drums of Kristóf Tóth and the neat interplay between the two vocalists. There's interesting guitarwork in there too, behind them, though using a lot less notes than a prog metal band would use. The Same Old Game moves from soft keyboards to a bouncy riff and bouncier pulsing electronica, complete with hand claps. It's new wave with a crunch. Fortified adds a chanting vocal that hints at rap before launching an catchy chorus.

That's three different approaches in three songs and the rest of the album pretty much combines those in different ways. The only songs to really take a different approach are Like Flies and the album's closer, Drawn Circles, which are softer by a degree and generally driven by textured keyboards but for the moments when they decide to get epic. They're like synth pop songs that dream of power.

Like Flies is surely my least favourite song on the album and it's telling that it's followed by Two Sides, probably the heaviest track on offer, that would be metalcore with a different sound mix and with less Oláh and a lot more Joó. This band does like to keep it fresh. They've said that the band name was inspired by the diversity of the Byzantine Empire, which they like to emulate in what they call a "genre-bending musical style".

I surprised myself by enjoying this rather a lot. Not all these tracks are as catchy as they think they are and some of them sound rather similar to others, even as there's an agreeably diversity within them. They obviously put a lot of effort into creating contrasts too and I liked that. There's a lot of hard vs. soft, metal vs. rock and clean vs. shouty and that elevates the album considerably.

Clearly I need to listen to more post-hardcore to get an idea of what it's all about. Borders of Byzantium are a promising start. Maybe they're the beginning of another odyssey for me.

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