Leave it to Thinking Plague to put things in proper perspective. On 2012's Decline and Fall, they see a planet reeling under humanity's monstrous assaults and reach an inescapable conclusion: "We are so fucked." Since its early-'80s founding, Colorado guitarist/composer Mike Johnson's avant-prog outfit hasn't often basked in sunny thoughts; for example, Thinking Plague's previous album, 2003's A History of Madness, concerned itself with the 13th century French Albigensian Crusade, in which perhaps a million people were slaughtered. But that's peanuts compared to what could await us. Thinking Plague are now collectively wearing sandwich boards that proclaim "The End Is Nigh!," but unlike a street-corner crackpot raving about apocalyptic myths while passers-by in the crowd avert their eyes, the band's doomsaying is based on science and reason. Too bad that today's crowd is now filled with myth believers, heedless of the scientific evidence pointing toward an unprecedented catastrophe ahead. Or, in fact, an unprecedented catastrophe happening now. "As the niggling 'pundits' forgo reason/Demagogic cranks imagine treason/Bears and toads and fish floating dead/As blackbirds in the thousands/Rain down from the sky," sings new Plague vocalist Elaine di Falco in Decline and Fall's opening track, "Malthusian Dances." In "I Cannot Fly," despair becomes personal: "I'm in crisis/Cannot take the leap!/We must not place hope/In fantasies." And so it goes throughout most of Decline and Fall, with the Earth finally emerging victorious only after we are erased by our own folly.
So, as we all march toward the precipice...what about the music? As those familiar with Thinking Plague's previous albums might reasonably expect, it is astounding. Johnson, di Falco, bassist Dave Willey, reedman Mark Harris, and newcomer drummer/keyboardist Kimara Sajn (plus three guests on bass and drums on two tracks) play the most complex, ever-changing, multi-layered musical suites anywhere in the avant-prog world, suggesting intricate contemporary chamber music often pounded out -- despite the leavening presence of Harris' soprano sax -- with the intensity of contrapuntal staccato jackhammers, generally maintaining relentless momentum despite its compositional fracturing and interludes of forbidding calm. Amidst all this, thank God -- oops, thank Cuneiform -- for the printed lyrics, because words can sometimes get lost in arrangements this complicated. As she sings Johnson's close-interval melodies, Di Falco's multi-tracked voice is fully entwined in the highly organized tumult, but some breathing room in the concluding triumphant "Climbing the Mountain" and the nearly 12-minute "A Virtuous Man" -- spacious enough to flirt with creative jazz and also nicely showcasing the talents of Harris and keyboardist Sajn -- helps in appreciating her appealing vocal qualities. Elsewhere, one might suppose the musicians were thoroughly caffeinated while immersed in the album's agitated dance of doom, but rest assured that Johnson would never serve his bandmates coffee from Starbucks, that most evil of corporate enterprises; in "Sleeper Cell Anthem" he rhymes the coffee chain's name with the aforementioned "We are so fucked." OK, fine, but perhaps some additional perspective: frappuccinos are not napalm.