Austral Alien

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A decade into their career, Australia's Alchemist have only just begun to make inroads outside their isolated demi-continent. Lucky for listeners, since they signed with the Relapse label in 2000 and issued their fourth LP, Organasm, the group's uniquely inspired brand of sci-fi metal is no longer a well-guarded secret, delivering a breath of fresh air into a heavy metal scene that at the time was stagnant with the dreaded uniformity of nu metal. Now back with their fifth effort in 2003's Austral Alien, Alchemist seem consciously intent on taking advantage of their newfound international exposure, but hardly willing to compromise their long-held musical values in order to do so. Therefore, the resulting album offers a quite natural evolution for the quartet -- further removed from the ultra-harsh sonics of their death metal-intensive past and moving toward a surprisingly streamlined approach that easily marks this as their most consumer-friendly work to date. The drawn-out epics of days past have been summarily replaced by the immediacy heard on three-minute opener "First Contact," which paves the way for similarly uncluttered, tightly focused numbers like the pulsing "Great Southern Wasteland," the raging "Solarburn," and the psychedelically spaced-out "Speed of Life." Fans seeking the heavier crunch of yesteryear will have to content themselves with powerful examples like "Older Than the Ancients" and "Epsilon," but not even these are totally one-dimensional in their approach. In fact, check out the melancholy opening melody to "Nature on a Leash," which recalls the Cure's dark early-days experiments, to see how Alchemist keep things interesting throughout. In terms of an evolutionary curve, Alchemist's career path here resembles that of Canadians Rush, whose progressive rock excesses eventually gave way to an abbreviated style of intelligent hard rock (how's that for an oxymoron?). Following through with this assumption, Austral Alien is for Alchemist what, say, Permanent Waves was to Rush (see the increased use of synthesizers): a work of unquestionable merit and maturity that may nevertheless leave older fans yearning just a little for the excesses -- both successful and not -- of albums past.

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