True fans of Tool will definitely respond to the name of Paul D'Amour – the band's original bass player, who introduced that distinctive bottom end on their debut album Undertow, before leaving in the mid-'90s to found the acclaimed psychedelic rock unit Lusk. Musically adventurous horror buffs should also check out his later work as a composer – especially his moody, unsettling score for Jeff Buhler's 2008 cannibal flick Insanitarium. Paul is tapping into that deep, dark well again for the full-length, self-titled debut of his experimental rock band Feersum Ennjin, which takes its name from the novel by cult sci-fi author Iain Banks (The Wasp Factory). Read on for a review of this heavy musical journey into the beyond...
D'Amour describes the origins of Feersum Ennjin as "a series of studio experiments [that] gradually took on a life of its own... All of the different musical experiences of my past took form as I found a melodic thread to tie them all together as one sound." If there's one component that does anchor most of these tracks it's Paul's unmistakable rhythmic wizardry, the same mojo that made Tool's early sound so distinctive... that's why it's even more exciting to hear the drums of Tool drummer Danny Carey on the opening track "The Fourth." It's the first time the two have played together since Tool's 1995 album Ænema (Paul shares guitar and bass duties this time) and it's definitely a welcome reunion.
And speaking of Tool... in many ways, Feersum's sound could be described as a slightly less experimental, more synthpop-flavored version of the legendary band, which is very apparent in the latter half of the D'Amour/Carey collaboration and really busts out in the following track "Fishing Grounds." D'Amour's vocals are warmer and less furious than those of Tool's Maynard James Keenan – except for a few screamy moments – but they fit the material well. To counterbalance the heavier groove comes the pensive pop number "Safeway" (one of several tracks which originally appeared on the band's 2005 EP), which also made its way onto the soundtrack for 2008 psychosexual thriller On the Doll.
I hate to keep dragging out the Tool comparisons, but the opening riffs and rhythms of "The Wilderness" will sound immediately familiar to fans of that band... that said, the verses have a smooth and lush sound that sets Feersum apart, especially when paired with edgy octave-up vocals and an acoustic break that explodes into furious tribal drumbeats. "Dragon," one of the most amazingly powerful cuts on the record, discards spacey moodiness in favor of a massive, trudging animal rhythm that will raise the hairs on your neck, especially when all the instruments fall in perfect lock-step. Jungle beats drive the steady pulse of "Lines," which has a fair share of pop-style vocal harmonies and showcases D'Amour's vocals nicely. The band veers into mid-tempo prog rock for "Solid Gold," with light, plinking synths and a wall-of-sound guitar, reminiscent of bands like Porcupine Tree... also signaling the end of the album's heavy first half.
From here on out, we take a gentle left-turn toward psychedelic pop, starting with the trippy blend of piano and backwards loops that steers "U-Boats" into a cosmic ballad, showcasing D'Amour's skill with vocal multi-tracking; "Magus" is a mellow chill-out number that doesn't really wander into interesting musical territory, but "The Raft" takes a similar vibe and roughs it up with darker guitar/piano chords, and that coarse edge works fairly well, even if the song is a bit overlong. Trancey synths open the bright and poppy "Hate the Sun," which is accented by '60s-style rock organ and vintage mellotron-style strings; it's kind of sparkly compared to much of the ground-pounding material that came before it, but so dramatic and uplifting that it finally becomes irresistible. The ambient instrumental piece "Thin Air" closes out the record, once again reminiscent of Tool's more experimental interludes, but with a decent chill-out factor... and it brings us back full-circle to D'Amour's eerie film compositions.
Again, as a long-time Tool fan, the similarities between that band's earliest work and the first half of Feersum Ennjin are impossible to ignore. But it's that similar energy that really pulled me into this album – that's why the more bliss-filled progressive & pop tracks came off as sort of a letdown after the ground-shaking power D'Amour and company summoned with "Dragon," "The Fourth" and "Fishing Grounds." Those three are worth the price of admission, but overall there's less of an arc to the album than I was hoping for; it's basically a "dark side/light side" presentation, with one foot still firmly grounded in '90s alt-metal and the other in dreamy cosmic pop that's a bit short on hooks. Still, there's no denying Paul's skill in creating multi-textured arrangements, and he continues to bring the deep-end groove like no one else can.