Judicator - At the Expense of Humanity - (9/10)
Published on January 26, 2015
Though quite commonplace in indie rock circles (see: Cursive The Ugly Organ, Arcade Fire Funeral and The Antlers Hospice), concept albums centering on loved ones being plucked from our midst by cancer is more of a novelty in metal circles, with Into Eternity’s The Incurable Tragedy and now Judicator’s soon-to-be-released third effort, At the Expense of Humanity, the rare exceptions to the rule. Given the obviously weighty and deeply personal concept of the album (it deals with the passing frontman John Yelland’s brother due to cancer), the prospect of ripping on a release like this is not one I particularly relished. Not that I had any reason to doubt them – Sleepy Plessow came within a hair’s breadth of stealing the top spot in my 2013 year-end list – but some doubts remained as to whether power metal, with its general celebration of the irreverent and other attendant idiosyncrasies, would be an effective medium through which to convey such a sorrow-soaked narrative.
Thankfully any such concerns are swept aside as soon as the opening trifecta of “God’s Failures”/”Cannibalistic Mind”/”Coping Mechanism” starts reverberating through the speakers. “God’s Failures” is a scorcher, marrying a punchy power/thrash foundation with the kind of sporadic minstrel-like vocal harmonies ripped straight from the Blind Guardian playbook and a brisk yet beautiful set of melodic leads around the 2:57 mark. The harmonic dynamic is expanded upon in “Cannibalistic Mind,” with Yelland’s percussive wails meshing perfectly with occasional growls and another memorable set of riffs from Tony Cordisco. The hat-trick is rounded out by “Coping Mechanism,” which is relatively mellow in comparison but with a huge chorus that belies the morose lyrical matter. Simply put, the band knows when to swing for the bleachers or opt for subtlety, and the addition of a full-time drummer (Jordan Elcess) and keyboardist (Tyler Sherrill) assists in expanding their sound to heretofore unknown levels.
Though still firmly rooted in riff-driven power metal, a whiff of the progressive is always within arm’s reach and the emotional payload is artfully couched in the nexus between soaring melodies, Yelland’s impassioned Kürsch-like vocals and plaintive lyrics. Bereft of pretense, the lyrics – spun from gloomy hospital scenery, uncertainty, guilt and existential angst – pulse with a tangible tension on “Lucid Nightmare”: ‘I sit alone by windows/So silent, meditating quiet/There’s nothing odd it seems but/A drop of sweat spells it all out.’ Elsewhere, there is a positive reach for the transcendental on” How Long Can You Live Forever?”: ‘We’re all one creature, life form, cell, and form divine/I am bleeding into the cup of immortality.’ Combine this with a few vocal harmonies that seem to echo King Diamond’s “Moving On”, albeit very subtly, and the emotional gut-punch of the album becomes undeniable. “Life Support” is a heartrending duet between Yelland and Mercedes Victoria that feels palpably autobiographical, its downcast mood contrasting the raging tone of “Autophagia”.
As enjoyable as these constituent parts are, At the Expense of Humanity is best appreciated as a whole, given its narrative nature. It may lack the gritty quality of King of Rome and the all-round bluster of Sleepy Plessow, but on a pound-for-pound basis this is arguably the band’s strongest and most assured musical statement to date. The key to making thematic albums like this ‘successful’ (i.e. accessible) is to ensure that the personally specific becomes universal, and in this regard the album – ostensibly a broad meditation on life and loss – checks all the right boxes. At the Expense of Humanity is a mature, multi-layered power metal album one can sink one’s teeth into and already one of the year’s best efforts.