Album Review: Twelve Foot Ninja - Silent Machine

Partly due to the fact that rock music is aging, and partly due to the fact that I myself am aging, over the years it has become progressively more difficult to find new music worth getting excited about. Sometimes I feel like I've more or less "heard it all." So it is a real treat to discover a new band that actually excites me. Even better if that band is really a new band, not just aging classic rockers lining up in a new configuration.

Twelve Foot Ninja is without question the best new band I've heard in a long, long time. Having recently heard the new single from their second, forthcoming album on the radio, I hastened to purchase the band's 2012 debut, Silent Machine. Somehow I had missed it when it was initially released. Problem corrected.

Silent Machine presents us with a series of songs that fuse together some of the best elements of recent musical trends in a way that doesn't feel like a mash-up. Right out of the gate, the album's debut track "Coming for You" hits hard with some screaming and some heavy riffing. Then, in a moment, it's gone and replaced with - wait for it - a latin jazz feel. The verses slowly build up to a pop sound, a pop rock sound, and finally metal again for the chorus. And yet, the entire track is just a few seconds longer than three minutes.

Keyboards, tempo changes, 8-string guitars... it would be tempting to call Twelve Foot Ninja a progressive metal band. But that wouldn't be quite right. First of all, the songs are two concise and radio-ready for the progressive genre.

And second, vocalist Nik Etik's smooth and engaging voice is the voice of a genuine pop singer, and that is not progressive metal fare. He has a low voice, a rich, buttery baritone that doesn't pretend to be a tenor, like most rock baritones do. He's comfortable in his lower register, evoking shades of Faith No More's Mike Patton and I Mother Earth's Bryan Byrne at his very best. But then the meticulous vocal harmonies rise behind his voice, and we hear passages that - at least in terms of vocal performance - could rival any pop album on the charts.

Etik's remarkable voice is so refreshing for a hard rock album in a world where rock vocalists either find themselves whooping and hollering in an attempt to be Chris Cornell or just giving up on melody altogether and making that odd "screaming noise" so popular among hard rock and metal bands these days. Indeed, his voice is part of the "glue" that emulsifies the broad and sudden musical changes happening throughout all of the band's songs.

The other ingredient to that "glue" is the always-everywhere-amazing drumming of Shane Russell, who somehow manages to find all the common rhythmic threads between the quiet pop sections, the heavy "djent" sections, the jazzy bits, and especially the transitions in between. It is so rare to find a percussionist capable of following along with diverse rhythms and musical feels in a cohesive way. Plenty of drummers can switch styles from song to song, but only a select few can do it within the same song. Russell proves that he's a true rarity in the music world.

Meanwhile, guitars, keyboards, and bass engage in an absolute onslaught of musical diversity. They hit us with soft pads and acoustic guitars, moments before finding the perfect 8-string heavy riff. They hit us with haunting, 60s-style echoing clean tones that rise into weaving contrapuntal lines. They always manage to find the right combination of sounds to support the lyrics, the sound of Etik's voice, leaving space for the vocal harmonies. The arrangements are perfect, simply perfect.

Of course, in today's world of digital musical manipulation and studio tricks, it's easy to wonder if a band like this is just another in a long line of "studio bands" destined for brief YouTube or Kickstarter fame. Or, are they real musicians? Can they deliver the goods?

Twelve Foot Ninja answers this question handedly with the bonus tracks on Silent Machine's "Bonus Edition," featuring the two acoustic tracks "Manufacture of Consent" and "Apocalypstik." Here, the band has nowhere to hide. Aurally naked, with nothing but acoustic instruments to convey the Twelve Foot Ninja sound, the band proves that everything they do on the main album tracks can be done in their (proverbial) living room with acoustic instruments.

But that's the thing - in today's world, it takes no small amount of daring to put your band out there like that, raw and vulnerable to careful critique. Daring is precisely how I would describe Silent Machine in its entirety. Presenting us with a band that is unafraid to explore complexity, rawness, modern melodies, djent heaviness, and more, Silent Machine is beyond a doubt the best and most exciting album from a new band I have heard in years.

Rest assured, I will be following this band closely, and so should you.

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