The cardinal rule of art: If you have to explain it, it’s a failure.
Whether it be paintings, dance, film, whatever – if you need to write an essay on what your work is about, then it’s worthless. Once the artist is done, the art needs to take over and speak for itself.
One of the benefits of just downloading music without the illustrations, photos, or lyrics is that it becomes a true test of the quality in every way. There are no pretty-pretty distractions or leading suggestions; just the unseasoned meat from the sandwich without the dressing.
Avatar did not fail with Feathers and Flesh, but they very easily could have.
It is understood that this band grew up together in life, as well in music. Years of honing their perspective crafts, learning the dynamics and the ropes, and consistently taking their passion to the next level with every project is apparent, as well as discussed. They have wonderful talent, but are not virtuosos, and (thankfully) they do not have any pretenses to claim to be so. But, nevertheless, their carnival image is grossly deceiving and at times, even unfortunate.
People do judge books by covers, especially in a “beauty-myth” dominated society. Johannes Eckerstrom’s “dark jester” character is black humor with lost context upon first impression. The rest of the band, with equally strong presence in respect to Eckerstrom’s role as frontman, take their places in the play in a way, on the surface, that seems seriously silly.
Only until the audience listens to the music do they realize they are consuming the work of master storytellers.
The one consistency throughout their entire discography, aside from their expanding buffet of styles and experiments, is their immaculate sense of theatre, which is tremendously obvious with their “Photoshop-free” videos. Many bands use prog techniques, but Avatar’s exclusive use of tempo changes, dynamic, tone, harmony, movement, and word to portray a character, a scene, an emotion, or a theme, with such exquisite timing, is downright Ph.D. shit.
Then, the gimmick delivers the punchline: “Hi! Welcome to the dystopic circus of the human condition. Surprise! This is art, motherfucker. Bring a snack!”
So, naturally, when Feathers and Flesh, their first concept album, was announced, much breath was held. The release of “For the Swarm,” raised many eyebrows. Again, on the surface, it’s a relentless hammer-to-skull song. But, beneath the skin, it captures the personification of the day in the life of bees so splendidly, there was no need for explanation. We got it.
The work was a success, as well as the other premiered tracks: “House of the Eternal Hunt,” “Regret,” “Tooth, Beak, and Claw,” and that perfectly pompous, anthemic, “The Eagle Has Landed.” The work speaks for itself.
And much of Feathers and Flesh does. However, if this was not a concept album, it would be a collection of misappropriated, orderly cacophonous stick in the ear with a handful of really addictive treats. But, being that it is a concept album, it saved them. Everything recorded now has a sense purpose. And with purpose, there is refinement and sometimes, clarity.
With blindfold on, what they did right was the journey, itself. There is a path with progression and key characters that direct, redirect, and take effect. It is easy to visualize, even smell, the planetarium skies over the fields and blood-soaked gizzards. “One More Hill” was particularly draining, as Avatar put determination to sound, which was brutal. The rhythm section of John Alfredsson and Henrik Sandelin earns special accolades for their work together in “Pray the Sun Away,” as they created a shamanic-Metal atmosphere with patterns nearly consistent with New Guinea traditional polyrhythm – and with the particular subject matter, Avatar once again demonstrates that expert narrative touch.
Again, without the use of visual aids, there was a definite sense of plot, though not completely clear in details. There is a battle being waged. There are casualties and victors, predators and victims and the sun has something to do with it. There is a whole menagerie in action, with some scenes so sinister, such as the “I’ve Got Something in My Front Pocket for You” number, ruthlessly abducted then distorted from the South Park episode, “You Just Got F’d in the A,” which could potentially trigger a post-traumatic stress attack.
Where they faltered, however, was the distinguishing of characters. Though the personalities were powerfully and vividly conveyed, it was difficult to determine whose personality was whose. Either there were possibly too many characters or they were developed as anti-heroes/pro-antagonistic. In regards to the latter, if that was their intention, it is an extremely sophisticated approach, which is remarkable. But upon first listen, the confusion distracts from the transport. (It’s hard to “be there” when you don’t get it). However, the array of portrayal is so captivating, it heightens the curiosity, which keeps the ears peeled.
Feathers and Flesh is not an easy listen. Of course, there are times when the groove takes over and the songs are engorging, yes, but it is clearly not designed to enjoy on a stretch of black sunshine in a stolen Lamborghini. This project is a complex, multi-dimensional result of five ever-evolving musicians whose consummate skills for the dramatic may just be a little ahead of their time.
But, make no mistake: Avatar’s time will come. It won’t be long. And when the world gets past the costumes, that carnival ride won’t have brakes. Bring a snack.
3.5 / 5 stars