Albinobeach is a three-piece progressive and psychedelic act that hails from Johannesburg, South Africa, and for the most part, tow the line between rock and metal sensibilities. That being said, the band is not scared to introduce other genres into their work and their new release The Ladder is a veritable trove of aesthetics that cannot be tied to any one definable genre, and from a compositional standpoint, is heavily filtered through a philosophical and metaphysical lens. An aural representation of ascension and in the band’s own words: “leading us to an awakening and ultimately, rebirth.”
Musically, the record strongly follows this thread with phrases reaching upward in an attempt to breach the sky. The tones of the instruments are enveloping and often drenched in reverbs; laden with crunchy synths that draw you in and swallow you in clouds. There is a trance-like quality to the music that puts one in a hypnotic state, managing to be cyclical yet not repetitive. It is full of dynamical and textural shifts that keep the listeners’ interest piqued yet it has an ambient quality that allows it to feel omnipresent.
The instrumental work is worth pointing out. The performance of all musicians is phenomenal and technical, however, never sacrificing musicality. The most flashy playing has to come from the drums, particularly the fills, and much of the energy of the band is contained within the drummer’s play-off between restraint and excess; however, the guitar and bass do rise to the occasion in terms of standout virtuosic moments. The bass is warm and poundingly groovy while the guitar serves as the harmonic and colourful glue that binds it all together. The writing is emotive and oozes atmosphere, structurally powerful and impassioned. The recording is also tight as all hell; the band clearly has a rapport and seems to lock together like some intricate mechanism whether working in counterpoint or in unison. Although I have always been a fan of technical music, there is always a fine line to draw between technical wankery and music that has something to say through its technicality and I am most happy to say that The Ladder falls strongly into the latter camp.
One of the most endearing parts of this release is how many different styles it moves through: it has strong post-rock, progressive rock, and metal aesthetics but also explores more unexpected genres like reggae as well as delving heavily into synthesized and electronic elements that are the cherry on this prog cake. It is difficult to pick favourites off the record as all the tracks work towards one common goal rather than singles to be listened to in isolation. That being said, I will do a brief discussion of the individual tracks and how they build towards this whole.
As “The Ladder” starts I am instantly forming a mental image of climbing towards the heavens, the palm-muted picking and pedaling bass creating a sense of urgency, building and growing as the music gets louder before the drums explode into sustained chords that make you feel like you have been hurtled into the vastness of space, the harmony rich and warm. The guitar lead heard towards five minutes gives us a sense of resolution and draws us closer to the climax and conclusion before breaking into a cadence of power chords that I can’t help but nod my head along to. The end of the song strips back down and is a cathartic yet slightly terrifying discharge of synths and texture, slowly dissipating into nothing, like smoke being caught in the breeze.
Track two, “Somersault”, instantly kicks into a rhythmic swing that has some subtle afro elements and speaks directly to your body, making you want to move to the syncopation. The song, like many others, alludes strongly to this metaphor of a ladder, as before, constantly reaching upward, asking a question to which there is no definite response. I am particularly fond of the harmonic minor aesthetic we hear periodically in this song as this scale has a venerable yet shadowy quality that is so effective and moving. If “Somersault” felt to have a slight afro-tinge, track three, “Afro Bogart” (fantastic title), leans heavily into that quality and is all the better for it. This might be one of my favourite guitar parts and it is always reaffirming to hear bands who come from Africa musically speak to their roots and not always to the dominating EU/US-centric markets. This track is abound with crushed synths and electronic textures that layer into the sound beautifully.
Track four “Glassy Glassy” is a short filler track that I would normally not comment on, however, I want to give a shout out to the title as it references South African childhood games akin to Ouji boards and Candyman style urban legends which I would be remiss not to mention at all. The track itself is minimal and mostly features ambient soundscapes and drones that most likely imitate the demonic roots of this disturbing yet well known local game/urban legend.
“Hireath” is a track much similar in style to “The Ladder”, however, it lives up to its name as it is dripping with the emotions of nostalgia and homesickness, as the title would suggest. The heaviest and most meaty track has to be “Jugga”, which pops off with a chunky downtuned Tool-esque riff that gets the metal juices flowing in my veins. “Make The Call” might include the most interesting stylistic addition, which is that of a short reggae section heard early on in the song, but also features one of the coolest guitar solos of which the highlight is a muted, tremolo passage that descends chromatically. It gets me every time. The synth work that comes directly after this section also might be one of my favourite synth parts heard on the record. This section is so full of favourite parts that it also might be a contender for one of the best tracks on the release, but at the very least, one of the most interesting. The final mention goes to “Triptych”, which once again returns to what sounds like harmonic minor but could also be a more unconventional scale. Either way, the harmonic soundscape of this song is unique and engaging and is the perfect closer.
I am finding it difficult to criticise much on any front as this release ticks almost all of the boxes for me, but at a push, I would say that one or two of the tracks tend towards feeling a bit samey, which to most would not really be a criticism. Although I did enjoy the addition of a reggae section, it does feel slightly out of place and I think it has to do with the guitar tone here which is my least favourite of the album. This is only notable because of how great the guitar tones are throughout. Some of the rhythmic motifs, particularly the ‘climbing’ quality, can tire after many listens but it is a foundational element of the musical themes and therefore is not really so much a criticism but as an observation.
With the mandatory criticism section out the way, I have to say this is a fantastic listen and a must listen to anyone even vaguely interested in progressive or psychedelic music. I see this album as a voice, calling out from the unknown, reaching towards the sky, and asking the simple questions: How? What? and Why?
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You can grab a digital copy of The Ladder over on the albinobeach Bandcamp page or go listen to it on Spotify. I currently can’t seem to find any merch available so go follow their Facebook page to keep up to date with any future physical releases.