Album Review | Cara Neir | Phase Out

Cara Neir, a relatively unique face in the sea of unending black metal that seems to be released every second of every day. I have been a big fan of their releases, Portals to a Better, Dead World, Perpetual Despair Is the Human Condition, and more. These records are masterpieces in my eyes. Their brand of emotive, dense, and aggressive black metal never fails to send shivers down my spine. This Dallas-based act has branched out with their latest release, adding 8-bit/chiptune elements as well as some lo-fi electronic elements, some of it bordering on hip-hop. As usual, there is a suitable helping of shoegaze aesthetic added to the mix alongside the emo sound that is also not uncommon in their tunes. This is part of the band’s music that has always appealed to me. Now onto my less favourable thoughts. I am not completely sold on the new genre-bending elements in this album. To be clear, I am not against bands branching out when it comes to genre; I love music that is hard to nail down stylistically and I am a huge fan of electronic, lo-fi hip hop, and chiptune music, but I have reservations about its application on this release.

My biggest issue is not the use of disparate genres, but more to do with the production and composition of these parts of the album. I will say without a shadow of a doubt, the metal sections on this album are true to form, albeit with some sloppy performances here or there; however, the blending of multiple elements on this album does not have me convinced. I have some other gripes when it comes to this album in a general sense, one of them being the overall production, particularly the balancing of instruments, which I feel is not quite right. The guitars feel overbearing a lot of the time, but not in a good way. Some albums benefit from obscure and strange mixing, but on this one I feel the guitar is just a tad too loud, making the overall production quality feel more like a demo than a finished album. Another one of those gripes is that the performance of some instrumental sections feel slapdash. Before I get into breakdowns of individual tracks, I want to make it clear that I have great respect for this duo. So do not equate my criticism with vindictiveness—this is rather an honest, unfiltered opinion from a fan.

Track one, “The Trimjrte Sanction”, starts with some cliché 8-bit vocal samples before diving straight into a killer riff. Quintessential, chaotic Cara Neir. The subtle 8-bit elements that we hear early on blend relatively nicely with the music although already I have some issues with the production. The quality of the 8-bit sounds is sibilant and has too much high range in the mix for my liking, though this is just a personal preference. The issues start to arise when the lead guitar enters. It is the loudest element of the mix and the thin quality of the guitar tone is not a pleasing sound. At 1:20 we hear some of the first, full-on electronic elements of the album. The production on these parts really didn’t do it for me: the hi-hats are way too loud, and I don’t love the guitar writing. I enjoy dynamic shifts in music, but compositionally, this section just does not feel like it fits into this song for me, even if we ignore the production issues. Once we leave this section and return to the metal, the music comes together once again. This is a consistent theme throughout this album, alternating between incredibly powerful metal sections, into lacklustre, uninspiring 8-bit/electronic sections.

To avoid providing only negative feedback, I must commend the little chiptune flourishes we hear blending in with the metal. Just before the three-minute mark, the synth lead over the guitars is great, and the hazy processed vocals at 3:15 (if that’s what they are) are also interesting. The little chiptune synth break that mimics the guitar riff is also a part of the track I love, but the fact that there is so much hot and cold within one track is hard to accept and tends to leave one leaning more towards cold. The outro of the track is also not my vibe—a tad too angsty.

The following track, “Damnation”, is another one where I’m left feeling uncertain. There are some very raw, simple riffs that I enjoy; I also like the trippy middle section which slowly becomes an Algernon Cadwallader song before reverting to the primitive metal parts from earlier. However, the vocals added at around the 20-second mark into the song just don’t seem to fit, at least to my ears. The quality is almost comparable to that of System of a Down, of which I am a fan, but I am unsure how well this sounds fits with the rest of Cara Neir’s music.

“Shady Blues” is the first song where I start to get a strong feeling that I am not enjoying this release as much as previous ones. The vocals are atrocious, and maybe that’s the point. There is a fair amount of emo influence to parts of this album and, although I have nothing against the genre, it just doesn’t work for me in this context. Out-of-key singing can sometimes have a weird allure, but in this case, it just sounds bad. The band has used this sound to great effect on previous albums but not so much on this one.

Another example of strange chiptune elements is in “Floodgates of Doom”. The part that kicks in at about two minutes is a cool section, but the synths are much too loud and sibilant and are abrasive to my ears (and not abrasive in that ‘aggressive yet still appealing’ way, but in a general, ‘ow, my ears’ way). “Four Seasons in a Day” is a full-on chiptune track and in it, it’s most apparent that the chiptune writing is wanting. This track does not hit me like most chiptunes do, giving me that warm fuzzy nostalgia welling up in my chest. The song is fine, nothing glaringly wrong, but it is also dull.

“Phasers Set To Stun” might be my least favourite of the release, which is hard for me to say. As I write out ‘hip-hop mixed with chiptunes’, I instantly feel bad that I don’t automatically like what I hear, but I don’t. The bass line is annoying, and the vocal performance is silly and off-putting. This track feels like a half job. You can tell the musicians are not used to producing this style of music. It feels like they needed a few more compositional iterations of the non-metal sections before committing them to record.

“Hypogelum” has some good melodic work in it, but again, the production lets the song down. The synths at two minutes are way too bright and loud. The synth break in the middle of the song is another section that feels out of place and the proceeding end of the track is not my cup of tea. While listening to this album on Spotify, I kept reaching the end and getting automatically thrown into an older album from the band, and every time, without fail I enjoyed that song more than the entirety of the new album. There is a stronger sense of despair hanging over their older music that speaks to me, in a way none of the newer tracks have done.

There are plenty of great riffs and parts in this album but there is not one song on the record that I can say that I love without reservation. I find the music less engaging than their previous work and as much as I like chiptune music, I just don’t feel the quality of chiptunes on this album is up to scratch. The metal elements of the album are wonderful, and the band has nailed them in typical Cara Neir fashion, but the genre elements that are uncommon to this band feel compositionally weak. Not only is the composition not that inspiring, but the treatment and production of these parts don’t sound great either.

With all my criticism of this album, I do think on a conceptual level, this album is worth praising. There are so many cool and interesting ideas but the execution is not right. This is not an album I would recommend skipping. As far as I can tell, the opinions are split and maybe this record will speak to you more than it does me. But for now, if you want to find me, I will be spinning Cara Neir’s old albums on repeat, waiting patiently for a new one.

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You can grab a digital copy of Phase Out over on the Cara Neir Bandcamp page as well as vinyl, CDs, and shirts. Also, you can find them on Spotify.

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