Like rock, hip-hop, and nearly every other genre of music known to man, metal comes in a variety of subtle but recognizable flavors: classic, speed, doom, sludge, Norwegian death, etc. The metal embraced by Milwaukee’s Arctic Sleep is a bit trickier to pin down. It comfortably falls under the “progressive” and “atmospheric” banners, sure, but there’s something more moody and bittersweet lurking in the din. The band’s new album, Passage Of Gaia, stays true to that mix with a collection of songs that are as heavy and epically sized as they are gorgeous, and that contain just as many nods to Alice In Chains and Pink Floyd as they do to Dream Theater and Tool. At its best, Gaia also suggests, improbably, what a pop-minded ’90s band like The Rentals would sound like if it left the synths at home and invested in towering Marshall stacks and double bass drum pedals.
Even more improbable is the fact that Arctic Sleep boasts only two members: Keith D (vocals, drums, bass, cello) and Mike Gussis (guitar). The bare-bones lineup ensures that the band is strictly a studio concern, but the exquisite noise whipped up on Gaia is undoubtedly stadium-sized. Opener “The Staircase” sets the scene with a deliberate pace, a slowly unfurling melody, and a spot-on male-female vocal harmony hook. It’s cinematic in the best sense of the word, shamelessly outsized and dramatic. Elsewhere, the time-shifting “Terra Vindicta” betrays a hint of space-rock influence (“Goodbye / Leaving this earth behind,”) the blistering “Hyperion” ends with Helmet-like precision, and the nearly 10-minute title track goes full anthemic and cathartic. All throughout, Keith D’s somber baritone registers as sepia-toned yet clear as a bell, giving each song additional heft and weight while never dragging them into the sludge. Quite the contrary: Both D’s vocals and Gaia’s pervasive widescreen vibe combine to form a top-heavy record that’s remarkably light, airy, and transcendent.
If Passage Of Gaia also sounds confident and lived-in, it should: Arctic Sleep has been around for nearly a decade, weathering various lineup changes and moves to new cities. Gaia is also the band’s sixth full-length album, the follow-up to 2012’s fantastical Arbors. That veteran status shows up in the playing—assured, accomplished, no-frills—as well as the songwriting—thoughtful, accessible, unpredicatable. But it’s ultimately the band’s persistence of vision that marks them as longtime vets. No one in Milwaukee is making metal quite like this, and no one in Milwaukee has been making metal like this for so long. Listen to Arctic Sleep’s latest chapter now, only at Milwaukee Record.
Passage Of Gaia will be released digitally and on CD August 21. A double vinyl LP will be available in November.