While there's been a steady stream of quality releases by both new and veteran bands, it's been clear for several years that the Christian metal scene has been lacking some of the momentum that defined it during its peak. This is perhaps most noticeable as new subgenres and sounds have emerged within the secular scene with little imitation - much less advancement - from openly Christian groups. One space where I've felt this void for a few years is in the progressive metalcore space. Certainly there have been bands like Fallstar and Wolves At The Gate who have pioneered their own quality takes on the genre, but in a way far removed from the post-djent sound that has defined the secular scene over the same period. That seems to finally be changing with several exciting albums on the horizon, the first to arrive of which is Cliffside's debut full-length, Deeper Water.
For an independent release from a band early in their career, it's hard to overstate the challenge Cliffside are taking on in tackling a sound defined by both technicality and songwriting precision, and often accompanied by pristine mixes. To their credit, the band have delivered an incredible success on nearly every front with this release. Sonically, it feels like a very close cousin to ERRA's Drift brought into 2023, marrying the angular grooves popularized by 2010's djent, with gracefully melodic lead guitar work and catchy chorus moments. And despite evoking everything positive from one of the subgenre's defining releases, Cliffside perhaps takes the even more impressive step of making the sound totally their own.
Their unique contributions stand out most clearly in two places musically. The first is the maturity and cohesion demonstrated in the songwriting. Despite packing every track to the brim with catchy clean choruses, brutal breakdowns, incredibly precise solos, and constantly evolving melodic guitar riffs, songs rarely feel disjointed, each section effortlessly blending into the next with a smoothness that hides just how dynamic each track is.
The second place Cliffside really distinguish themselves is vocally. The clean vocals stack up favorably against the giants of the subgenre, but the harsh vocals hit on another level. Shifting from a well-articulated midrange scream that occasionally borders on a melodic hardcore yell, to a deep low growl bordering on deathcore, it's one of the most impressive vocal performances of the year.
There's also a healthy amount of diversity from song to song. While the album maintains excellent sonic cohesion throughout, and rarely ventures outside the progressive metalcore sphere for very long, it never succumbs to tracks blurring together. Picking standouts to highlight here is hard, as almost every track offers something noteworthy. A few personal favorites include the blistering melodicism of "Forever," which combines technical tapping riffs with almost punk drumming in the verses, and an instantly catchy anthemic chorus; the emotional "Fatherless," a somewhat softer post-hardcore influenced song; and the epic riff-driven "Glacial." Lyrically, the album repeatedly tackles both internal and interpersonal struggles through the lens of God's redemptive love in a way that is both spiritually uplifting while also being honest and open about very relatable issues.
Overall, Cliffside have delivered an incredibly impressive album with their debut full-length that fills a much-needed void in the Christian scene. Lyrically and musically, it's truly a top-notch release that stacks up favorably against any of its peers. If there's any place the album falls even marginally short, it's the mix. Occasionally, the midrange vocals or more rhythmic guitar riffs can sound slightly muddled in a way that doesn't quite match the immaculate pristineness of the biggest modern progressive metalcore releases, but even here the mix present on Deeper Water is one many major label bands would've been jealous of a decade ago. It's still a good mix (especially for a fully independent release), it just isn't perfect.
Other than that minor nitpick, it's hard to overstate just how impressive of a release this is, and judging by the response the band seems to have already been getting for Deeper Water, with minimal promotion or previous recognition, Cliffside are certainly gearing up to be one of the most exciting bands to watch in the future.- Review date: 8/17/23, written by Kevin McGuire of Jesusfreakhideout.com
Record Label: None
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