INTRONAUT could have chosen to be any one of a hundred Sludge/Doom/NEUROSIS clones out there. They had the chops, the growliness, the burliness to make it work, and any of that easily could have helped them blend in with all the other bands swirling in this endless tar pit. But there's something about this band that always gave the indication that they were better than your run-of-the-mill subgenre wallflower. It seemed there was another level they strove to reach, and on "Valley Of Smoke", they finally do that.
Surely, there will be arguments, because people love to cling to what's comfortable, but this is INTRONAUT's best album by far. By very, very far. It also makes up for 2008's wholly disappointing, treading-water "Prehistoricisms", an album that fell far short of what these guys are capable of producing. Maybe they realized that, or perhaps what's on "Valley Of Smoke" is just part of some grand scheme, but they've developed dramatically the last couple years into a band that demands your undivided attention. One of the most exciting aspects of experiencing "Valley Of Smoke" for the first time is you really don't know what's coming next, and you're almost always surprised. Imagine that.
Before any of you bass geeks start searching for the correct part of your wrist to slash, fearing you won't get your fix: Yes, bassist Joe Lester goes nuts as usual, displaying his amazing dexterity and giving INTRONAUT the jazzy hook that let them stand apart in the first place. But he's not just noodling, as he sometimes did in the past, and is a better team player than at any point in the band's history. Deep breath, everyone.
What's most noticeably different is how much atmosphere is contained in these songs and how often the guys take the chance to exhale and create more interesting sonic landscapes. Opener "Elegy" gets the punishment in early, making its case as one of the band's best songs ever, before bleeding into "Above", where the rules of the game change. Not that the guys strayed from beauty and delicacy in the past, but they've never done so this boldly. You could sing along with frontman/guitarist Sacha Dunable to this thing. You could even go all Andrew Bernard and record yourself singing each part of the harmonies, blend them together, and make for one awesome, albeit totally dorky, ringtone. "Miasma" and "Below" also display the band's further maturity, the latter taking a deep introspection into fear and what leads us there. The only slight misstep here is the extended instrumental title track, not because it's bad but because it doesn't seem to know where it's headed. Luckily, closer "Past Tense" is a great outro, combining mathy thunder, spacious singing/gutty growling, and drumming madness into it.
"Valley Of Smoke" is a great triumph for these guys, and it happens to sound spectacular on a crisp, chilly, rainy Fall day. They always had the potential to be a touchstone act, and they're just about there. And as good as this record is, their future output could be even better, if they continue along the road they're on. In a world that no longer counts ISIS as one of its living, breathing acts, INTRONAUT is as worthy a successor to their throne as anyone.