It’s been four years since the last Cloudkicker album. This is a relatively long wait for any active group, but especially so for Cloudkicker, whose sole member Ben Sharp steadily released one album a year from 2008 to 2015. His music came during the rise of djent in the years following Meshuggah’s Nothing hitting shelves, which began to drastically change the way progressive metal was approached. That mark was felt on those early releases, which were often slotted under the djent tag; there was even a running joke for a period among extreme metal fans, a group not traditionally fans of djent, that he was the genre’s only good performer (excluding Meshuggah, who are more an inspiration than practitioners). This goodwill, while extended to the breadth of his discography at the time, was largely built on the back of Beacons, a prog metal tour de force released in 2010 that still remains one of the very best prog metal albums of the decade even as the decade nears its close. That record was also notable for being released during the early years of Bandcamp and, while ultimately only one drop in a sea that was already quite vast by the time of its release, was notable for turning many a metalhead’s eye to the platform as a viable place to discover quality wholly independent music following the collapse of MySpace and sites like MP3.com.
The passage of time is funny; for almost all areas of culture, it feels like it’s been millions of years since 2010 and not a mere nine, but for Cloudkicker in particular this passage seems to have been exceptionally rapid. It was in 2014 that Cloudkicker was approached by Intronaut, a leading progressive metal band whose influence is felt all over the new record, to be his backing band in his first real touring capacity, solving the issue of how a one-man band might perform material of this kind live. And yet while in other spaces this five-year span feels positively eternal, coming a full two years before Trump ever took office, in relation to Cloudkicker’s work it feels like a blink of an eye. This has a strange critical effect on Unending, an album that feels like a perfect counterpart to Beacons but is in fact nine years and seven LPs later. Granted, this is also a statement of the quality and sense of clear directional development in Cloudkicker’s music; from debut LP The Discovery/The Map Is Not The Territory forward, Cloudkicker has been delivering potent prog metal that draws as much from post-metal, post-hardcore, math rock and emo as it does from something like djent.
In fact, that later term feels hardly applicable at all these days. This bespeaks a larger issue, that being that the driving force of djent was, like many prog subgenres, one of formal replication of sonic ideas or a developmental approach, whether someone treats an innovation of a group as an aesthetic benchmark or another step along the way. For Ben Sharp, the particular rhythmic usage that shows up in that prog metal subgenre seems to have fallen entirely by the wayside, replaced by the curious rhythmic ideas Intronaut employ instead. Likewise, the post-rock and post-metal influences are dialed up here, finding parallels in the rhythmic exercises that inspire groups like Periphery with the rhythms in groups like Isis and focusing on those more drone and emo-by-way-of-post-rock notions.
His ability to develop full but concise musical packages remains intact on Unending. The album is brief, coming in at just under half an hour spread out over seven tracks, one of which being a 40-second intro to another song. This brevity is not uncommon in Ben Sharp’s music, however, with most of his albums hovering in this range. The decade-plus of practice in this format shows. There is a clear beginning, middle, and end, although his usage of conceptual frameworks is more obscurant these days compared to the explicitness of Beacons‘ black box recordings creating the emotional throughline with images of plane crashes and emotional turbulence. This increased subtlety, one well-earned, would in weaker hands place the music at a disadvantage, making a purely instrumental album perhaps emotionally aimless. His ear for arrangements, both internally within sounds and externally in sequencing, keeps Sharp safe, however, producing a joyous and luminous aspect not unlike Lantlos’ late-game masterpiece of post-metal Melting Sun.
It is a shock to see so few discussing Unending. A few years ago, Cloudkicker couldn’t move without metal media reporting on new material. The Intronaut tour, we must remember, came from that group approaching him with material already learned, not the other way around, with Sharp having no intent to ever tour until a group of that level of acclaim revealed themselves to be motivated fans. Perhaps this was deliberate; a four-year break in an otherwise propulsive independent career feels more than conspicuous. But, regardless of the reasons, Unending does not seem fatigued by the passage of time. It fits smoothly in the similarly smooth continuum of Cloudkicker’s music, one that in retrospect reveals the group not to be djent but more generally post-metal/prog metal. Beyond that, it reveals Cloudkicker to be one of the finest in the genre, both then and now. There is not one misplaced vocal or grating vocal affect, not one cloying or cheap sonic texture whether it be a misapplied usage of dubstep or the traditional djent guitar tone, not one half-baked and over-enunciated conceptual flop and not one aimless technical riff salad. Each song is touching, emotive, enormous. They feel like they swallow time and cast harsh light on the human heart. They pronounce themselves and depart, leaving Unending feeling like a complex 30-minute piece of work rather than a set of discrete tracks. It’s also one of the best prog records of the year. Ben Sharp seems incapable of producing anything less. Welcome back. Stay a while.