Unexpect is a band that’s gone longer than most imagine. The Montreal progressive death metal formation started out in 1996, three years before releasing their debut, Utopia. This album sounds like a totally different band, with its melodic death metal and black metal influences. After a few lineup changes, including the apparition of singer Leilindel and bassist Chaoth, the band released _wE, Invaders, an EP that foretells their now-famous avant-garde death metal style.
In a Flesh Aquarium was their breakthrough album, and Unexpect then saw global popularity and were now a widely acclaimed band. Five years later, Fables of the Sleepless Empire came out and would prove to be the band’s final album, after deciding to pull the plug on the project in 2015.
Unexpect is highly regarded as one of the best and most influential avant-garde metal bands of the modern age, and the band is usually known for their use of a 9-string bass guitar, a violin, the alternating female and male singers, and the use of keyboards and effects in their music. Their compositions are usually heavily layered and both rhythmically and harmonically complex, leading them to be shunned by many, but unconditionally loved by some.
Today, we gather and give our thoughts on Fables of the Sleepless Empire. We hope you enjoy our reviews, and we encourage you to leave a comment and share with us your own thoughts on it.
As per usual, all reviews are written independently to avoid influencing each other. Prog Talk as a collective never has an official view on any album, but the admins each have their own. So if your opinions differ from ours, let us know! So without further ado, let’s talk prog.
I’m no stranger to the eclectic 6-piece avant-garde death metal band from Montreal. Living in the same Canadian province, I was acquainted to them via In a Flesh Aquarium, their only ‘modern’ album at the time (the other one, Utopia, being the first and early shape of the band), and immediately fell in love with their operatic, circuslike, and eccentric, yet technical, emotional, and carefully crafted music. I also almost saw them live, once, but the road got closed due to a massive winter storm. Yes, that’s very Canadian, I guess.
Fast forward a few years, and Unexpect release Fables of the Sleepless Empire. I remember only looking at the track listing before the album’s release and telling to myself: ‘those song titles are fucking prog!’ And, when it came out, I was more than delighted by the ethereal beginning of ‘Unsolved Ideas of a Distorted Guest’, the very melodic ‘Words’, and the best Unexpect song ever: the 3-part suite ‘Until Yet a Few More Deaths Do Us Part’.
This new album lets itself be appreciated much more easily than any other from the band. Don’t worry, though, this doesn’t mean the album isn’t a challenging experience and that the music it bears is streamlined and boring. Indeed, there’s still a healthy dose of time signature changes and modulations, but they’re much more masterfully integrated to the song so that they’re not as jarring as on In a Flesh Aquarium.
Fables of the Sleepless Empire is Unexpect’s masterpiece and final statement to the art. Indeed, the band chose to be terminated, and end this part of the members’ careers on a high note. Even if it came out in 2011, the album still sounds as relevant and fresh as it did on the day of its release. That’s especially true if you’re still unfamiliar with the band. This album is a gem and will remain in a special place in my head.
If you take one look at my profile image, you might be able to tell why this review is a tough one for me. So, to kick things off, let’s start with an incredibly blunt, superlative summary: This album demonstrates almost everything I like to hear in music. That’s why a circular snippet of its artwork in the form of my icon is sitting beside this paragraph to begin with. Now that we have that sweeping statement out in the open, the tough challenge falls upon me to explain why, and, trust me, there’s a lot of reasons…
The first point I’d like to bring up is interplay. The interactivity between all of the members of the band on Fables of the Sleepless Empire is something you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. For example, on ‘Unfed Pendulum’, take note of how the different vocalists blend different voices into each other in call-response style during the verses to keep the entire composition fresh and active, only to all come together for the grand presentation of the chorus. This kind of clever interplay is found in every piece of clockwork that keeps the album ticking, and isn’t limited to fronting vocals either: take note of how the violins keep track of the guitars chugging triplet rhythms whenever they aren’t playing in the heavy sections of ‘Unsolved Ideas of a Distorted Guest’, or how the unusual guitar melodies, about a minute into ‘Mechanical Phoenix’, thematically recall the reversed synths that start and end the track. Heck, I bet you didn’t even pay attention to the subtle violin plucks accompanying the opening bass melody of ‘Words’, simply because it blended in so well that it actually felt a part of that melody. These incredibly small, but incredibly crucial details are everywhere, and keep the hundreds of listens I’ve probably given this album equally fresh and exciting.
Next is the idea of ‘controlled versatility’. The latter half of this concept probably comes as no surprise to Unexpect fans: in the progressive metal and avant-garde metal scenes, the band has become famous for their unpredictability and variety of songwriting. Yet even though this was the case, I had never fallen in love with one of their albums until Fables of the Sleepless Empire. The reason for this is that this album pulled off a feat that only a select few bands have done, and managed to hit the perfect balance between chaos and control. Even through the abundance of simultaneous melodies, constantly shifting rhythms and themes, the songs on this album never manage to lose focus or fall into the trap of simply making noise for the sake of it. Though it may seem otherwise at first glance, the attention to detail in the structuring of these tracks is some of the best I have ever come across, and, as you catch on to these structural shifts (and perhaps even start predicting them), you feel rewarded as a listener for your attention. At points this even amounts to songs like ‘Orange Vigilantes’, which I would even go as far as to say could be labelled ‘catchy as all hell’.
So, yes, the guy who has Fables of the Sleepless Empire set as his profile icon loves Fables of the Sleepless Empire; who would’ve guessed? Seriously speaking, though, this album is one of the most well-constructed, well-composed and well-produced (special shoutouts to everyone who brought it all together with the mixing) albums to which I have had the pleasure to listen, and definitely makes my current all-time top 10. It is a fantastic introduction to avant-garde metal while also remaining a one-of-a-kind album for veterans of the genre. This is a must-have for prog fans who want to dig just that little bit deeper, and although Unexpect is no longer active, I hope the band’s legacy lives on with this album.
Even if I have a profound love for progressive metal, avant-garde metal is my favorite subgenre, period, and Unexpect (previously stylized as uneXpect) was one of the first bands that I found while discovering more and more about this crazy music. Their blend of classical, Vaudevillian music with extreme metal sections made them a big favourite on my list. With only 3 LPs, they reached their artistic peak on their last album, before they disbanded: Fables of the Sleepless Empire.
With 3 singers, 2 guitarists, a talented monster of a bassist, and a lot of orchestral arrangements, this band is what you get when you push Diablo Swing Orchestra into more chaotic territory. Songs like ‘Words’ and ‘Mechanical Phoenix’ are clear examples of this, while ‘Orange Vigilantes’ takes the prize for catchiest avant-metal song ever.
What strikes me the most about Fables is how accessible it sounds, without pushing things too far; it is a great album to introduce people to this genre, and a great gateway into discovering other bands of this calibre. Sadly, the band is no more, and each member parted ways into their own endeavours; but let this album be a landmark of the genre and remember them as pioneers of avant-garde metal. I wish them nothing but the best, and hope to hear more from their individual projects in the future.
In conclusion, I can safely say that we, who participated in this roundabout, wholeheartedly recommend Unexpect’s swan song, Fables of the Sleepless Empire. It’s a cohesive piece of work that’s definitely modern, but that will stand the test of time. It is not the mere product of a trend, but a meticulously written and forward-thinking piece of music that sets an example for the genre, and serves as an inspiration to many musicians, as well as being awe-inducing to non-musician melophiles. It might not be for everyone, but one must admire the technical and theoretical proficiencies used therein, and their masterful handling in order to make something rather accessible at the same time. Simply put, a masterpiece.