Does China djent? Apparently. Von Citizen, an instrumental djent band out of Guangzhou, China, have dropped their debut album, Sentience, and it’s a pretty good one. Von Citizen is basically Intervals, Scale the Summit, and Joe Satriani merged into one. The music utilizes a lot of guitar layers and atmospheric synth to create vast but clean soundscapes that are regularly grounded by groovy, punchy djent rhythms. So, by no means is Von Citizen original, but I do think they masterfully combine a lot of what is good in the instrumental djent world, working in the tradition of Animals as Leaders and Cloudkicker.
Sentience is short. It’s only 36 minutes, which I actually think is the perfect length for this introductory release. There are no vocals, and no musical themes tying the album together, and so it would be easy for moments to either get lost, or feel repetitive if it was closer to an hour. At this length, we get a full picture of what Von Citizen is about, and each moment feels fresh. And these guys have some chops. The production value is through the roof, as well. This may be the sharpest, cleanest layering of djent guitar tracks I’ve encountered. It’s also the first album I’ve heard featuring any combination of guest appearances from Yousei, ichika, and/or Olly Steele, so that’s good, right?
It’s clear that Von Citizen is influenced heavily by jazz. There are many solos strategically placed throughout. Around the two minute mark in “Unseen,” a nice little piano diddle pokes through before receding into the background. Track six, “Sanctuary,” begins with some very funky, thumping bass, eventually giving way to what I assume is an ichika guitar solo, which is light and airy, with a lot of reverb. This jazzy solo immediately transitions into a classic, chuggy djent riff, always there to remind you, this is metal after all. Track seven, “Cerulean,” is for the most part a slow, soft, introspective jazz song.
The drums are quite jazzy as well. I assume they are sampled, but I can’t be sure. The drums do their part, but there’s nothing particularly dynamic or engaging about them. Sentience is all about the guitars, and synth.
A lot of the guitar work is very classical, reminding me of the instrumental work Joe Satriani does. Straight off the bat, we notice the technical skill of the guitarists, with clean, soaring guitars effortlessly blowing through chord progressions, contrasting the low, distorted djent sounds. Track three, “Arena” is full of sweeping arpeggios that could very well sound like warm-ups if they weren’t so harmoniously combined with the other elements. Could this be the rumored Yousei? We may never know.
What really sets this band apart from many others in the same style is the use of keys and synthesizers. We have piano sections, long atmospheric tones, and some playful effects as well. The outro of “Arena” is modified with a sort of skipping record, stutter-step effect. We get these little techno moments occasionally, like in the bridge of track eight, “Mechanic,” (Olly Steele?) but it’s never overdone. I’m really impressed with how full the sound is—how they’ve layered the tracks with different sounds and techniques, and yet the guitars are always prominently carrying the narrative. They’ve displayed not only a deftness with their instruments, but also in editing. Everything in the proper doses.
All that praise notwithstanding, my largest criticism may be a matter of mere taste. There is very little weight to the music, and by that I mean much of it is almost carefree and playful. It’s pretty to a fault. The djent sound brings a nice groovy beat to the music, but no real edge. The strength of metal in general, and progressive metal in particular, is to explore the entire range of human emotion. Prog metal doesn’t veer away from confronting fear, regret, loss, despair, and disorder. I prefer some of the grittier places Cloudkicker, Miroist and Animals as Leaders go. Von Citizen, like Scale the Summit, masterfully capture the grandeur and breadth of life, but I would like to see more contrast in tone from both acts. As it stands, the album is fun, and impressive, but to what end?
Without a doubt, Von Citizen had a clear vision with Sentience, and they realized it without fault. This album is a sleek, modern, jazzy celebration of layered sound, with guitar as its core and djent as it’s backbone. It boasts excellent production, and masterful editing. Fans of instrumental prog metal should check this one out with confidence, and I hope Von Citizen have a long and prodigious career. Maybe next time they can feature the Chinese equivalent of Fredrik Thordendal of Meshuggah fame and put some stank on it, as it were. Not to shit on ichika, who is clearly a master at what he does.
FAVORITE TRACK: “Clotho”
RELEASE DATE: 5/30/2018
FOR FANS OF: Intervals, Cloudkicker