I can count myself excited whenever I hear progressive metal fresh out of my own city. I have seen Matt Chanway‘s flagship band Assimilation play several times around the local metal circuit in Vancouver, and each time I’ve been impressed with the way they’ve showcased technique without straying from death metal tradition. While Assimilation reeks of the old school, Matt Chanway’s eponymous pet project is distinctly modern and progressive. Instrumental tech metal is as competitive a niche as they come, and with so many shred guitarists out there to one-up each other, it’s a challenging prospect to stand out from the crowd. While I don’t think Matt’s self-titled debut has set him apart yet as a recording artist, as a musician and strictly a guitarist, he’s already writing and playing at a level comparable with many of the legends that influenced him in the first place.
Shred and progressive metal have often gone hand-in-hand. This isn’t surprising at all to me. Both styles are driven by technique and the sonic urge to be “busy”, and when you factor in the former’s roots in legends like Malmsteen, both are inspired by the grandeur of classical music. Matt Chanway’s music isn’t influenced by classical so much as other shred guitarists, but listening to it this debut, I sensed the common virtuosic trait of music that showcases technical skill, rather than the other way around. Much like Malmsteen or even Paganini, a lot of the material here sounds like Matt is consciously trying to write songs that will push his skills to their limits. Burstfire solos, frantic time signatures, complicated riffing and the like are all signposts of an artist who wants to see how far he can go. Unsurprisingly, this ambition pays off. The release could stand on its own as proof that Matt could play alongside the world’s greatest in shred guitar. Non-guitarists probably won’t be able to grasp just how wild some of these ideas are. I don’t think the music has the same universal appeal as song-focused instrumental groups like Scale the Summit, but you’d be hard-pressed to find another guitarist that could school Matt in what he’s specifically set out to do here.
Despite how much depth and bite Matt throws into his guitarwork, the music is held back by an all-too common elephant in the room. While almost everything under the instrumental metal umbrella (and literally everything shred) is extremely focused on the guitar, using a drum program in lieu of a full band feels like a bastard example of lost potential. There’s nothing technically wrong with Jacob Craner’s programming; it’s as nuanced and busy as the style demands. Even so, when I think of my favourite tech metal bands (think Blotted Science and Canvas Solaris) it’s never just the guitar that gets to me. Shredding can be incredible on its own in the right hands, but hearing a full live band pulling it off is something else entirely. I get that this is Matt’s project and that it’s specifically intended to showcase his skills as a guitarist, but with so much thought clearly having gone into writing the material, this release deserved a live drum angle. It’s the same for this album as it is with most others that fall into this rut; even if the guitars are spot-on, the drum machine’s trademark soullessness makes the release feel like a polished proof of concept rather than a fully realized vision.
Somewhat akin to Blotted Science, Matt Chanway manages to stand apart not just for his tech abilities, but for the death metal bite his material carries as an undercurrent. Even if the material was inspired in the image of prog metal soloists like Jeff Loomis, there are obvious influences from his material in Assimilation. His playing is significantly more aggressive than your typical bedroom shredder. While the programmed backup, progressive concessions and obvious Christophe Szpajdel artwork seem poised to lose Matt amid the highly talented competition, his ability to amp up the aggression– not to mention his raw skill as a guitarist– could totally set him up as a widely regarded name in the worldwide community sometime soon.