Prog and punk may seem like mortal enemies, but there’s a London-based three-piece called Serpent Tax who play a mix of the warring styles. Usually my gripe with modern prog is that it’s too easy to spot the ripoffs. Serpent Tax doesn’t really sound like anyone, so that’s a great start. But how exactly do they sound?
With their new EP Downpour, there’s a few things the band has going for them. First, they truly sound like a three-piece. Every member’s contribution can be heard pretty equally; Serpent Tax sounds like they’re having a blast playing together. In particular, the band really hits their stride in these tripped-out instrumental sections, like the bridge of “Trees from Seeds” or the second half of “Meet You at the Bottom”. The guitarwork in these sections is intriguing – it really evokes those stormy seas shown on the album cover.
The band’s chops generally have a solid showing on Downpour. If the guitars are the star of the bridges, the drums take the cake on fills and transitions. Just check out those roaring tom rolls on the intro of “Meet You at the Bottom”. The bass tone all throughout the EP is great too. The basslines distinguish themselves well from the guitar parts. Finally, the vocalist really brings the punk energy to this EP.
But much like the band name, their approach to songwriting on this EP is a bit confusing. There aren’t really any hooks or refrains on this EP. While I can appreciate unconventional song structures, there’s nothing to really latch onto. Also the raucous loud part + extended slow, quiet part formula the Serpent Tax uses gets stale. The only song to buck this trend is “Sharp Knives”, and it’s also the only song with a memorable main riff. After nearly 30 minutes of music, something more should stick with the listener.
While the vocals are very energized, the delivery is way too repetitive. The candance is very. Broken up. On every song. Just like this. A more contrasted, varied approach to vocal pacing would have helped distinguish verses from choruses, and give each song its own identity. The clean, spacey sections also feel like a missed opportunity to add something different vocally. Unfortunately, the vocals sound raw yet boring at the same time.
Another glaring issue on Downpour is the guitar tone. The distorted guitar tone is grating and wispy. This makes what would be cool moments, like the riff at 2:20 of “Meet You at the Bottom”, just sound limp. The clean tone isn’t really any better. It sounds like the band had a nice effects chain setup, but then blended it with a raw, dull DI guitar track. The clean guitars are just way too plucky and off-putting. Also, while the instrumental performances are mostly solid, there are a couple of missteps. The biggest offender is the polyrhythmic outro of “Trees from Seeds” – whatever the band was going for here didn’t work out.
Downpour is the sound of a young band still searching for their niche. Serpent Tax has the chops to play some cool mix of prog and punk, but they haven’t quite ironed things out yet. With more finesse in their songwriting, Serpent Tax could be on to something great.
Best Track: Sharp Knives
Weakest Track: Quisling
FFO: King Crimson, The Mars Volta
Overall Score: D+