The number of people willing to "Flots Til Death!" has dropped precipitously since the band's major-label heyday. The band turned out to be too metal for mainstream crossover success, despite a bit of airplay in 1992 with the heavily-hyped "Cuatro", while their move away from thrash roots alienated old-school 1980s fans. Their melodic tendencies and "clean vocals," meanwhile, held little interest for a new generation raised on hardcore, death and black metal. It's not like the material has been lacking – a trip to your used CD store for a copy of 1995's "Drift" and 2001's "My God" is highly recommended — but FLOTSAM AND JETSAM has somehow, in the last decade, turned into this cult band, at home in no particular niche in the current metal scene.
Four years after the band's last recorded output, down still another notch in the record label food chain, and firmly in "they're still around?" territory, FLOTSAM AND JETSAM re-emerge with, of all things, a concept album. The guitarwork in particular is quite impressive, showcasing a pent-up aggression and desire to stay relevant and knock off four years of rust. Songwise, there are some gems here — the choruses are huge, there's a lot of fluid lead work going on behind the main riffs and vocals, and there's a cinematic flow to the whole thing, despite a short running time and a relative lack of those "ear candy" bits common to most concept albums.
Of course, the metal benchmarks for any concept album are QUEENSRŸCHE opus "Operation: Mindcrime" (to which the album-closing interlude "Nascentes Morimar" owes a debt) and NEVERMORE's classic "Dreaming Neon Black" — a record that seems to have had more than a little influence on the dark path taken here. Not so much from a soundalike standpoint — FLOTSAM has been grittier than most people realize for a while now — but from a standpoint of sheer intensity, bleak mood, and overall ambition.
I mean, the album's weakest point is its bargain-basement production — in a few places (particularly on closer "Out of Mind") the vocals sound like demo versions, and the material as a whole is crying out for a ballsier, heavier sound — an Andy Sneap polish job with bigger drums and more low-end heft would put this album on the map. But consider how much the band did get done on what was obviously a shoestring budget — the equivalent of James Cameron producing a Hollywood blockbuster with camcorders and a high school drama club. They make the absolute most of their reduced circumstances and have turned in an album that can stand with their classics. (And hey, "Dreams of Death" still sounds better than the tinny, muffled head-cold sound of 1990's "When the Storm Comes Down"!)
Though FLOTSAM like to tease with thrashy openers (see the polka beat of opener "Straight to Hell"), "Dreams of Death" maintains the band's finesse and maturity, even as it bares its teeth for some surprisingly weighty moments. "Straight to Hell" and (especially) "Parapsychotic" are a vicious opening punch, while "Look In His Eyes" and "Childhood Hero" take a more anthemic, midtempo approach, giving temperamental vocalist Eric A.K. plenty of room to shine (twenty years into his metal career, he remains one of the most distinct and strong melodic voices in metal).
Highlights are many: the entirety of "Childhood Hero" and "Parapsychotic", the depressive, defeated vibe of "Bathing in Red", and the expressive, subdued guitar work of "Nascentes Morimar". There's really not a bad track on the album, though the "hidden track" sound collage is redundant — the somewhat flimsy lyrical concept doesn't need more room, but a couple more songs of this caliber would have been welcomed (there's that damn budget thing again).
For those of us that still care, "Dreams of Death" is a welcome return of one of the scene's most consistent, enjoyable and underrated acts. If you like your metal melodic and heavy, thoughtful and well-crafted, heavy and hooky, don't make the mistake of writing off FLOTSAM AND JETSAM just yet.
(P.S. – It would probably violate some Federal law not to mention Jason Newsted in any FLOTSAM AND JETSAM-related article, so, hey, Jason Newsted used to be in FLOTSAM AND JETSAM.)