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Album review: 'Haishen' 

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For a nascent band that has only two live performances under its belt, one in December and another in March, the Rochester trio Haishen has a surprisingly polished and cogent sound on its self-titled, three-song debut. Guitarist Chris Xu, bassist Justin Montione, and drummer Randy Rowe Jr. have created a sprawling post-rock sound that relies heavily on progressive metal aesthetics, as well as slowly unfolding and unpredictable song structures.

It’s entirely fitting that this self-produced EP, released on April 9, was tracked live in February at Wicked Squid Studios, where Xu and Montione met three years ago while working together as interns. Taking the Chinese word for “god of the sea” as its namesake, the band’s conceptual focus on maritime imagery comes from a shared interest in adventure literature about heroes’ quests and fantastical creatures.

Each song on “Haishen” has its own distinct character, which accentuates a different facet of the band’s expressive abilities. “Neptune” has a jagged metal swagger, with undulating rhythms and Xu’s taut tenor voice propelling the controlled chaos of the music. In this opening cut, the trio toes the line between ferocious noise and tuneful hooks.

“Ocean” finds the band in an extended moment of subdued and dreamy introspection, as Xu layers lush guitars over the soft, nearly imperceptible sound of waves, until halfway through the song when the mood breaks toward the ominous.

Over a distorted bass drone, Montione recites a cryptic five-part poem in which a dreary seaside landscape seems to mirror an equally desolate emotional state. The ascending churn of Xu’s guitar adds a harmonic dissonance that perfectly complements the narrative tension of the spoken word. Interestingly, the dichotomous structure of “Ocean” recalls the eventual shift from atmospheric calm to brooding menace that occurs on Sigur Rós’s “Untitled #7” from 2002.

To close out the EP, “Beluga” makes a sharp turn into the upbeat, alt-rock lane. The instrumental tune features the same kind of smile-inducing, virtuosic energy and groove-focused hooks you might expect to hear in a mercurial composition by guitarist Delicate Steve. The difference here is Xu’s guitar timbres skew more toward ’90s grunge than that of polystylistic jam band riffs until he lets out his inner shred monster in a thrilling melodic metal climax.

It’s difficult to speculate on the waves Haishen might already be making in the local scene had its momentum not been interrupted by the COVID-19 quarantine. But I can’t wait to see how this band evolves post-pandemic.

Daniel J. Kushner is CITY’s music editor. He can be reached at
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