Written by Kep
All Men Unto Me – In Chemical Transit
> Scotland, UK
> Releasing June 29
Change is an intrinsic part of the human experience. Whether it’s as exciting as adopting a new pet, as affirming as changing to a better career, or as painful as learning to live without a recently passed loved one, we all know the complex and multifaceted nature of transitions. In Chemical Transit, the debut album from Rylan Gleave under the project name All Men Unto Me, tells the story of such a change, but one that is perhaps more personal and intimate than most: it’s a transparent and profound account of his gender transition, told in a manner that’s as much naked vulnerability as it is triumphant strength. It’s a powerful, eye-opening piece of music that I think any feeling person will relate to, an indelible piece of humanity shared openly.
Let’s get this out of the way right from the start, since we’re a metal blog after all: there’s not much here to qualify this as metal in any sense, despite the fact that Gleave is a contributing member of Ashenspire and that this record was mixed by Ashenspire guitarist/pianist and producer Scott McLean. In fact, In Chemical Transit reads mostly as a modern classical composition, which makes a great deal of sense considering Gleave’s background in classical voice. The album features cello, piano, bass drum, and electronics in addition to his vocals, and that’s it; there are no guitars, no riffs, and the whole thing was recorded in a single live session at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, a formal school of music. It’s a challenging listen, especially for your average metalhead, but one that’s worth it and then some.
In Chemical Transit serves as a window into three moments in Gleave’s transition—teenage mezzo-soprano, eight weeks into taking testosterone, and over two years on testosterone—with a musical and thematic through-line. That through-line is the mezzo-soprano aria “Voi che sapete” from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, a particularly famous number from a particularly famous opera, and one that’s learned by countless students. The aria’s themes permeate the entirety of the record, snippets of its text sung in both Italian and English across the tracks and used for song titles, and its repeated appeal to know “s’io l’ho nel cor”—“if it is in my heart”—returning multiple times. It’s a fascinating and fitting piece to form this new opus around, as the character Cherubino, who sings the aria in the opera, is also searching for the truth of himself and attempting to come to an accord with his own feelings. Additionally, the part is traditionally a “pants role”: a male character, played by a woman. That sort of gender-bending has been present in opera for centuries, and Gleave is doubtless aware of this, which makes it all the more wonderful to hear the aria become his own over In Chemical Transit’s runtime.
The music that comprises the album’s 43 minutes is stripped down and minimalistic, ever pointing to Gleave’s voice, and there’s a very improvisatory feel to much of it. There are harrowing screams and incensed cries, rich lower tones that sometimes strangle into choking emotion, and raw vulnerability is evident across each moment. Each of the three points in Gleave’s journey are clearly heard in three distinct voices, each one a now-closed chapter of his story. He calls the record a “time capsule” in his promo notes, which couldn’t be more accurate; in addition to the two recordings that capture his voice in the past, his voice at the time of recording wasn’t yet entirely settled into a comfortable place. I found myself hanging on every moment throughout, fascinated and desperate to know what was coming next. The juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness, contentedness and crippling hurt, rapture and pain: that multifaceted nature of transition is on full unapologetic display.
The album’s track order is extremely well-crafted. Opener “Lament” slowly emerges from darkness, pulsating and growing like a nearing heartbeat before some of the most disturbing, shuddering screams I’ve ever heard on record tear through the build. Gleave sings in ribbons of baritone and falsetto over minimal cello and piano in “How to Hold It”, the brief “Turns – Delight, Fire, Misery” mixes sampled organ with whirling strings and impassioned harsh yells, and then “I Seek Something (Outside Myself)” moves emotively through a plaintively searching vocal journey, haunting and heartfelt.
“Interlude” is a recording of Gleave singing “Voi che sapete” after eight weeks on testosterone, seemingly pulled from a voice memo or something similar. He struggles to reach the notes in his limited shifting register but seems from his own spoken introduction in the recording to be in good spirits—smiling through the difficulty. It cuts to silence suddenly, from which “Ma pur mi piace languir cosi” (“But still I like languishing like this”) emerges, an uneasy instrumental with prominent noise elements. “Is it in My Heart…” features more improvisatory baritone singing over piano, and then penultimate track “Freezing/Flames” arrives, brash and as close to a metal tune as you’ll find on the album. Gleave runs the gamut here, with his screams, wails, and singing melding and morphing in and out of each other, before an increasingly chaotic crushing of instruments leads to a quiet ending that echoes the slow build of the album’s opening.
Closer “Senza saper” (“Without knowing”) is where the vision comes together. Crackling vocal fry leads into a recording of teenage, pretransition Gleave singing the aria as he now adds long tones of harmony beneath it. Two points of the same human life overlap and integrate into a single piece of music. But it’s the newer version of Gleave’s voice—the baritone timbre, still rough around the edges, not fully comfortable yet full of life—that transforms the original piece into something fresh, and it carries on far beyond the end of the old recording, closing the album in proud a cappella.
THE BOTTOM LINE
In Chemical Transit is an utterly singular work, the sort of daring project that sits at the forefront of art in both the musical and sociological sense. I applaud Rylan Gleave for this courageous and unapologetic approach to sharing his voice, in all its forms; the listening experience is intensely candid and moving in a way I’ve not experienced before. This album is profound and important in addition to being truly pioneering, and it deserves to be widely heard.