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Despite having only two full-length releases to his name, Jeff Loomis is no newcomer to the world of metal. Originally one of the founding members of the power metal turned progressive metal band, Nevermore, Loomis left the group in 2011 to focus on his solo career. In 2008, before parting ways with Nevermore, Loomis released a moderately successful, entirely instrumental solo debut album, Zero Order Phase. After a lengthy four year gap, Plains of Oblivion is the 2012 follow up to the aforementioned album and is my first review of the New Year, falling into a new segment which I will call "Shit I Wish I Had Gotten Around To in 2012 But Didn't" that will be dominating Volumes of Sin for the entire month of January. So, what new tricks does Loomis have up his sleeve and what friends has he brought along with him this time for guest spots?
Plains of Oblivion starts off with a gradually inclining cinematic styled intro before bursting into an earth-shattering pandemonium of frenzied, technical guitar wankery backed by driving blast beat drumming. The first three songs, "Mercurial", "The Ultimatum" and "Escape Velocity" are packed with powerful, high energy guitar riffs and leads that take the listener on an audible roller-coaster of epic proportions. Unfortunately, this velocity does not extend for the entire album, as the madness begins to dissipate around the fourth track and the album finds itself gradually declining from there onward; the only exception being a couple of tracks later down the road. It is also during the fourth track, "Tragedy and Harmony", where vocals are introduced for the first time, leaving Loomis' solo project to no longer be considered as 'instrumental only' work.
Unlike Zero Order Phase, Jeff Loomis has enlisted the help of some more well known musicians, most of whom he has worked with on various projects in the past and whom have also gone on to develop their own solo careers. Marty Friedman (ex Megadeth 1990-1999) lends his guitar talents to "Mercurial", Tony MacAlpine shows masterful fretwork in "The Ultimatum", Christine Rhoades (ex Nevermore 1999) lends her harmonious vocals to tracks 4 and 8 (also 11 and 12 in the deluxe release), Attila Vörös makes his mark helping with the guitar work in "Requiem for the Living", Chris Poland (ex Megadeth 1984-1987 + 2004) can be heard lending a few solos on "Continuum Drift" and the mighty Ihsahn (ex Emperor), who released his own solo album in 2012, can be heard mixing up growls and clean vocals for "Surrender". With this all-star roster of talent, Plains of Oblivion should find no room for failure, but sadly it still falls short of anything particularly spectacular... but why?
As awe-inspiring as the guitar work on this content is, especially to those giving this album a first-time listen, there aren't many actual melodies or song structures. This leaves the material with a heavy amount of pure shredding and no firm grounding, instead it is filled excessively with typical Loomis and friends styled ear candy guitar work that comes with a plethora of sweeps, tremolo picking and everything in between. This isn't a bad thing necessarily, however the gimmicks portrayed get slightly stale later into the album and become predictable; sweep, solo, whammy bar, rinse and repeat. The second issue is indeed the new addition of vocals and lyrics, both of which bring the album down greatly to a sub-par melodic metal experience. While Christina Rhoades boasts decent and harmonic clean vocals, her vocal style doesn't suit the overall atmosphere of Plains of Oblivion nor does she empower the tracks that she is featured on. In fact, she does quite the opposite and may very well lull the listener to a catatonic state. Sandwiched between the two Rhoades sung tracks is "Surrender", which features Ihsahn on vocals. This is another element that throws Plains of Oblivion for an awkward loop, as the rest of the vocal work featured on this album is both female and clean sung. Ihsahn starts off making use of his growling vocal talents, leaving his clean vocals for the chorus, but still he fails to come off powerful or even enthralled with the work that he is creating. Dampening this song even further is the presence of Rhoades' ghostly voice lingering in the background during some parts of the track. The vocal tracks are also not helped by the fact that the lyrics feel tacked on and are of the cookie-cutter variety; offering little thought provoking depth and making the most of whatever words will rhyme.
On the bright side, the album is presented in crystal clear sound quality and the mixing is decent; the only gripe being that the bass is mixed very low and the guitars sometimes overwhelm what little song structure is kept in place by the drums. Overall, Plains of Oblivion is a great album to throw on for background noise or a casual listen here and there for the guitar work in itself. Sadly, the more one listens to this album the more it loses its touch and repeat listeners are more than likely to pick out the non-instrumental tracks. "Mercurial", "The Ultimatum", "Escape Velocity", and "Continuum Drift" are the highlights of this material, "Continuum Drift" being one of the most stand out tracks simply due to its refined, contemporary style. A fun ride while it lasts, a recommended listen, but rest assured that this album will wear out its welcome rather quickly.
- Villi Thorne