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This is, bar none, the most impressive live album I have ever heard to date. In fact, while Planet X's studio albums are fine and all, this destroys them mercilessly. Actually, this walks all over any progressive metal/fusion album that I can think of off the top of my head - studio or live. A bold declaration? Yeah, maybe.
The guys are no strangers in the music world. Derek Sherinian is probably best known for his brief time with Dream Theater, Tony MacAlpine is the whitest black guitar player in existence who has played everything from fusion-jazz with Cab to neoclassical metal with Vitalij Kuprij, Virgil Donati has artists from all around the world willing to pay him obscene amounts of money just to play session drums for them, and temporary live bassist Dave LaRue has been employed by the likes of John Petrucci and Steve Morse. Naturally, this might mean ego, and ego might mean a supergroup doomed to fail. However, Planet X do not fail. If I didn't know better, I'd say that there was an invisible bio-cable on stage connecting all four of them and transferring brain matter back and forth in order to create a giant synergy dome, bringing out the absolute best in all four players and channeling it into a central pool of instrumental perfection from which the players may pull at will. Hmm.
Meanwhile, back in reality...
Live From Oz features seven tracks from Universe, one track from Moonbabies, three solo spots, and the Atlantis trilogy from Derek Sherinian's Planet X album (which I have not heard, so I'm not sure what these three tracks sound like in the studio). I can't speak for Atlantis, but otherwise each song is performed more or less faithfully to the original - that is, all the metal-fusion shredding, alien drumming, and "damn I wish I was a guitar player!"-keyboarding is nailed to perfection and comes through crystal clear, and the transitions inbetween are smooth and natural. Tony manages to take Steve Vai's squealing, Yngwie Malmsteen's neoclassical wankery, and Allan Holdsworth's legato mastery and twist them all into something oddly compelling. It isn't all shred, though... there are plenty of slow, soaring, and beautiful solos and leads that feel like they would be more at home on a Weather Report record. Derek actually does a lot of atmospheric support work throughout the set as opposed to simply trying to stroke his ego by competing with Tony all the time, which is good, because I've always been of the mind that Derek is better when he focuses on ambience than when he's pretending to be a second lead guitar. Not to worry, though, Tony and Derek still have enough crazy unisons and duels to keep the die-hard proghead drooling. Virgil is pure insanity, as usual... I don't think there's a single straightforward groove to be found anywhere in the 70+ minutes of this show that lasts for more than a few seconds. He sits back there, doing absurd stuff like rolls that use both ends of his sticks (the heads doing the snare, and the butts doing the toms, or vice-versa), playing with each of his four limbs in different meters, employing syncopation techniques from hell, performing one-footed double-bass runs that are faster than or as fast as most players can do with two feet, doing one-handed treks across his obscene kit at lightning speeds while keeping a steady hi-hat rhythm with his other hand, and other things that would make us mere mortals gape in awe. The scary thing about Virgil is that Simon Phillips, who mixed this album and is a drum mastermind in his own right, stated in an interview that he couldn't imagine playing some of the stuff that Virgil does without breaking a sweat... though I suppose that's to be expected from somebody who has spent the last 46 years of his life doing nothing but striving to achieve drum godhood. Actually, Virgil is probably the highlight of this entire set, as he constantly changes up the rhythm and pacing of the songs and keeps the whole thing from degenerating into a typical prog wankfest.
Song-wise, the Atlantis trilogy is what really took my breath away here. "Apocalypse 1470 BC" starts off in typical Planet X fashion - Tony wailing away, Derek providing futuristic soundscapes, and Virgil working on a brain aneurism. However, that ends abruptly about one minute in as Virgil apparently grows another pair of arms and, while maintaining a straightforward hi-hat/snare backbeat, embarks on a speedy cross-kit hike (with Tony and Derek along for the ride) that can only be described as sounding like somebody had just hit the fast-forward button right in the middle of a dense instrumental jam. Jaw, meet floor. This general idea of multiple rhythms being played simultaneously at multiple speeds is repeated in several variations until the song comes to an end. A smooth bass solo from Dave LaRue marks the start of "Sea of Antiquity", backed by Derek's piano. Tony takes over about a minute in with a solo of his own that runs the gamut from soaring, emotional vibrato work to wild shredding and sweeping... and he takes the song to its end. "Lost Island" indulges in some upbeat, dreamy melodies from the getgo that really do make you feel like you're peacefully relaxing on some lost island in the middle of nowhere. A third of the way in, the guys briefly lapse into the craziness that we heard on "Apocalypse 1470 BC", with Virgil keeping a slow beat on the hi-hat while going into fast-forward mode on the remainder of his kit to meet up with Tony and Derek. From there, ideas clash from all directions until everything climaxes into a sprawling, expansive, epic-sounding closing sequence that isn't unlike the end of Dream Theater's "Hell's Kitchen". Very beautiful.
The solo spots are mostly typical. Especially Virgil's and Tony's... except for the thing where Virgil's is sandwhiched right in the middle of "Warfinger", which I suppose works out well. Derek's solo, or at least the second half of it, sort of reminds me of the background music to Master of Orion 2, only drenched in a futuristic synth sound (probably not the best point of reference, as the game isn't exactly popular, but oh well). That's a good thing, in case you were wondering.
I can't really think of anything negative to say, so I'll just say that this is absolutely mandatory for any fan of progressive metal and/or metal-fusion. Even those people who are allergic to bands like Dream Theater, Andromeda, and Dreamscape should check this out, because it's on a completely different level.