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Add genius to studio, then step back - 90%

kapitankraut, September 14th, 2008

It's difficult to review entirely-instrumental albums if you don't know much about the music theory involved, as there are no song structures to talk about or vocals to describe. Still, an album like "Moonbabies" deserves every ounce of praise people can give it, and I'm willing to add my voice to that.

Planet X, as most reading this review will probably already know, is one of the projects that Derek Sherinian - late of Dream Theater and others - is responsible for. I may as well confess at this point that I consider Dream Theater to be as close to perfection in prog-metal as it's possible to get, so anything connected with that band is always going to be worth a listen from my perspective.

Sherinian, having been a keyboardist for the band, would probably be expected to turn out albums led by his instrument. This, for me, is the first major selling point of "Moonbabies" - the fact that it isn't keyboard-led. Don't get me wrong, keyboards definitely have their place in music, particularly in progressive music, but the prospect of an entirely keyboard-dominated album doesn't thrill me so much. One of the reasons Sherinian's old bandmates are so good is that they don't let any instrument dominate proceedings too much, and that's clearly a lesson that he's taken with him to his new work. Sure, the keyboard is an important voice on this album and gets more than enough opportunities to show off, but it never silences the rest of the music when it can be progressed by another sound.

What Sherinian has achieved here is rather like the Liquid Tension Experiment series of albums. He's brought a number of musicians who are clearly at the top of their games together and given them the opportunity to shine. The pieces here are sufficiently loose to feel like the results of an extended jam session, but there's enough structure throughout the album to make it clear that everyone knew where they were supposed to end up.

As I said earlier, other instruments are allowed to take centre stage, and naturally a lot of this is done by the guitars, which play particularly complex solos in places. The drums, too, carry the music enough to warrant listening specifically to them, which is rare in music these days in my experience. Of course, Sherinian's keyboards join in this fun as well. The odd bass run appears, particularly in "Midnight Bell", but in general it's just backing up the rest of the performers.

The beauty of all of this is that it's never technical virtuosity for the sake of technical virtuosity. Listening to this, I'm sure that everyone concerned could easily break out a quarter-hour solo just to show what they can do. Mercifully for the listener, though, they resist that temptation and instead use the soloing opportunities they have to contribute to the whole. The result, therefore, is closer to a band of sublimely talented musicians, rather than a collection of big egos shoehorned into the same room.

So why only 90%? It may just be my attention span coming to the fore, but purely-instrumental albums are a tough listen sometimes. Brilliant every note here may be, but without a vocal melody to listen to, I do occasionally find my attention wandering to other things. Still, would that more bands could cause me to get distracted through their brilliance.