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With Spastic Ink's 1997 debut 'Ink Complete', brothers Jarzombek and bassist Pete Perez left quite a mark on the tech metal scene. Being able to charge their viciously impressive playing with intelligent and complex composition, Spastic Ink immediately set themselves apart from the rest of the crowd, leaving a dedicated fanbase hungry for more. Seven years later, a few things changed with the band's sound on the second record 'Ink Compatible', but the tongue-in-cheek nature of the album coupled with its technical brilliance make it nothing short of a great follow-up to the original.
'Ink Compatible' shows the sound and direction of Spastic Ink growing more mature, although the eccentric charm of guitarist Ron Jarzombek is still here, through quirky guitar solos and odd voiceovers. To one as yet uninitiated with the music of Spastic Ink, the band takes progressive metal to very technical heights, and features incredibly complex arrangements, albeit at the sacrifice of well-rounded music. Although I was always impressed by the arrangements of Spastic's msuci the first time around, it always felt as if the compositions lacked cohesion as complete pieces. On 'Ink Compatible', there has definitely been a marked improvement on that front. Instead of the songs feeling like individual collections of jaw-dropping riffs and musical ideas, 'Ink Compatible' has pieces that take the form of actual songs; all to the band's benefit.
In most ways, 'Ink Compatible' is an improvement over its predecessor, although it certainly takes some extra time to grow in light of the added complexities to composition structure. However, I do not necessarily choose this album over the first. The biggest reason for this is certainly the use of singers here, which as one may have expected from a band as technical as Spastic Ink, does not work in the band's favour. Although there are some great singers like Daniel Gildenlow (of progressive metal titans Pain of Salvation) at work here, the vocal melodies never sound inspired, and instead tend to distract from the real delight here, being the excellent instrumentation. Some of the voiceovers wear thin quickly as well; one can only hear interludes about hillbillies' views towards personal computers so many times before deigning to skip over it!
Perhaps there isn't as much of the same charm this time around for Spastic Ink, but the album is certainly a step above 'Ink Complete' in terms of its writing and- in some cases- musicianship itself. Spastic Ink finally sounds like a full band effort here as opposed to the debut, which sounded closer to being a Ron Jarzombek solo album. An excellent album by any stretch, although it is more hit-and-miss than what I've previously heard from Spastic Ink.
The first thing to note about this recording is the rather impressive list of guest contributors. On vocals - Jason McMaster of Watchtower, Daniel Gildenlow of Pain of Salvation; on guitars - Marty Friedman of Megadeth; on keyboards - Jens Johansson of Stratovarius, Jimmy Pitts of Scholomance, David Bagsby of Xen; on bass - Michael Manring of Attention Deficit (god), Sean Malone of Cynic (demi-god), Doug Keyser of Watchtower, Ray Riendeau of Rob Halford; on drums - Jeff Eber of Dysrhythmia, David Penna of Sys-X.
Wow. Ron Jarzombek sure knows how to make friends in the right places (the guy has also played with Hate Eternal drummer Derek Roddy, Behold... the Arctopus drummer Charlie Zeleny, Lamb of God drummer Chris Adler, and others)... not to mention the base lineup of brother and percussion wizard Bobby Jarzombek on drums and Riot's Pete Perez on bass. With musicians like these at your disposal, it's possible to create just about anything imaginable. Ron, being the prolific madman that he is, has chosen to create a whacked out novelty trip through the world of instrumental absurdity.
Ridiculous things start happening from the very start, as "Aquanet" comes in with the horribly familiar staticy beeps and bloops of a dial-up modem connecting to an ISP. Only, that isn't some kind of sample you're hearing, it's Ron actually recreating the sounds of a dial-up modem with his guitars. I'm afraid I will never know how he accomplished this. Bizarre. The song then breaks into the kind of non-stop guitar abstractions that you will be subjected to throughout the remainder of the album. Everything is a lead, though occasionally a Watchtower-esque thrash riff will pop its head into the fray. At some point towards the middle of the song, Jens Johansson comes in with a keyboard lead before bowing out to a funky bass solo from Pete Perez, which gives way once again to Ron's ego. Just kidding. The great thing about Ron is that his leads and solos are totally off the wall, goofy, and whacky... and you will NEVER get tired of them. This is nothing like listening to John Petrucci leave the remainder of his band in the dust for five minutes. This is more like listening to Ron Thal and Electrocution 250's Todd Duane trading rhythmically labyrinthine leads back and forth while being filtered through a Disney cartoon and backed by frenetic drum acrobatics and utterly solid bass heroics - and I don't mean the kind of shit you hear with Spiral Architect, where the band wanders around like aimless sheep while the bassist performs advanced finger exercises for the entirety of the song. There is some serious synergy going on with these guys. It's unrivaled. Anyway, the song draws to a close with a sample of an answering machine repeating "If you'd like to make a call, please hang up and try again. If you need help, please hang up and dial your operator" in an increasingly annoyed and agitated tone of voice. On top of this, Bobby Jarzombek goes crazy on his kit with absurd footwork and lightning fast fills.
"Just A Little Bit" is more of the same. Nothing too special.
Then comes "Words for Nerds". Ink Compatible is actually a sort of humorous concept album about the perils of computers and the clueless users who succumb to them. The concept is revealed initially at the introduction of this song, where we hear a clip of a guy reading about jiggawatt hard drivers, LSD monitors, and EMBEES of memory before realizing that he's reading about a computer. It then breaks into a whacky instrumental segment which goes through more changes than I can count in the span of about one minute before culminating in a brief but decidedly evil sounding lead from Ron. Another pause, and now we're treated to a clip of a female shopping around for a word processor with very specific requirements. This rolls right into a gorgeous extended bass solo from Michael Manring - outstanding performance, by the way - which goes on for approximately a full minute before dropping out into yet another spoken segment. This time it's some guy attempting to futilely enter a URL into a web browser. Before you have a chance to get your bearings, the band comes back in with a twisted keyboard medley that sounds like Sesame Street wrung through The Twilight Zone, and then bam - another break. A guy talking about backing up fixed hard drives and reconfiguring his dot matrix, and then the guys finally come back in for good with some goofy melodies to bring the song to a quiet end.
"Melissa's Friend" is up next, and it starts off once again with a guy complaining about his computer... something about critters crawling all over his files. Ron comes in with a truly malicious sounding tapped lead, and eventually we get to hear Daniel Gildenlow sing about computer viruses with the full emphatic power of his mega-dramatic vocals. He holds nothing back.
"Read Me" isn't anything terribly exciting. An instrumental that starts off with some almost neo-classical shredding harmonized with what sounds like a toy piano. Goes on into more extended solo'ing from Ron. There's some whacky stuff going on towards the end of this song, with upbeat major key melodies simultaneously juxtaposed against wild shredding, thrash riffing, spooky keyboard lines that sound like something out of Ghostbusters, and various other strange guitar noises. Ends abruptly and moves into...
"Multi-Masking". The intro to this song is comprised of vocals that were recorded backwards. I read on RJ's forum at one point that this portion needs to be played in reverse in order to get the actual lyrics, and he even mentioned what the lyrics were, but I forget. That moves into a brief medley of what sounds like a MOOG synthesizer mixed with xylophone, and then the band comes in with the usual. Some wonderful guitar and bass interplay towards the middle of this song, and another neat keyboard lead from Jens. There's another bass solo floating around in there as well. Following up is "In Memory Of...", which is the most laid back track on here. It starts off a bit slow, but picks up towards the middle with monster bass work from Sean Malone and a very fusion-y feel.
At twelve minutes and twelve seconds, "A Chaotic Realization of Nothing Yet Misunderstood (or ACRONYM)" is the next and longest track to be found here. Dysrhythmia's Jeff Eber is behind the drumkit on this one, and he holds it down well. Ron Jarzombek is probably at his most frenetic here... simply all over the place.
The album comes to an end with "The Cereal Mouse", which is a little over a minute long and is a very fun thing. It's like a shred lullaby with cartoon synths. This is the kind of stuff that makes Ron Jarzombek so wonderful.
The weak point of this album can be condensed into two words - Jason McMaster. I didn't really like him in Watchtower, and I don't like him here either. In fact, he sounds noticeably worse; his voice cracked and strained. Nothing unbearable, just not particularly enjoyable. Also, the spoken segments found in several of the tracks here can get old after a while.
Aside from that, this is quality technical metal that doesn't take itself too seriously and is very fun to listen to. My highest praises to RJ.
Some friend of mine kept on talking about this tech/prog metal band that talked about computers and was really nerdy, but that they were actually good. So I got their second album, 'Ink Compatible', released in 2004 after 7 years of silence. I read some good reviews of it online, and noticed that the guitarist was also in Gordian Knot, so I pretty much knew what to expect. Everything sounded just like I though it would - technical, progressive, and there's definitely a lot of gordian knot influence in the guitar sound, and overall just in the feel of music (without the long and tiring fusion tracks in Gordian Knot). When I started spinning this cd for the first time, I feared it would become like Liquid Tension Experiment or other prog acts people talk about (the album starts with this amazing prog instrumental, but then you get about 50 minutes of boredom). Ink Compatible is NOT one of those albums, fear not. The music itself has lots of keyboard and original guitar shredding talent for variety, and some songs feel so 'out there' they seem to drag on forever, but it mysteriously keeps you hanging until the end. Yes, the album has a few uninspired 'let's-shred-so-noone-notices-we-have-no-ideas' moments, but they really don't last long (like in the middle of 'Read Me', there's this boring-as-fuck interlude or whatever, but it quickly gets back on track with the riffs). When I saw a 12 minute song coming up near the end I knew what to expect...a song that would be put at the end of the album so the album's over 55 minutes (like one of those uninspired songs I talked about earlier). It's definitely not that. Killer riffs from start to end, no gay interlude bullshit or useless shredding and whatnot. Finally, the album ends with a hilarious instrumental lasting a bit more than a minute called 'The Cereal Mouse', which somewhat reminded me of the latest Fantomas CD. Random track which starts with a circus theme, which quickly evolved in hyper-fast fest of shredding and weird sounds. This would be a good song to wake up to. It's good to hear a non-bullshit prog album; I haven't heard much of those lately...looks like i'll be hanging on to this one for a while (even though I already have). Get it, if you're a fan of non-bullshit true progressive metal.
If you’re like myself and went through Ron Jarzombek’s discography in chronological order, the second Spastic Ink album will be even more difficult to get into than the first. “Ink Compatible” has many changes that will once again; inevitably throw the listener for a loop upon preliminary listens. First and foremost, Spastic Ink is no longer an entirely instrumental project, as Watchtower vocalist Jason McMaster provides vocals on five of the nine tracks while Daniel Gildenlow from Pain of Salvation handles the vocal duties on “Melissa’s Friend.” Each of these singers has a rather unique style that while at first odd starts to become quite euphonious over time. In addition there are several spoken word segments scattered throughout the record that while primarily humorous, tend to throw off the flow of the album quite a bit. These segments are used effectively when they begin and end songs (see “Aquanet” and “Melissa’s Friend”), but when sandwiched in between two solos of contrasting speeds, they just seem out of place. For instance, the instrumental track “Words for Nerds” has several abrupt stoppages where a crazy solo will end, some brooding synths will start, and a voice chimes in with some oddball comment about computers. It seems that the intent of these vocal passages is to transition from a slow segment to a fast part (and vice-versa), but surely the band could have found a better way to form a musical bridge. As such, the song plays out like a bad dream where Herman Li busts out the two-minute solo in “Valley of the Damned” until he’s upstaged by a six year old girl reciting poetry who upon completion turns the stage over to Sean Malone so he can jump right into a delicate bass solo.
Also for the first time in an Ink record there are other contributors outside of the three main performers. The list of guest musicians is quite long, so it’s not worth going through each one, but my favorite performance is definitely Michael Manring’s beautiful fretless bass solo in “Words For Nerds.” As for the musical constructions of the songs, it appears that the designs are less rigid than in Ron Jarzombek’s previous work, as there are no indications in the liner notes that the songs are created from strict theoretical patterns. However, even without the aid of liner notes one can still pick out certain masterful, mechanical moments like the start of “Aquanet” where the guitar mimics the tone and rhythm of an Internet connection dialing up. The last and least notable change on “Ink Compatible” is the addition of lyrics from Ron Jarzombek that are in no way intrinsic to the band and it’s music.
That takes care of all the new stuff so let’s get to what’s superb and familiar about the latest Spastic Ink record. The musicianship is still exceptionally fast and flawless while the drums and bass continue to provide a sturdy backbone so the guitar leads can flail around erratically. In general the songs are a bit longer this time, but the band never approaches the point of boredom and redundancy that plagues many technical bands who indulge in fits of whimsical wankery. The unique blend of robotic musicianship and quirky wit once again produces a unique listening experience, although the humor is far less subtle on this effort. Overall this is another deep, challenging, but ultimately fun record: a hulking mass of music just waiting to be explored. In fact, one could listen to “Ink Compatible” for several years and still not have traversed through every musical plane. It is this level of complexity for which I am most thankful, for if the amount of time and labor put into this CD is any indication; the next Spastic Ink record won’t be out until 2011.