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“The Return” – just because I already used a similar title and mark about half a year ago in what could look at first glance like totally different circumstances. Indeed, where could possibly be the common denominator of the first demo of a totally unknown American melodeath band and the first album of a progressive supergroup involving four equally world-famous musicians? Because famous, for sure they are. It begins with Neil Morse who at this time still was the leader of Spock’s Beard – it was before he turned to religion and devoted his following works to endlessly praise the infinite mercy of his Lord; then come Pete Trewavas from Marillion and Roine Stolt from The Flower Kings, two leading figures of the prog rock scene, and finally I don’t even think I’ve to present Mr Mike Portnoy.
However the first striking detail which comes to mind even before having heard a single bar is that, except Portnoy, all these guys are playing in prog rock bands which have little to nothing to do with metal. Further, though Portnoy was the instigator of the project, three of the five tracks here are mainly written by Morse, one is essentially written by Stolt, and the last one is a cover. Thus, needless to say this release isn’t likely to be remembered for its raging speed and aggressiveness; as expected, it’s mostly prog rock with everything this term will imply. Just go out and ask your good old neighbour Mr Everyone to tell you what it would imply for him, and he’s likely to answer: “Well, good sir, prog rock means excellent musicians, 30 minutes long songs, headache-inducing intricate structures, endless and useless instrumental parts, pop-ish vocals, cheesy ballads, and lyrics about the absurdity of our lives”. The same could as well be said about most prog metal acts but you know, Mr Everyone has no clue of what “metal” means.
Now after this gentle interview if you go back home and spin this very album what will you find? Excellent musicians, a 30 minutes long song, headache-inducing intricate structures, endless and useless instrumental parts, pop-ish vocals, a cheesy ballad, and lyrics about the absurdity of our lives. To put it differently, this release is more or less a CARICATURE.
Let’s begin with the excellent musicians. They really are. The music here sounds incredibly fluid from the beginning to the end, in spite of its complexity. Neil Morse may be an average singer, but his skills on guitar as well as piano and keyboards (as there are lots of them) are worth their reputation. The same could apply to main guitarist Roine Stolt and, even if it’s the lot for every bassist to remain in the background, Pete Trewavas still makes honour to the band. Eventually, don’t underestimate Mike Portnoy. I may be all but a Dream Theater fan, but let’s admit Portnoy undoubtedly IS talented. In fact, while listening to this album it becomes obvious the man doesn’t reach his full potential with Dream Theater – exactly as if he felt forced to add lots of useless, stupid flourishes while playing with the aforementioned band. Here his play sounds far more sober, straighter, void of any showiness; in short, far better.
In addition of all this the production is perfect, crystal-clear as it’s the law of the genre. Indeed, these guys play so well the listener is most of the time likely to forget that what they play half of the time makes little sense.
What naturally leads us to the usual plague of the genre, these tons of mindless instrumental parts, wankery and, more surprisingly, repetitions. Repetitions as at the end of Mystery Train, an otherwise sympathetic rock-ish, slightly psychedelic tune somehow reminiscent of The Beatles. Mindless instrumental parts as, of course, in the 31 minutes long opening track, the traditional nowhere-going wankfest, or even in My New World, however still my favourite song. Prog rock is undoubtedly the art of telling in fifteen minutes what could be said in six or seven. Again, take My New World, beginning as a well-crafted, very melodic semi-ballad, then dragging on with an endless keyboard-driven fruity part where most listeners are likely to lose interest. And who could bear those 1:30 of babbling about the Dalai Lama (not joking) at the beginning of the ending track?
Otherwise the only truly unlistenable song here (well, there are only five tracks anyway) would be the very whiny prog ballad We All Need Some Light, sounding like as testimony of Neil Morse’s emergent religious inclinations. Pure pop music, and of the shitty kind, if shitty pop wasn’t a pleonasm. What enables me to point out that, if Father Morse’s voice isn’t anywhere near terrible by prog rock standards, his pop-ish falsetto may become annoying to those who aren’t really into this kind of music.
Actually, the whole album seems to be intended for people who are already familiar with the genre – as I said, a caricature. While listening to it, don’t expect to be converted to prog rock as quickly as Neil Morse had been to Christianity. That’s why the appreciation of this work may vary, depending on the listener, easily from 15% to 90%. I’d personally more or less share the opinion of the good Mr Everyone as, all things well considered, it isn’t really my cup of tea.
Highlights: My New World