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out of nowhere, a top-echelon prog metal opus - 85%

RedRedSuit, October 26th, 2016

(Please see my profile for my rating scale.)

Beyond The Bridge is a German progressive metal outfit who have, for now, released just this one album. But what is "progressive metal"? It's a peculiar genre, in that most serious metal listeners have at least some affection for it, or at least they "know" it, in the same way that most of them "know" Metallica or Black Sabbath, even if they're not big fans of those particular bands. Despite this, real prog metal has an alarmingly small number of bands to have gotten any real mindshare among listeners. Basically, there is Queensrÿche; and Dream Theater. (If we're being honest, Queensrÿche isn't all that "progressive," in that even their one concept album masterpiece, Operation: Mindcrime, is a collection of mostly 4-minute radio-friendly songs with catchy choruses. Plus, all that is in the '80s and has, just in terms of musical style, essentially nothing to do with modern prog metal. Nor a criticism; just a fact.) So, basically, prog metal is -- in most people's eyes -- Dream Theater… and that's it. Now, DT have about a million albums, and a few of them are fairly universally recognized as essential records -- and (though opinions vary) they are still putting out credible material at a non-stop pace.

So, one day, I opened Spotify and launched their "Progressive Metal" playlist. My mission: Find a modern prog metal band that can really capture my attention, the way DT have through the years (though not for a while now). After hours of listening through Spotify's picks, this Beyond The Bridge opus is basically the only thing I've found that qualifies.

And, man, does it ever qualify. I've listened to the damned thing probably 20 times in a row, and my affection for The Old Man And The Spirit has only grown over time. This is clearly one of the best prog metal albums I have ever heard. I would honestly be shocked by any fan of DT's old stuff (Images & Words, Awake, ACOS, Scenes) listening to this and not at least liking it.

The track featured in the aforementioned Spotify playlist is the album opener, The Call, and it's a perfect introduction to the glories of this album. An atmospheric keyboard intro quickly leads into tight, metallic riffing -- aggressive and catchy but un-obnoxious and befitting the occasion of the heady subject matter; no power metal excess here. Soon, Herbie Langhans, the band's emotive male vocalist introduces the album's highly allegorical concept. Langhans is an excellent singer, not blessed with a great range but with a great ability to portray emotion and belt at a high volume when appropriate, but also perfectly equal to the challenge of sounding sensitive or introspective, all without a hint of cheese. (Obligatory Dream Theater comparison: LaBrie at his best was technically flashier, rangier… and far, far, far cheesier.) From there, the 6-minute song goes through a number of changes -- there is spoken poetry, there are flashy but tasteful guitar solos, there are recurring motifs. It's good stuff…

…and then it seamlessly blends into the rest of the album. Though the record _does_ have individual songs, and no track exceeds the 10-minute mark, many of the tracks combine seamlessly with each other in thematically smart ways. For example, track 1, The Call, features the Old Man character announcing his blindness to the mysteries of life and the desire to know more -- then track 2, The Apparition, features the response to this call by the Spirit character. The Spirit is portrayed by the other lead vocalist, Dilenya Mar, who's a very imperious-sounding female singer. Again, she's not incredibly powerful (being a jazz singer prior to joining BTB) but has the perfect tone for her character. The Spirit is an allegorical character that represents perfect knowledge but lacks emotion or human awareness. Much of the album consists of the interplay between Langhans and Mar, as they conceive, ponder, and battle over the Faustian bargain proposed by the Spirit: give me all your human memories and worldly awareness, and I will give you perfect understanding of the world's inconceivably complex depths.

If that sounds a little pretentious and high-minded and philosophical, well, I suppose it is, but I suspect they don't care, and I didn't either. The reason: this album is so clearly, obviously a labor of love. The lyrics and concept aren't just some gimmick invented to go on top of the music, after the fact. This is clearly very personal stuff (if you want to know more, look around the web, as I did). The concept and the music reinforce each other, and neither steps on the other at any point (okay, with one exception -- see below). Just as lyrical motifs are repeated throughout this long album, so are various musical phrases, all in ways that make sense with repeated listens (though admittedly, the first couple of listens may lead to the feeling that some of the songs lack their own individual identities, due to these repeated self-references). It's all so thought-out and intentional, without any forced instrumental (or vocal) wankery, that it's honestly just impressive it was recorded and released at all.

I mean, this album took something like 7 years to make, with all the members apparently professionals of one type or another. (Band-leader Degenfeld is a theoretical physicist. I'm not joking.) Can you imagine the dedication this thing took to conceive and compose and record to completion, given that the commercial prospects of the final product are limited at best? It is mind-boggling to me.

You might notice that, so far, I've spent very few words describing individual instrumental prowess. That's not for the lack of it. The guitarist and 1/2 of the songwriting team, Peter Degenfeld, is a tight lead riffing machine when needed, a subtle bottom-end chugger when appropriate, and fills in several impressive Petrucci-like sweep-picked leads without breaking a sweat. It's all very tasteful -- even when it's flashy -- but it has to be noted that this restraint means Peter's guitar "character" doesn't exactly stand out. He does what is needed for the concept to work, and when that means guitar pyrotechnics, you get guitar pyrotechnics, but that doesn't mean he does enough to stand out as a unique "guitar hero" type of musician. The rest of the team are all very solid prog metal performers: the drummer is restrained but tight with his double-bass-heavy contributions; the bassist is nimble and sensible; and the keyboards (courtesy of Tarnow, who co-wrote the music) are atmospheric with a couple of explosions of lead piano.

So, in many ways, you can think of this album as, stylistically, early Dream Theater, but more thoughtful, restrained, conceptual, philosophical -- less flashy, intense, song-oriented, cheesy.

To be clear, that assessment is not 100% a compliment. It is impressive to hear the heady conceptual tale unfold to completion -- but it's also fun to hear Petrucci's exuberant excesses, like the solo in Under A Glass Moon, or Mike Portnoy's ultra-flashy, non-stop, look-at-me! fills and rhythms. The material is serious and impressive and musically satisfying, but it doesn't quite reach the highest of the highs that the absolute top-echelon bands do when they truly go for broke. Probably the most disappointing manifestation of this restraint is the album's closer -- All A Man Can Do. It's long, yes; it has an epic narrative tone, yes; but it's basically a droning repetition of the same oppressive motif. Does it work narratively? Yes, but in my progressive metal album closers, I want a truly epic musical experience, and this just is not that. So, that's a pity.

Niggles. Any prog metalhead is going to love this album. We are still talking long, through-composed, complex tracks, with plenty of instrumental and vocal pyrotechnics. Give it a listen -- and then I dare you not to buy it.

I just hope the next BTB album won't take seven years to complete.