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Heavy, smooth, & progressive - 89%

failsafeman, September 15th, 2010

It's too bad Threshold are still rather unknown, because really they are one of the hardest working bands in metal. Just look at their discography; they've been putting out a steady stream of material since their formation in 1988, weathering many lineup shifts that would've killed lesser bands, all while maintaining a level of quality and professionalism that is difficult to compete with (especially if you're Dream Theater). After 1997's excellent Extinct Instinct, Threshold parted ways for the second time with on-again, off-again singer Damian Wilson. However, without missing a beat, they recruited Andrew "Mac" McDermott, a man more in line with Glynn Morgan's silky smooth style on Psychedelicatessen than Wilson's aggressive delivery and heavy metal falsettos. Mac would go on to sing on the next four albums, becoming the Threshold frontman most are familiar with.

With 1998's Clone, Threshold polish their sound further and drift away from Extinct Instinct's heavier and at times epic style, which at the same time makes for lower peaks but greater consistency. While Wilson fucking slays on songs like "Eat the Unicorn", he's just not as suited for softer songs, which Mac handles much better. For any expecting long-winded instrumental showcases, that's not how Threshold roll. Even on their long songs, they're very content-minded, with each and every note played with purpose. Compared to Dream Theater, the progressive metal band most people are familiar with, instrumentation is similar; however, Threshold focus on catchiness above all else, and have a penchant for big, AOR-ish choruses with lots of backing vocals. Still, they never forget heavy riffs, as heard on songs like the speedy "Life's Too Good" especially. Threshold have done a very solid job of combining metal's heaviness and progressive rock's rhythmic and thematic complexity, with the catchiness and accessibility of AOR smoothing everything out. The faultless production backs it all up with a slick professional sheen, noticably better than on earlier albums.

Like a number of Threshold's full-lengths, Clone is a loose concept album of sorts. No tedious interludes or overblown narrations here, though; the album is still very song-focused, and while the plot's fairly easy to follow, the songs stand on their own merits. The album is enjoyable whether or not you choose to immerse yourself in its story. The concept revolves around a near-future society that indulges in ever more dramatic genetic engineering; things quickly spiral out of control, until finally the protagonist tries to escape the Earth in a dream state. His soul travels to Mars, only barely returning to Earth intact, apparently with the intention of teaching others to do the same. The message comes across a little preachy and "science gone wrong" has been a common theme in fiction since Frankenstein, but luckily the lyrics are written well enough that it's not too much of a problem. The mood the music sets is very powerful, strongly melancholy but also with grimly humorous undertones, a combination more reminiscent of early Genesis at their least whimsical than anything in metal.

As you might expect from a concept album, the weighty stuff is backloaded. Starting out we get the shorter, catchier tracks to pique our interest, while the longer epics are relegated to the second half for the story's climax. "Freaks" is probably the standout of the former sort, very catchy and entertaining but with an interesting structure; the verses initially alternate with little instrumental sections and we don't get the first actual chorus until after the bridge about halfway through, and the verses themselves change for the second half too. Of the latter sort, "Voyager II" is undoubtedly the best, with a huge cosmic feel and many ups and downs, from softer, ambient keyboard sections to the gripping chorus. "Angels" on the other hand is a rare dud, the only real washout on the album as the AOR elements gain a bit too much prevalence.

If you're looking to get into Threshold's discography, Clone is definitely a good place to start, as it defines their best-known sound and I prefer it in fact to most of Threshold's subsequent material with Mac; later on things start to slide as they get a little too polished in my opinion, but even so you can't really miss with this band.