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The storm that won’t be calmed - 100%

naverhtrad, December 14th, 2016
Written based on this version: 2001, CD, InsideOut Music

Picking a favourite in a discography as consistently high-quality as Threshold’s is a difficult task, and I’ll be the first to admit that there’s a solid and arguable case for labelling many of Threshold’s albums as ‘the best’. I can personally see valid grounds for aficionados picking out Psychedelicatessen, Subsurface, Dead Reckoning or even March of Progress as the Best Threshold Album Ever, because each of those albums on its own merits packs a great punch, and because each has a distinctive character that the others doesn’t – whether it’s the power-metallic arrangement and Morgan’s vocals on Psychedelicatessen; the ultra-smooth and ultra-catchy Subsurface; the ‘arder-and-‘eavier (with dirty vocals!) Reckoning; or the sheer consistency and high-calibre musicianship of March.

But honestly? I’m going to have to go with Hypothetical as their best album.

This is the first album that I really ‘connected’ with, and which definitively turned me into a diehard Threshold fan – and it’s the one I most consistently keep coming back to in my playlist. The cover says it all, and the music lives up to its promise: a colossal cityscape on a flying island in a stormy sky. That gives you a good idea of the ambition, grandeur and sweep of Threshold’s Fifth. It is the recapitulation of the classic Threshold sound. And it turned out not one but two of Threshold’s most massive, awe-inspiring progressive rock epics: ‘The Ravages of Time’ and ‘Narcissus’.

Let’s start with some of the basics. They’ve elevated their signature mesh of thick, crunchy riffs and smooth, gliding AOR-inflected melodies to a sublime level. West is now consistently outdoing his previous work on keyboards. Mac is now showing off that his emotional range, subtlety, harmonic blending and power are easily the equal of Wilson’s before him. Groom-Midson-Jeary are clearly capable of giving us the same all-out treatment that they did with Clone, and more (‘Oceanbound’ and ‘Long Way Home’ being two prominent examples). And the new (and from here on, permanent) drummer, Johanne James, is showing that he’s got no problem pushing up the power. They haven’t let up on the gas at all with regard to the kinetic, rhythmic drive, even in the longer, spaced-out epic songs. They keep a broad variation in their hand with the power-balladic ‘Sheltering Sky’ and the more subdued, almost pop-rockish ‘Keep My Head’. They’ve even fine-tuned some of the off-the-wall weirdness of Extinct Instinct and brought it back on board – but here it’s been dosed and channelled into the composition in a more seamless way, particularly in the disorienting opening riffs of ‘Light and Space’ and in some of the bridge passages of ‘The Ravages of Time’.

Lyrically, there’s not much to say that hasn’t been said before. They’ve got some of the old anti-consumerist, media-critical socio-political commentary here (in ‘Turn On, Tune In’ particularly), but it takes a decided back seat now to personal reflections and ‘Paradox’-style marvelling at the broad sweep of history. I have to wonder, actually, if Jon Jeary was reading Christopher Lasch when he was writing ‘Narcissus’ – in fact, a snarlingly-angry song which manages to combine both the troubled-relationship themes and the broader socially-aware scope in a particularly acerb way that is probably none too comfortable for the ideologues of right or left. Musically, ‘Narcissus’ is a behemoth which rides organ-drenched on one big, angry, falling riff with Mac belting out in an outraged snarl, and occasionally deliberately meandering into softer keyboard-laden passages with Mac’s soft voices echoing as from a long way away. But disturbingly, some of the sharpest lyrics are delivered in a sugary, harmony-drenched lull – mirroring the shock and sense of betrayal conveyed in them.

Now – let’s talk ‘The Ravages of Time’, the only song which could top ‘Narcissus’.

This song in particular is where Threshold’s formula really reaches its synthesis. The subtle, ticking-clock sound effects and eerie, atmospheric synth work which open the piece, occasionally to return, set the stage for the wild journey through the eons – followed quickly by a frenetic, rushing blare. Jeary’s songwriting here, with a simplicity that will fool you, points to the cyclical and seemingly-futile nature of history’s sweep in geological time – and turns this back into a meditation on the human condition; the realities of death and regret – ‘now the guilt is all on me’. Mac gives his all to this effort, ranging between a fearful quaver and full-throated lament. Each time you go back and listen to it, it seems even more brilliant. There’s no other way to describe this song but ‘sublime’.

In fact, I would apply that descriptor – thanks in no small part to this song in particular – to the whole album. Along with other superlatives like ‘masterwork’ and ‘indispensable’, in fact.

This is progressive heavy metal at its finest.

20 / 20