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Another excellent piece by Withrow - 84%

Noktorn, September 17th, 2011

Much like Clay Withrow's solo work, I'm at a loss as to how I can reasonably describe why I appreciate Vangough in a way that totally eludes me in most prog metal. It's not as though it really contains more elements designed for my appreciation- "Manikin Parade" is devoid of slams, Ukrainian tremolo riffs, or gravity blasts, and even for prog metal it's on the softer side of the equation more often than not. Still, Withrow's songwriting talents are as intact on Vangough's debut as they were on his solo record, and it goes without saying that prog fans should snap this one up immediately. While I have some reservations about it (as I would nearly any prog release,) I can safely say that this is more satisfying than anything out of the Dream Theater catalog. I mean, if I like it of all people, there must be SOMETHING to this shit.

The general style of this music will be familiar to anyone who's heard "Dissonance Rising," albeit with a bit less of the dark, mystical atmosphere that bound that disc together. Vangough shows Withrow (and drummer Brandon Lopez) going in an even purer, Dream Theater-inspired prog metal direction, taking a lot of the overt heaviness of Withrow's solo work out of the equation, contenting itself with a more rock-based style. This isn't to say that "Manikin Parade" has taken the metal out; it's merely transformed into a more traditional variety. Tracks like opener "Estranger" are distinctly metallic, and the first third or so of the album is probably the heaviest material on the disc. Still, heaviness is not really the name of the game here- what is instead is Withrow's amazing ability to construct contrasting, interweaving melodic structures between guitars, bass, synths, and vocals. The vocal performance in particular is worthy of significant note- Withrow's voice moves seamlessly between soaring cleans, a gruffer shout, and occasionally electronically treated styles while always maintaining power, poise, and melody. It's one of the best elements of the album, dramatic without being cheesy and varied without seeming uneven.

Of course, the music hardly slouches either. While Dream Theater is by far the most substantial influence in this music, it's tempered with more than a hint of power metal ala Evergrey or later Kamelot, so even the most virtuosic and openly proggy moments still tend to have more room to breathe than anything off "Octavarium." Lopez' drumming is technical and musical but surprisingly uncluttered- there's a lot more emphasis on space between notes and dynamic, shifting rhythmic textures than in your usual prog drum performance, which when combined with the melodic style on display is a refreshing change of pace. While this is prog, it's not overtly virtuosic most of the time, and even the most intensely shredding solos on this disc tend to have a certain measure of restraint to them. The technical aspects of this release are completely subservient to the very linear, winding song structures on display, making this album much more satisfying and complete-feeling than it would otherwise if performed by other, more ostentatious musicians.

It's not entirely without flaws- there's a couple cringe-inducing lyrical lines (which I suppose is par for the course for prog, so I won't harp on it) and at seventy-five minutes the album can become something of an endurance test, but overall this is such a good prog release that I can hardly fault it for quibbles like these. Every element of this is in place to make a great album: deft technical performances, wonderful songwriting, and even fantastic production and mixing. Prog fans and even more trad/power-oriented types should check this out- Withrow is without a doubt one of the best prog musicians in the US, as he hasn't forgotten that he's making music in the process.