07 April 2009

REVIEW: OSI, Blood (2009, InsideOut Music)

It’s been three years, and thus the two-headed beast that is OSI awakens from deep sleep to present us with another slice of electronic-inspired prog in the form of Blood, their third LP.

OSI has been a shifting, unsettling musical entity. While the first album drew equally from the talents of Mike Portnoy, Kevin Moore, Jim Matheos and Sean Malone to create an impressive debut release that added a significant dollop of electronic modern-ness to the often staid genre of progressive metal. 2006 (yep, three years following their debut), OSI returned with Free, which saw Portnoy’s participation greatly reduced, and Malone replaced by Joey Vera (Armored Saint, Fates Warning) on bass. Blood sees further shifts in band line-up, with Matheos handling bass as well as guitar, and Portnoy replaced by Gavin Harrison, currently of Porcupine Tree and one of the more busy progressive rock drummers currently active in the genre. Also guesting on Blood is Opeth frontman Michael Åkerfeldt on the appropriately titled “Stockholm.”

Moore’s vocals are subtle, mixed down, not overly nuanced, but perhaps perfect for the sound the band has crafted here. There’s an eerie sense of distance here in his vocal presentation, a kind of disconnect, that suits the processed, chopped up music Moore and Matheos has crafted here. Meanwhile, his keyboard sounds rely more on mood than flash. Little buzzes, sweeps, moog and processed Rhodes-like electric piano are constants in his sonic repertoire, and it’s his sense of mood and colour and shape that perhaps hint most at what was lost when he left Dream Theater in 1994. Matheos acquits himself well on bass, and his guitar playing exhibits every bit as much awareness of space and shape as Moore’s keyboard playing does. If you’re buying this to hear Matheos let loose and show off, you’re making a mistake…his playing is restrained, subtle, and centered around the needs of the song and arrangement.

Gavin Harrison’s performance here is not a surprise. There’s a reason he’s so well regarded as a drummer, and his abilities are showcased well here. When he has to let loose and pound, he does so with admirable force and dexterity…no plodding dinosaur beats for him. Elsewhere he adds little touches of percussion and subtlety (I keep coming back to that word a lot here) adding to the arrangement without distracting from the arrangement. He’s the right drummer for this material, certainly.

While I continually have used the word subtle, or variations thereof, throughout the first few paragraphs, that should not imply that Blood is simply a bunch of laid back grooved and late night chill out music. Songs like “False Start,” "Be The Hero" and “Blood” have all the hallmarks of progressive metal, just tuned and shaped a little differently. “False Start” sees Matheos rip on rhythm guitar, his bass playing tight and heavy, while Harrison lets fly with some impressive rolls and fills propelling the song forward. Add to that some carefully placed keyboard bits and Moore’s disaffected, distanced vocals, and you have an interesting mix that really succeeds as a result of the tension inherent in the two different styles. “We Come Undone,” on the other hand, is far more keyboard driven, opening with a gentle, yet slightly unsettling keyboard line, brushed traps and hi hat (processed by the sound of it), and more of Moore’s trademark vocals. I like the variety of keyboard sounds here, and this song certainly fits the bill as late night chill out music, albeit with a twist. Like so much music in this genre, nothing is really ever as simple as it seems.

“Microburst Alert” is about as processed as they come, with loads of samples that sound as if they have been acquired from recordings at some scientific research station of control center. Keys, percussion, bass…everything has been manipulated within an inch of its life until nothing, I think, sounds like it did when initially committed to tape or digital 1’s and 0’s. And as an Opeth fan, I have to admit my biggest interest was in hearing how Mikael Åkerfeldt was integrated into the band’s sound. “Stockholm” gives us that opportunity, and I am thankful to say his voice has seen limited, if any, post-production processing, and we get his gloriously smooth tenor-baritone, filled with inflection and emotion, on a song that could easily have fit on an album like Damnation or Watershed. It’s eerie, it’s dark, and Åkerfeldt’s voice just makes it even more so. I hate saying a guest-driven song is the highlight of an album, but for this listener, “Stockholm” definitely is.

OSI is a tough nut to crack in some ways, and they are a hard band to easily recommend. They’re not really prog metal any more, they’re not electronica, they’re not ambient, even though they certainly have elements of each style, and explore each of them in time. Unlike supergroups like Transatlantic, OSI’s sound really is less about what each individual musician brings to the table and more about the chemistry that results from combining them…one could easily tell, for example, what Neal Morse or Roine Stolt brought to Transatlantic, yet OSI’s sound is entirely its own. Blood is an album that offers something new with each subsequent listen, unraveling and revealing secrets every time it’s spun.

1. The Escape Artist - 5:51

2. Terminal - 6:29

3. False Start - 3:05

4. We Come Undone - 4:04

5. Radiologue - 6:05

6. Be the Hero - 5:52

7. Microburst Alert - 3:49

8. Stockholm - 6:42

9. Blood - 5:24

Kevin Moore - Vocals, Keyboards

Jim Matheos - Guitar, Bass

Gavin Harrison - Drums

Mikael Åkerfeldt - Vocals on "Stockholm"

Tim Bowness - Vocals on "No Celebrations"


Anonymous said...

My expectations we're low for this album and after listening to it once more or less proved it. As a basic concept album the lyrics are in the right frame of mind, but the music and songwriting is very lazy.

It rocks harder than Free however, the same monotonous tone is present throughout the record. There's absolutely no emotion in Kevin Moore's voice and the music has a very sterile electronic/alternative nu-metal sound to it that reeks of 90's Tool and Nine Inch Nails. You can tell they were really trying to picked up by commerical radio with TOOL-esque logo on the album cover.

I count three good songs here the opener, Be The Hero and the last track Blood. I want to also count Radiologue but its too long and there's no variation the in songwriting until about 4 minutes into the 6 minute track. Lots of "Dead Air" in these songs, even the traditional rock tracks. I guess Kevin Moore still hasn't learned to wake up from his slumber as a vocalist/songwriter after Chroma Key. Even "Be The Hero" is a frustrating song to listen to. The chorus comes off as pretty cheesy like "Sure You Will" from Free but even that album had a slight edge over this one. "Stockholm" is totally unnecessary ballad that goes nowhere even with Mikael Akerfeldt from Opeth singing on it. In the end, Moore and Jim Matheos tried hard but they failed to deliver an even decent sounding album.

Sean Molin said...

Mmm... I disagree with the above poster.

OSI is a band where your feelings towards the music develops after several listens... picking up something new every time. I hear more emotions in Kevin Moore's voice than he seems to.

They rock. End of story... and I find it amazing how many people really like it, no matter what genre they are used to.

Anonymous said...

Funny that you pick Stockholm as the standout track; to me, it totally ruins the album. Mikael Akerfeldt's vocals reek of neo-prog bullshit, and the lyrics sound like they were run through babel-fish. And while I think Gavin Harrison is a decent drummer, my view is Blood is sorely missing Mike Portnoy. If having Gavin Harrison means a possible OSI/PT tour, then I'm willing to concede.

Adrian Wehunt said...

I feel that this album does not do OSI justice as a progressive group.
Upon discovering this band's first album, Office of Strategic Influence, I immediately fell in love with their creative take on Progressive music. I loved the undecipherable lyrics, the poly-metric rhythm section, the monotone vocals, the textured keyboard and synthetic background melodies, the great guitar riffs, the fantastically creative bass lines, and the groove-inducing drumming. All of this came together perfectly on that first album.

With Free, the band extracted some of the 'hook-y' elements in favor of watered down song-writing, that left me unimpressed and disappointed. I have never felt that this album creatively added anything to their established sound; it only seemed to take away from their greatness.

This new album, Blood, is a step in the right direction, but lacks that mutually-written punch that comes with group work. This album feels uninspired and forgettable due to the decidedly unprogressive aspects of it. The guitar and bass interaction is reduced to the standard rock 'follow-me'convention. The lyrics and vocals do not catch my interest or really add much to the compositions. I do enjoy the drumming and rhythmic toying that occurs in some songs, but they ultimately fail to hold up the album. The Guitars are quite heavy and, for me personally, they added more of a fluid motion to the music, as well as a head-nodding groove. The keyboard and synth portions of old are substantially less apparent in these songs and seem forgettable.

It does have a heavier element to it than the other albums, but it seems that this came at the cost of losing that distinctive multi-textured feel of their earlier sound. What I mean by this, is that the guitar heaviness which contrasted the soothing keyboards, which highlighted the bass and percussion technicality is not the sound that this album strives for. It seems to focus mainly on the technicality of the guitar and the drums, leaving little room for the bass and keyboards to make their counterpoint.

I sincerely wanted this album to be good, and have even gone so far as to convince myself of it's comparable creativity to that of the first album. But in reality, it does not stand on it's own as a good piece of music. For me, it merely serves as a reminder of why I loved Office Of Strategic Influence in the first place.

Anonymous said...

After reading some of these comments, it's amazing how closed minded you so-called prog fans are. Prog as a genre itself is ment to experimental and open-minded, yet at least 2 comments were willing to dismiss this album as "not prog enough"... It just goes to show you, that even monkeys with untrained ears can listen to something and find fault with it. If you don't like it, fine. But don't show your ignorance by making moronic "Anonymous" comments.

Daniel said...

Thumbs up for the rewiew.

And then another for the album.

It's interesting to see how is this same material felt differently by different listeners. Someone mentions Nu, someone Tool et cetera... for them, in light of their music-listening experience, that is doubtless true. Me, being completely distanced from nu and not a Tool fan (although I respect them greatly), totally dissociate from such parallels.

With smoe new stuff, I always try to approach it as completely new, out of the blue material. Most of the bands, good or bad alike, fail me in this regard, often sounding like some other band. OSI is one of rare acts which, atleast to me, appear as genuinely original, for which I am immensly thankful.

Unknown said...

Blood is amazing. Mike portnoy is seriously overrated. Dream theater lost their magic after AWAKE. Free and Blood is what OSI is meant to be. Grown up musicians with nothing to prove but to play the music they love. Absolutely not for the prog-fans...what's progressive about progressive music anyway??

Cryptos Granamyr Grimm said...

I thought Free sucked for the most part, as I was a huge fan of the first album. This album though is very, very good. I have the special edition with 3 extra tracks. :)

BenOneMusic said...

Great review, Bill, and I enjoyed many of the comments here. I do think Gavin Harrison is an excellent match to the material, as his drumming parts are appropriately understated in places and seem carefully thought out.

The three OSI albums are so different, aren't they? In one sense, I think Blood is the strongest, most cohesive OSI album, but on the other hand, and I hate to say this, but it feels the most derivative and least original.

There is a definite NIN/Downward Spiral moment in the excellent "Radiologue." And I hear the influence of 90s grunge bands such as Nirvana on Kevin's vocals in this album, especially in the early tracks (for example, in "Another False Start," when he sings, "You're Gone/You Were Wrong/You Were Wrong," it sounds like something Kurt Cobain would sing). But actually, it's neat to hear Kevin's take on the grunge sound.

But on the other hand, "Microburst Alert" is a great, original song concept, and Stockholm is awesome, including the vocals.

I happen to be a big fan of Kevin Moore's vocals--I feel they are deliberately detached and work well with his material. "Dead Air For Radios" is one of my favorite albums of all time. I think the Matheos/Moore combination is great and I hope they make many more albums.

Gordon said...

OSI is one of my favorite bands in this genre, but I think they are becoming more inconsistent with each album. While the good tracks on "Blood" are some of the best and heaviest they have ever recorded, there are also more clunkers.

In addition to some filler tracks, I think the order of the songs could flow better. I'm not sure if there is a concept or story that these tracks are telling, but I purchased the 2CD version and re-arranged the track order like so:

False Start
We come undone
The escape artist
Microburst alert
Be the hero
Terminal (Endless) from bonus D2

Try it.

To my ears this provides 45 minutes of absolute sonic bliss. The other tracks on the album are distractions and dilute the quality that's here - especially "Stockholm" which was a big disappointment. Moore's dry, disconnected vocals are so perfect and distinctive that adding another voice to the mix completely ruins the cohesiveness and flow of the album IMO. Gavin Harrison's drumming is excellent throughout.

On this album OSI have upped the crunch guitars and cut back on the electronica and samples so in that sense this album is more "metal" than "progressive". Overall, a very good album (with reservations) that could have been great with better quality control.