28 July 2010

CD REVIEW: Relocator - Relocator (2010, private label release)

Progressive metal, it seems, is often a little easier to compartmentalise than straight up progressive rock. From my position as all seeing, all knowing blogger, the vast majority of progressive metal bands can be stacked neatly in one of three general categories:

  1. The Dream Theater inspired bands. These are the groups that tend to be a bit symphonic, with prominent keyboards, a lot of technical expertise, and a singer with a proclivity toward the higher range of male singing. Obviously DT has gone through some stylistic shifts and evolutions over their 20+ years as a major label band, but the generalities are there.
  2. The technical instrumental bands. These are the bands that looked to Liquid Tension Experiment or Cynic (even though Cynic does include vocals) and built from them. Intense, incredibly complex and technically impressive instrumentals, with unison lines, stop/start playing, and turn on a dime dynamic and rhythmic shifts are the dish du jour here.
  3. The extreme progressive metal bands. Where other bands looked to Dream Theater, these bands look to the masters of melodic death and black metal for inspiration. These are the bands who worship at the altars of Mikael Akerfeldt from Opeth, or Christofer Johnsson from Therion, or Ivor and Grutle from Enslaved. Atmospheric keyboards, crushing guitars and beats, and growled vocals differentiate this style.

Having set up this premise, I’m happy to say that Relocator isn’t such a band.

The four main members of the project have been working up the material for their debut release for quite some time; as a member of the MP.com forum, I’ve watched the long, arduous process for a year or two at least. It was a pleasant thing to see the album finally reach fruition, especially as it had been mentioned that former Dream Theater keyboardist Derek Sherinian would be guesting on it. For me, usually hearing a name musician will be a guest on an album means a track or two, or maybe a prominent solo. Instead, Derek plays on the entire release, and his keyboard playing adds a lot to things musically.

That’s not to say that the rest of the band comes up short by comparison; far from it. Sherinian’s playing wouldn’t matter at all if the rest of the musicians weren’t top rate. Taking it from the top as the musicians are listed in the liner notes, then…

Stefan Artwin: the guitarist and programmer, Artwin’s credited as writer or co-writer of every track on Relocator. His soloing is impressive, technical without relying on huge displays of sweep picking or thousand note per second bursts of fretboard pyrotechnics. His rhythm playing is tight and punchy, with a great, heavy tone that suits the music perfectly. He lists as influences Al Di Meola, Allan Holdsworth, Edward Van Halen, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen.

Michael Pruchnicki: bassist and co-author of half the album. I know he hates it when bass playing is described as ‘solid,’ so I won’t use that over-tired term. He’s very present in the mix, his bass sound is rich and cuts through the dense mix to be a driving force in the songs. If anyone is the pulse that drives these songs, it’s him and his bass playing. It’s not surprising to see him list John Myung and Sean Malone as influences, but I love that he references the great Tony Franklin as well.

Frank Tinge: drummer. As well as drumming for Relocator, he works with the Dutch band Superbug. Mostly self-taught (according to the band’s bio page), his playing behind the kit seems effortless. There’s a misleading simplicity to his drumming; it sounds so easy, but the patterns are much subtler than you might imagine. I suppose it goes without saying that he mentions Mike Portnoy and Virgil Donati as drummers he looks up to, but he also has Frost* and Spocks Beard, two bands that are more song based, as favourites as well.

Bartek Strycharski: electric violinist. I have listened to a ton of progressive metal over the years, and I am always looking for something that sets a band apart from others in the genre. While other bands may have made use of a violinist here or there, to have it as such a featured part of a band and arrangements is something that really caught my ear. Strycharski’s playing is excellent, melodic and intense in turns, as the song requires. It’s his instrumental voice that sets Relocator even further apart from the rest of the bands in the prog metal scene today.

Then there’s Derek Sherinian. What do I need to say about him? Between Dream Theater, Planet X, his extensive solo catalogue, and his work with dozens of other bands, his keyboard playing is immediately recognisable. It’s a coup to get him to play on the entire Relocator album, and it’s easy to hear his enjoyment of the material he got to play on.

But enough about the musicians, I hear you saying as you tap your foot impatiently. Tell us about the music!

OK, here we go.

Things open up impressively with ‘Red Vibes.’ Crunchy rhythm guitar, soaring synths, and a wonderful selection of shifting drum patterns kick things off in high gear from the beginning. Sherinian has picked some cool synth sounds, from warm organ tones to cold digital sweeps. Bartek Strycharski makes his presence known quickly, his violin lines ducking and winding through the arrangement. Michael Pruchnicki’s bass playing thumps at the heart of the beast, tight and powerful. When Stefan Artwin solos around the 3-minute mark, his choice of more sustained, tremelo bent notes is a refreshing change from the streams of tapped, hammered-on playing one might have expected. Best of all, ‘Red Vibes’ is an incredibly well written song, not just an excuse for solos that make you go ‘Oooh!’ in excitement.

‘Biosphere’ follows on, and the keyboard opening is very cool, almost reminiscent in some odd way of UK’s ‘In The Dead of Night’ with the stop/start playing. It’s a jazzier song by far, which gives Frank Tinge plenty of opportunity to show how easily he can handle the changes and shifts the song demands. I don’t want to infer that it’s a lighter piece…it still has prog metal’s requisite heaviness. However, it’s filled with more changes than your average piece of straight up metal, and really offers evidence of this band’s chops in a non-flash manner.

This wouldn’t be a prog album without at least one extended piece. While the majority of the compositions on Relocator clock in around 5 or 6 minutes in length, there are two songs in excess of 10 minutes length. The first of these is ‘Aavishkar,’ which opens with some very nice acoustic textures and a slight eastern feel. The violin work here is wonderful, and while the laid back feel of the opening section does not last the entire track, it’s a great added bit of dynamics that gives the track a bit more of a suite feel. The meter changes are smooth and effortless, and I really enjoy the effortless complexity of this song. It’s definitely a highlight for me.

The other extended track is ‘The Alchemist,’ which closes out the album. Pruchnicki starts things off with a nice little melodic bass line, with Sherinian adding synth over top. Artwin joins in with clean guitar before things shift into a heavier mode about one minute in. The song is mostly based around a comfortable mid-tempo beat, but Relocator comes up with a number of ways to keep it from settling into a static rut. Frank Tinge offers up some very impressive drumming that really breaks things up without sacrificing the groove, while Sherinian’s playing is incredibly enjoyable, with loads of melody and a great selection of sounds. Artwin’s clean playing is every bit as enjoyable as his heavier metallic playing, and I’d love to see the band explore that side of things in the future. I think it’d be a great way to see the fusion side of their playing a bit more strongly, and it’d offer up a similar showcase for Bartek Strycharski’s violin playing. ‘The Alchemist’ really feels like a proper album closer, restating everything the band has presented to this point without sounding like a simple ‘everything plus the kitchen sink’ hodge podge of elements.

I get a lot of music in my inbox these days, both digitally and physically, and often it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff, metaphorically speaking. Any group of musicians can put together an instrumental project and release a CD, but it takes more than good players to make a successful band or album release. Relocator is a perfect example of what happens when you get it right…great songs, great playing, a complete package from opening note to final fade.

Track Listing:
Red Vibes (Artwin) 6:13
Biosphere (Artwin) 8:00
Relocator (Artwin, Pruchnicki) 5:24
Biosphere (Artwin) 6:16
Aavishkar (Artwin, Pruchnicki) 10:30
13 Reasons (Artwin, Pruchnicki) 6:31
Urban Blue (Artwin) 6:33
The Alchemist (Artwin, Pruchnicki) 11:32

Stefan Artwin – guitars and programming
Michael Pruchnicki – bass and fretless bass
Frank Tinge – drums and percussion
Bartek Strycharski – electric violin
Derek Sherinian – keyboards (special guest)



Anonymous said...

Man, I swear, you are THE best reviewer out there today, Bill. What a great read! - Kerry

Michael said...

Excellent review, thanks!