Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Orphan Project - Spooning Out the Sea (2009)
Perfection is difficult to achieve. In fact, it's impossible. The only human being to ever achieve perfection was Jesus Christ, and that's only because He was also God. However, humanity has an in-born propensity to strive for said perfection. We do it in everything - our jobs, our families, our hobbies, and in our relationship with Christ. Ultimately we fail, and He is there to pick us back up again & push us forward as we continue to strive for that perfection. Though we knowingly won't achieve it, we still work toward that goal. It's a beautiful dichotomy that has to be experienced to be understood.
What does this have to do with music, and more specifically, Orphan Project? Well, perfection may not be possible in this mortal coil, but certainly striving for it sometimes breeds spectacular results. What Orphan Project has done is to take that tendency to shoot for perfection, and achieve balance. Their music is considered "progressive", but don't let that tag be deceiving. It's not the "noodling" that you hear on many a record nowadays that is labeled "progressive". What it is, however, is a balance between all the elements. The right amount of showy musicianship, pop and rock songcraft, vocal prowess and restraint, and lyrical honesty without delving into self-parody. This is the "next best thing" to perfection, and Orphan Project have it down pat.
"Reach" begins with some nice atmospherics, slowly layering in keyboard, piano, drums, bass, and guitar. The intro may seem long to some, but I think it gives enough time to build with that "slow burn" effect, and works quite well. Once the riff kicks in, you're treated to a nice combo of keyboard & guitar with thumping bass and drums. Shane Lankford is in fine form here vocally, and the whole band sounds very tight. I like the wah-wah pedal soaked tremolo picking during the chorus, and the layering of piano and keyboard sounds works well. I also like the "quiet" verse sections with the funky keyboard sounds & heavy bass background, it gives it a nice vibe. Some of the most tasteful solo work can be heard in the song - showy without being a showoff, and melodic but still with a level of technicality. One thing that is apparent in the progression from the band's debut to this album is how overtly catchy their melodies have become. The double-tracked vocals are also nicely harmonized. Great piano outro too, really caps the song off well. "Angel's Desire" appeared on the band's previous EP, and appears to be the same version here. Great intro riff that draws you in, and some nice double-bass drumming helps to set the pace. The start-stop riff dynamic works well in the verse sections, and another harmonized vocal gives the last line of each verse a nice depth. I like the double-tracked harmony vocals in the pre-chorus, and in the chorus as well - very nicely done. Once again, very catchy! The 2nd verse begins with a nice quiet vibe, then builds with some cool keyboard sounds and bass/drums back to the bridge where they bring the heavy again. Awesome solo work around the 3-minute mark helps to keep the pace up, and as before, it shows the talent without being too showy or over the top. "Fallen" has a much different vibe in the opening with it's more modern hard rock type of riff, and rolling keyboard effects. I like the drum groove in the opening as well. Then the song transitions into a more somber, piano-driven rocker with some nice keyboard work & atmospheric elements. The chorus brings the heavy again, and is very anthemic and catchy, and also includes some nice subtle piano work. The bridge is highly melodic, and transitions between choruses seamlessly. "To Me" is a barn-burning rocker with a cool Hammond organ type of underlying vibe, which sounds cool in contrast. Good solo work during the chorus, which is cool to hear, since not a lot of bands employ that kind of solo sections. The organ gives it a Boston-vibe, but the modern hard rock/metal sounds from the guitar, bass, and drums make an interesting combo with that keyboard sound. Loads of great solo work throughout this song, and as with the rest of the material, is very catchy.
"One Dark Moment (Providence)" is a change of pace with a plaintive piano intro, and some tender vocals by Shane. I like the combination of acoustic strumming, and electric picking that presents between verses, and the violin during the 2nd verse is a nice touch. The transition to heavier material is cool, with a ever-so-slightly jarring effect. The chorus has a nice minor chord feeling to it, and a slightly unconventional melody gives it a bit more variety. Realizing Shane is more a barritone than a tenor, he sounds good in the upper barritone, lower tenor range here. Excellent guitar solo that again, is both tastefully showy and melodically interesting. Nice piano outro to the song as well, takes it back down to the somber intro and reprises that briefly. "My Goodness" fades in with a nice keyboard line, subtle guitar and cymbal work, then blows right into a driving riff to lead into the verse. The quite-loud dynamic works well in the verse, even if it's more subtle than some uses. Vocal double-tracking is used in some places and sounds great. I like the tom work during the chorus as opposed to just a bass-snare rhythm; it adds a nice contrast, and variety as well. The faux-violin keyboard sound during the solo adds a nice layer here, and the bridge has more of those nice harmonized double-tracked vocals. Great lyrics in this song as well, talking about the fact that our righteousness is but "filthy rags" to the Lord and that His righteousness is ultimately what we must lean on. Nice slightly symphonic outro as well. "Head On Your Platter" was the song that got me into the album, having heard it first and having spun the track for my radio show a handful of times prior to the album's release. I like the intro with the moody keyboard, clean guitar, and rolling drum line. Then the riff blows in and just takes the song into high gear. Shane's vocals here are a bit more urgent, and really help you to feel the lyrics. I like the background vocals in the chorus, they add a nice touch & give it a bit of the "call and response" feeling. The slightly effected vocal work blends in well with the music, and with the subtle synthesizer work as well. The keyboards in the bridge have a cool vibe to them, and it's interesting to hear in lieu of a guitar solo for this track. This is a very no-nonsense track that really shows the band at their most lean, sparing nary a note or moment. They're making their point quickly, and you better listen! I quite like the frantic keyboard leading up to the end, as well as the ending with the a capella vocal and final guitar crunch.
"Empty Me" has a nice intro with some keyboard effects, rolling piano line, and moody guitar solo. This continues during the verse, which just swells with atmosphere and emotion. Great piano transition between verse and chorus, which really signals the change. I like the riff and drum interplay during the chorus - it's simple, but very effective and catchy. It is soaked in the modern heavy rock tradition but still sounds cool. Bassist Bill Yost provides some nice background vocals in the 2nd verse, and just propels the song along with additional keyboards & more emotion. The subtle guitar lines during the bridge blend well, though still showcasing the talent. The song quiets down for a portion of the chorus repeat, which is a tried and true songwriting convention, and nearly always works well as it does here. Great solo work leading the song to it's outro, with a lot of speedy picking, but making sense all the way through and not being overly showy. The abrupt change to a piano and keyboard outro works nicely, and fades out to silence. "The Battle Rages On" comes next, with a short intro with the "epic" keyboard sound and pounding of drums, keyboard, and guitar that lets you know you're in for an anthem. The riff comes in & provides a bit of a different guitar sound & vibe than has been present so far, and makes for a nice change. The driving riff in the verse sounds great, and the rolling piano line that accompanies the continued riff during the chorus is a nice touch. The subtle keyboard during the verse sections is a nice layer, and the solid drumming propels the song and keeps things moving nicely. The "military" drumming and kids' chorus of "Onward Christian Soldiers" is a cool idea, and works well. I've always wondered what a rousing metal version of that old hymn would sound like, and though we don't quite get that here, it gives a nice picture of what could be. Layering in Shane's lower-register vocals the 2nd time through is a cool effect. Another run through the chorus & an alternate chorus after that helps to round out the song well, and a cool harmonized vocal by Shane takes it nearly to the end. The albums title track, and real centerpiece "Spooning Out the Sea" closes things out. I like the slightly Pink Floyd-esque guitar line in the intro ("Division Bell"-era Floyd, anyway). Shane's vocal has an interesting "tunnel" effect in the first verse portion, and more background vocals from Bill. The chorus has interesting phrasing that doesn't seem to make much sense the first time you hear it, but after a few spins you'll find yourself ostensibly singing along to it. This track has a great sense of dynamics as well, with great drumming that keeps things light when need be, and with more "oomph" when need be as well. Excellent solo work that really makes sense with the music in the background, and doesn't take center-stage too long. Then comes in a heavier chorus section with a keyboard sound I can only describe as "awesome". It sounds VERY much like the keyboard sound Yanni had on his "Optimystique" release from 1984, and having been a long-time fan of that particular album (having spun it many times since my youth), that's a nice personal connection for me. This great keyboard line helps take the song to fade-out, ending the album on a lighter note, but with no less impact.
What can be said? This is one of those releases that strikes that wonderful balance (there's that word again!) between showcasing musicianship and songcraft, so much so, that you nearly forget you're listening to a band that is classified as "progressive". That's a big plus in my book. I'm all for showy musicianship and flashy guitar & keyboard solos (I AM a Dream Theater devotee, after all), but you can't listen to that all the time. It's like having a sundae - sometimes you want to pile on toppings and whipped cream until you can barely stand it. Other times, a simple scoop of ice cream lightly garnished with the essentials, and a few favorite toppings does the trick. That's what we have here - all the hallmarks of great progressive and hard rock, without overcooking the recipe. Hats off to Shane and the gang for coming up with what will likely be the prog album of the year for many, including myself. Essential.