Monday, February 17, 2014

BIGELF - Into The Maelstrom - A Stunning Comeback

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"Damon Fox is the real thing. How many times do we get to hear that? Rock and roll is fading into memory, lost in a sea of mediocrity and an ocean of banality. Playing live with Damon is like standing on the stage of a dingy bar in London in 1972 with a charismatic figure from a Charles Dickens fantasy with a B-3 organ at his bejeweled fingertips. Keeping the great traditions of true rock music alive, Damon looks plays, and inhabits the rock and roll vibe of all the greats." ~ Michael Des Barres

I hadn't heard from Bigelf in quite a while when I noticed that Fox was playing amazing keyboards in The Michael Des Barres Band for some great shows, and a couple of excellent records. Then I heard that Inside Out Music had signed the band, Mike Portnoy had lent his aid, and things were back on track for the LA based outfit.

Bigelf is back, and like a fine wine sat in a cellar they are better then ever. Mainman Damon Fox set the band free back in the summer of 2011, and in the interim he partnered up with Mike Portnoy, who had met Fox when Bigelf had opened shows for Dream Theater. Both men had lost their bands, and after the drummer had encouraged Fox to not give up on his concept, Damon boldly asked Portnoy to help him 'Fight the good fight, and lend his extraordinary drum majesty to the new Bigelf record,' and the rest, as they say, is now history.

Into The Maelstrom is an unapologetic leap towards arena accessibility - Fox is joined by longtime bassist Duffy Snowhill, the only remaining member of the old iteration of the band, the aforementioned Portnoy, who supplies yet another facet of his seemingly limitless repertoire, and some guitar solo seasoning is added by Luis Maldonado, who when not fronting his own band Into The Presence has provided great work for such notables as Glenn Hughes, Michael Schenker, and he also wrote the #1 classic rock radio hit, Rough and Tumble, with ex-Baby John Waite.

Fox has taken what was great about Bigelf (the huge Sabbath worthy riffs, vintage keyboard histrionics, and relentless rhythms combined with a glittering of melody the belies a love of The Beatles, and Cheap Trick, mixed with a sublime theatricality not seen since early Alice Cooper), and he's used his time off to finely hone his songwriting into a more easily digestible recipe. This record will definitely raise the price of the band's stock.

Song by song....

Incredible Time Machine kicks things off perfectly - like a space ship lifting off, the calliope-like verses rhyme wonderfully with Portnoys stop-and-go mastery, and the chorus is as hummable as anything you'll hear this season. The songs' final section changes course as well as a long lost dream from Sgt. Pepper, and Fox's keys guide the tune into dreamland.

Cinematic - it's a phrase that has entered my consciousness every time I've slipped this disc on, and the female spoken science fiction intro on Hypersleep is properly in the realm of Philip K. Dicks' darkness. Fox and team have created such a pleasing piece of ear candy that the lyrical content could almost be lost, but he's become better, more effective singer over the last few years and when you stop to hear the phrasing and melodies you realize that mankind's fate has perhaps been on his mind as much as the state of his band. The guitars, drums and keyboards marry magnificently - Portnoy is playing power rock to the hilt, and his fills and flourishes are a thing of beauty.

Acoustic guitars and atmospheric keys introduce Already Gone, and this is, as best as I can describe it, a mishmash of XTC and Guided By Voices played by metal guys who take their playing very seriously. These songs change direction in the bat of an eye, but they never sound disjointed - I can't wait to hear this outfit play live. Modern rock often suffers from not enough gestation, but this sounds like Fox used his time off thinking about how pieces fit together, and not just gobs of cool bits for bits sake.

"What if you could meet your maker, what would you have to say?" So begins Alien Frequency, and it proceeds to ask questions of origins, and maybe even a little madness. The arrangements are again extremely well thought out, and this is as fine a drum album as Billion Dollar Babies. In times in which the planet is so disastrously disjointed it might not be so mad to hope for assistance from the other side of some distant galaxy. What is beyond the Milky Way? I'm not sure, but if there's a God, he's pleased with work such as this.

The Professor & The Madman reminds me of all that I love of another rock visionary, Alain Johannes (who mixed the record as I subsequently found out from Mr. Fox). Filled with acoustic sounding instruments, and multi-layers of melody until the band kicks in the well filtered rock with sexy, sultry riffage that supports Fox's vocal with ever burying it. I love metal that doesn't sound forced, and this is effortless but still heavy and filling. The last minute of this tune is worth the price of the record.

Fox isn't afraid to not follow convention - he's perfectly willing to combine his psychedelic pop leanings with his heavier rock moments, and Mr. Harry McQuhae is brilliant pop madness. The melodic content seems endless, and when his voice slips into a near Zander homage, we're reminded that many of Cheap Trick's greatest moments were glances into Neilsen's madness. Portnoy is again beyond reproach, and while he's playing things that most drummers can't, he's still playing perfectly for the song. One of the finest meldings of pop, prog, and metal that I've heard.

Vertigod pushes the envelope with Portnoy's pounding prodding Fox into ever greater vocal gymnastics. A nicely layered harmony section leads way into a near schizophrenic section complete with scratchy record piano and pitch shifted vocals that melt wonderfully into the album's first single, Control Freak, which delivers on the promise of much of the rock of the nineties that aspired to this type of mastery but didn't have the chops to deliver. Maldonado's fiery lead lines propel this into another nice epoch of musical madness - how they kept this ship in the water, this train on the tracks is almost hard to imagine. I can't hear this and not envision the possibility that if Fox hadn't made this record, he may have unraveled.

If pure metal mavens can't quite latch onto Fox's poppier moments, it's their loss - the heavy sounds even more so when combined with some softer dynamics as on High, in which he manages to match up some No Quarter moments with some Floydian rhythms. One of the great things about this album is that you can hear influences, but they are rarely cops. There should really be a movie for this concept sounding soundtrack.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Queen somewhere in this review, and while I'm listening to Edge Of Oblivion seems as good a time as any. Damon Fox has obviously spent his time digesting the magnificence of Freddie Mercury and company, and he's done right by the lessons - operatic falsettos sidle up next to rapid fire drum fills, shouted vocals, and raging guitars quite nicely. The drums tumble rapidly towards the gates of the lower realms of hell, and then Fox brings us back out of the primordial soup with a reminder that technology leaves us wanting while men play real music in real time. If there's hope, it's here, in these grooves.

Theater Of Dreams is a great title for a song on an album on which Portnoy pounds, but it's also fitting as the cinema of Fox's carnival plays out. This is the most dream-like album since the Dream Police were chasing Rick Neilsen in his darker days, and if I keep coming back to the combination of melody, dreams, and madness, well, I think you will to when exposed to this record. If you can't use one dream theater, build your own theater of dreams.

ITM - Into The Maelstrom. Eight minutes of prog-metal madness that satisfies the King Crimson fan in me, and also soothes my ache for a done too early Emerson. Lake, and Palmer. Prog-metal is nothing new, but it's rarely if ever been done quite this effectively. The Beatles-y majestic moments, the howling Hammond organs, the swooping theatrics of the vocals, and the ingenious arrangements point to the fact that Fox and Portnoy have created a new classic.

This is a record that may take a few listenings, but when you get to the end, again and again you'll hit replay and wonder, 'Was it really that good?' Yeah, it is. Be prepared for a very wild ride, Mr. Toad.

01. Incredible Time Machine (03:58) 
02. Hypersleep (05:37) 
03. Already Gone (03:28) 
04. Alien Frequency (04:14) 
05. The Professor & The Madman (05:59) 
06. Mr. Harry McQuhae (06:13) 
07. Vertigod (03:58) 
08. Control Freak (02:51) 
09. High (07:10) 
10. Edge Of Oblivion (06:33) 
11. Theater Of Dreams (04:01) 
12. ITM (08:09)

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