Friday, April 13, 2012

Jeff Loomis - Plains Of Oblivion (2012)

The death of Nevermore, or so it seems, played out in public, with half of the band departing. Among the leaving faction was guitar great Jeff Loomis, a man who is no stranger to fans around the world. Wasting no time, he wrote and recorded his new album, the follow-up to 2008's "Zero Order Phase," and embarked on a tour to showcase his work. Featuring numerous guest appearances from the likes of Ihsahn and former Megadeth guitarists Marty Friedman and Chris Poland, "Plains Of Oblivion" is loaded with a lot more than just names. This is a solo album to remember.

Like the lead in to a Hollywood action blockbuster, "Mercurial" screeches and whines into existence. As the guitars explode, there is little doubt as to who the man behind the strings is. Loomis' sound is one unto himself, with a striking balance of technical ability and writing prowess. Paired here with one time Megadeth axeman Marty Friedman, the two form a dynamic duo of shred and melody. And while the main focus is, clearly, the winding solo work, Dirk Verbeuren steals the show at times with his battery of kicks, snares and cymbals, often going note for crash with Loomis himself. And while the racing scales are impressive, the sense of melody and cohesion is key, especially on "The Ultimatum." With an assist from solo guitar wizard Tony MacAlpine, the track is an exhibition on balance and speed. Whether they are trading passages or dueling together, the guitar work never shows any sign of weakness, nor slowing down. Even during the later portions, when Verbeuren falls into a nearly impossible black metal tempo, Loomis and MacAlpine soar over it all with amazing prowess.

As the speed builds, "Escape Velocity" takes its fitting place in the order. It is often harder to tell who is playing at a higher tempo, Loomis or Verbeuren. The two have a report that results in some of the most fluid playing either has ever exhibited. But in the breakdown, there lies a sweetly touched melody that is the perfect counterbalance to all of the aggression. The first guest vocal spot comes on "Tragedy And Harmony," courtesy of Christine Rhoades, who lent her talents to the classic Nevermore tune "Dreaming Neon Black." And while it would be impossible to downplay her strength, the vocal line never seems to fall in place here. Her tone, the lyrics, the delivery are all spot on, but they feel tacked on in parts. Not to be slowed down, Loomis commands the track full speed ahead, carrying the load on his frets. Helping to shoulder the weight on "Requiem For The Living" is Attila Voros, who played live guitar in the recent Nevermore era. This is the most stripped down track on the album, something that is, obviously, relative. The drumming takes a back seat to the guitar work, a combination of high powered riffs and dazzling notes. The outro portion almost plays like a classical concerto, something that is both intriguing and mystifying.

And with one former Megadeth guitarist on the album, why not go for two? Chris Poland lends a hand on "Continuum Drift," a song that is beautifully written and performed. This might be the long lost instrumental ballad that so few have accomplished. The story is told through clean and distorted guitars, both carrying a lyrical quality in their delivery. In some aspects, they are more successful than the real vocals present on the album, sans for the Ihsahn led performance of "Surrender." One of the more imposing voices in the progressive black metal movement, Ihsahn takes Loomis' composition into a dark new place, screeching ahead as only he can. Even the clean vocals have a tinge of evil, making the most of every layer of guitar, drum, and bass. Verbeuren shows his mettle, rolling through double kicks with an ease that is unsettling.

But as Ihsahn bows out, and Rhoades rejoins for "Chosen Time," things change in numerous ways. The tone is quiet and subdued, and the vocals are more sultry than before. Loomis squeals with harmonics, but this is a down tempo affair. This is the softer side, the more plush side of the man, choosing to go with grace over power. The short, but amazingly sweet, "Rapture" is a chance for Loomis to show off some of that aforementioned technical ability. It isn't all about speed and brutality; there is a subtlety and emotion to guitar that gets lost in reverb far too often. His clean chops are just as good as his more electric ones, floating up the neck in a blitz of finger movements and bending strings. Take a breath. Exhale, and let "Sibylline Origin" wash over you. The sliding riffs and sizzle of cymbals are only the beginning. This final track takes in to account everything Loomis has done throughout his career, and brings it all into one flowing journey. This is where the evolution of the musician becomes evident, with so much more than solo after solo.

There are many things that set Jeff Loomis apart from his peers, both technically and creatively. But his ability to be two men, one solo musician and one (now former) band member, is a feat in itself. These weren't the scraps from "Obsidian Conspiracy," and these certainly weren't half baked solos fleshed out into an album. His thought process isn't lost in a sea of recycled nonsense, but rather spotlighted in ten tracks of mastery. With a little help from his friends, Loomis has fired the first shot, post-Nevermore. Your turn, Mr. Dane.


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