Monday, October 5, 2015

Album Review: Intelligent Music Project III - Touching The Divine

It doesn't feel like very long ago that I was reviewing the second album from the Intelligent Music Project, a studio collective that puts out old fashioned melodic rock with an uplifting message, throwing all common sense to the wind and embracing the very definition of cheesy rock music. There's a scene in an old episode of The Simpsons where Marge finds free Air Supply cassettes in a car wash's giveaway bin, to which Bart implies they were 'wuss rock'. He would, I'd imagine, say the same thing about this album.

But I don't mean that as a criticism. I enjoyed the last Intelligent Music Project album (it's sitting on the shelf beside me as I write this), and I genuinely like this kind of AOR. My commentary was more about how the music is perceived by outsiders, not so much myself.

This time around, the group enlists John Payne (ex-Asia) and Toto's Joseph Williams to handle the vocal duties, splitting the songs up in a manner that, as someone unfamiliar with the singers, I can't accurately peg without the liner notes. But let's move on to the music, shall we?

The opening track is the nail-on-the-head "Opening", which isn't the short bit of pleasant noise its title might suggest. There's a short folky introduction, and then the song turns into a fully Trans-Siberian Orchestra meats Jim Steinman blend of crunching guitars and tinkling pianos. The song shifts between the two feelings a couple more times, without much in the way of segues to have it all make sense. I'd say that the songwriting could have been a bit more logical, but the individual pieces are all very good, so the song winds up working.

The project's flaws come through right after this, as they place the piano ballad "Escape" second in the track listing. I like the song, and the closing moments have a beautiful melodic build-up of harmonies, but putting it so early in the order is a bit of a misstep. The album is just trying to get going, and the pace is dropped so much that it's a bit of a harbinger of trouble ahead. Compare that song to "Stay Up" two numbers later, which would have made an excellent one-two punch with the opener. It shares the dramatic piano chords, but has a few more guitars, and the hook has more meat on the bone, so to speak. It's the kind of song that makes me a sucker for great AOR.

This album has a more pronounced dramatic flair than the previous record, injecting more soap opera soundtrack feelings into the songs. The string arrangements on a song like "A Smile Away" are pushed to the fore, and are used to give the songs their identities almost equally as often as the guitars this time around. It's a decision I like, except for the lack of total commitment. If the album didn't let up on the drama, it would work as something you don't hear very often, but there are still a handful of straight-ahead rockers that get included which don't fit the new motif.

By the time we reach the end of the album, there's two things I can say. Number one, there's a lot of good music on "Touching The Divine" that reminds me that I haven't heard much AOR this year that has hit me hard. The songs here with the big hooks are a welcome change of pace. Number two, the album is a bit unfocused. At over an hour long, it feels like too much music for this style, and the songs that are included don't fit a unified theme. Since the titular phrase pops up more than once, I'm assuming that's what the project is aiming for, and it doesn't quite hit the mark.

I like "Touching The Divine", just like I liked the previous album. My issue is that they're coming out in quick enough succession that I'm not sure enough time is being taken to make sure they are putting their best face forward. There's a better album found in these fourteen tracks if you trim away the excess. It's good as it is, but it could have been better with a bit more focus.

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