Monday, February 15, 2016

Album Review: Redemption - The Art Of Loss

Despite going through a period where I was investing a lot of time in prog, and considering Neal Morse one of my favorite musicians out there, I have a cold relationship with prog metal. There is something about the sterile playing and focus on technique that has made it hard for me to enjoy it on a regular basis. There are a few exceptions, like when I handed my Album Of The Year award to Dream Theater in 2011, and the case of Redemption. Redemption makes the kind of prog metal that I want to hear; a style that emphasizes songs over technique, melodies over sweep picking. While everything they've done is solid, "The Origins Of Ruin" is to me their clear career highlight, a record that perfectly balances being just outside the mainstream with strong, resonant hooks. And with the melancholy guitar tones, and Ray Alder's emotional vocals, it's music you can never write off as being soulless.

"The Art Of Loss" finds the band returning after a longer wait than usual, and the pressure of making good on the flawed "This Mortal Coil". While that record has some fantastic songs, it was mired with a production that was too dirty, and a vocal performance that made it seem Alder was at the end of his career.

The short answer to whether that was achieved is yes. The long answer is slightly more complicated.

The good news is that Redemption has corrected the flaws of the previous record. The sound of "The Art Of Loss" is beautifully clear and dynamic, and Alder puts in a performance that, to borrow the old quip, makes reports of his demise greatly exaggerated. This does bring up a question about why "This Mortal Coil" wound up sounding the way it did, but that's a topic for a different time.

Redemption takes two tracts on this record, writing some of their best straight-ahead songs yet, while flexing their progressive muscles on the album's two hulking epics. The shorter songs display what makes Redemption better than almost all progressive metal bands, the ability to take the intricate playing and place it atop a sturdy song that has the melodic heart to hold up the indulgences. Songs like "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" and "Damaged" have stirring melodies that work with the lyrics to make profound statements through music. Couple that with the almost pop chorus on "That Golden Light", an you get a chunk of this album that is right in line with the kind of massively melodic metal that made "Blind My Eyes" such a revelation.

The other tract Redemption takes is among its most progressive, as "Hope Dies Last" clocks in at more than ten minutes, while the closing "At Days End" is a mammoth twenty-two minutes long. They allow the band to indulge themselves, to take tangents away from the straight line of song construction. That can sometimes lead to amazing results, as it did on "Sapphire" years ago, but it can also be a crutch. "At Days End", in particular, suffers a bit from this fate. There are moments in the song that are beyond gorgeous, namely the closing section where the title arises, but the entirety of the composition feels too loosely constructed. There aren't enough threads tying the sections together. There are several spots where the music stops, a few guitar notes serve as a segue, and the song moves on. I'm taken out of the moment when that happens, because it no longer feels like a single song.

But what bothers me more is what will be a huge draw for many. Marty Friedman and Chris Poland provide much of the lead guitar on the album, and that is a decision that does not sit well with me. Marty, for all his legend, plays solos that seem to lack meaning, scales that are unusual for the sake of being weird. And Poland, through his equipment choices, plays solos that sound out of tune, even though I know they aren't. Combined, the soloing on this record make me theoretically impressive, but it doesn't appeal to me at all.

The good news is that Nick Van Dyk is a good enough songwriter to overcome these flaws. While it's clear where he draws his influences from, he has one of the better ears for melody in prog metal, and that has always allowed Redemption to be more than just a prog band. His melodies, along with his intelligent lyrical approach, is a better definition of what 'thinking man's metal' should be than merely playing wild combinations of notes in odd time signatures. Redemption has never made a bad record for good reason. They're too good for that. I'll be honest here; "The Art Of Loss" is not as good as "The Origins Of Ruin", but that's not a knock on it, since I consider that album to be one of the true underrated classics of modern metal. I do, however, think this is easily better than both "Snowfall On Judgement Day" and "This Mortal Coil", which are records I enjoy. "The Art Of Loss" is a great prog metal album, and with it Redemption has taken back the throne as my favorite prog metal band out there.

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