Where do you go after you’ve played drums for The Mars Volta, perhaps the most frighteningly powerful Progressive Rock act of the new millennium? Well, if you have chops like Thomas Pridgen possesses, pretty much anywhere you want, actually… but your first stop might be to found your own all-black (well, the core band, at any rate), all Progressive Metal unit, and you might even call it something like The Memorials.
tl;dr Version: You may need to wear protective equipment for this album.
‘Splain, Lucy Version: It’s simple, really. One of the finest, most energetic drummers of his generation, still working to build his legacy, co-founds a powerhouse progressive rock band with all the power and skill of the most talented prog metal bands, and proceeds to dish out one of the heaviest albums of the year. That more hasn’t been said about them is criminal, and I suspect their future is a little uncertain, but I have great hopes for these men and women, and I dearly hope to be hearing much more from Thomas Pridgen for years to come.
Boring Version: Drum prodigy Thomas Pridgen met his future bandmates Viveca Hawkins and Nick Brewer at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, where he had received a scholarship at the age of 15. Really, even if he had done nothing else, that should pretty much tell you what you need to know about this band. That said, you’d be best to set your preconceptions aside, because, as my experience with Berklee students has taught me, there is no cookie cutter education going on over there, and everyone who sets foot in that building comes out an enfant terrible, whether they graduate or not.
In fact, the joke is, you stand to succeed best if you attend but don’t graduate Berklee. Well, I can’t prove that, but that’s the joke my wife tells, and she’s scary intelligent, so I believe her like it’s gospel. That’s the secret of marriage, incidentally; she’s smarter than you realize, and the sooner you figure that out, the happier you’ll be.
As for the album, well, I sneaked a listen to the first track, and heard a few live performances on Youtube, so I’ve got a pretty good idea what I’m in for, but I haven’t played it yet, so we’re gonna do this together. We’ll get started right after I go make myself something caffeinated, because I’m writing this on just over two hours of sleep.
*putters off to kitchen in silk kimono*
*saunters back moments later with a steaming mug of Limboccino*
Aight, let’s do this.
We Go to War charges out of the gate in 12/8 and sets the groove up so fast, you almost have no time to figure out what you’re hearing. Viveca’s voice is chorused, so you might not be getting the full effect of her vocals in this number, but her voice fits into the mix in a way so few vocalists do when playing this sort of music these days. Rather than going for an operatic approach, she gives it a warm, bluesy, verging on gospel approach. The bridge of the piece leads to an extended guitar squall segment that leads into a wonderfully kinetic instrumental with a flourish of guitar histrionics, before heading back to the vocals, where Viveca shouts in the background about being ready for war, and explaining in the foreground about it basically being racial war, but don’t let that put you off. There’s a lot more to come.
Natural Disaster opens a little slower, a nice upper mid tempo rocker with a guitar tone Frank Zappa would be proud of and a groove that makes me think of Jimi Hendrix, Billy Cox and Buddy Miles. The verse shifts to a slightly slower, bluesy groove, and the vocals are layered and pleading as Viveca explains the title. Apparently, she’s the kind of girl you don’t take home to Mother. I’ll buy that. Guitar grinds away unrelentingly behind her, and you start to realize one of the keys to this group is, they don’t pause for the vocalist to sing the verses, which pretty much means she has to project over top of a steady instrumental rock performance, which should tell you what kind of a performer she has to be to be heard at all. Having heard this number in live performance, I can say she pulls it off admirably, but it doesn’t sound easy. The ending is a slow grind, which cuts to…
Day Dreamer starts with a muted guitar and keys, while Viveca sings in more of a hazy, blissed out, effected electronic lounge style, slightly reminiscent of Portishead, although her vocal style is probably closer to classic Jazz chanteuses like Billie Halliday. The groove shifts part way through to a bridge and the band goes into a strident, vaguely Zeppelinesque march rhythm and then into an instrumental section that has Viveca singing over top in full gospel rock goddess mode (think Tina Turner or Chaka Khan here), with some great Bernie Worrell-type synth playing thrown in. It’s a hot, manic panic groove that just won’t freaking break until it’s finished.
Let’s Party opens with this chunky bass guitar chord progression and the chorus is pretty infectious, even if you can’t follow all of the lyrics through the wall of voices. The song has a vaguely Who-ish feel, with the rhythm section sounding very much like the late greats, Entwistle and Moon, in full effect. So far, this is the most fun number, as it implies.
Westcoast is the song that reminds you that Thomas Pridgen was the drummer for The Mars Volta on two of its most grooving albums. Latin progressive funk just like your Mama fed Omar when he was a little boy. It’s so chunky and groovy, I don’t want to write about it. I just want to get up and fricking dance. There’s a short shift to a bridge that just leads right back to the chorus groove, and then it’s over. Dammit.
Dream is a great little groove that sounds like it wouldn’t be entirely out of place on an 80s Rush or Missing Persons album, but all nice and updated and featuring Viveca singing what I suppose is my favourite performance by her so far. The lyric is a clearly a Martin Luther King reference, as you can hear him preaching in the background from the old television recording of his famous speech. Lovely progression, without being cloying. This might have been a great closing track, so I’m actually curious to hear how they end the album without it.
GTFOMF starts with another great, crunchy progressive figure and some spectacularly effective rock drumming. This song is all about attitude, and Viveca pulls it off beautifully. Get The F@#& Out My Face indeed. Then it settles into a gorgeous, langorous lounge groove, befitting a band with this much soul, but returns with more attitude and the fastest snare thrash I’ve heard in years, before the chorus starts up again. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear she really doesn’t like that boy anymore. Then… yes, then… really sweet instrumental section, great jam groove and they find a way to redeem the anger of the chorus while the guitar, piano and rhythm section jam on. Beautiful finish. No rush to end it. They know they’ve got a winner here, and it feels so spontaneous, like the jam outro of Layla, with a slightly latin groove.
Real creeps in as the last song ends, a little ambient at first, and then with a rather pretty guitar figure and Viveca jazzing over top sweetly. Could this be the ballad? The drums and bass sound off in metronome fashion, but a building squall of guitar in the back makes me wonder. The chorus does indeed have a little more sauce in it, but it’s kind of a jazz fusion groove that leads back to the power ballad verse groove. This song belongs on the radio. Well, except for the bit where she asks ‘Who said this $#!^ would be easy?’, but it’s all good. It’s a really cool tune with just enough tooth in the bass line to keep it from feeling too straightforward. The changeover to a really cool jazzy fusion groove in double time makes me think this might turn out to be the tune I replay the most for people. It does so many really nice things, and her voice really cuts through, echoes and all. Plus Thomas gets to let loose a bit. And then the ambient, flutey/chimey sounds return and it fades off gradually, like something on a John McLaughlin album.
Born to Shine jumps right in with a persistent groove that might have been on a Dream Theater album, except for the lack of metal guitar hero theatrics. There is some crunchy guitar, but the groove is king in this intro. When the verse starts, it’s over a rather interesting instrumental track of guitars and bass note figures that sounds more like a classical fugue than a rock tune. It reminds me of something, but I’m having trouble placing it. It’s not Mars Volta, though it has that intensity. It’s this really persistent eight note figure that… oh wait, there it is… Animalympics. A synth riff from a cartoon I saw when these kids were merely a gleam in their parents eyes. It’s done so well here, with just the right amount of weight, you’d never make the connection. Surely they didn’t. How could they? They couldn’t have. Could they?
Enough is a really cool update of two-tone ska, complete with bass and drums sounding like something from the English Beat, and a great progressive thrashing guitar in the background, like Bob Fripp sawing away. Nice chorus, too, which leads to a doubled electric guitar figure and one of Viveca’s most affecting vocal performances in the bridge, over top of Thomas pounding away in an acid jazz groove, which then jumps right back into the ska rhythm. Snaky, sinuous, with some amazing bass playing. I’m so stealing that bass line some day.
Why Me starts with a thrashy metal snare paradiddle and then introduces a 6/8 rhythm that makes your neck crick with its stop and go march. Viveca is riding in the back of the mix on this one, but there’s more space in the mix because the bass is playing a staccato rhythm that sounds like a string section reinterpreting a Mars Volta or King Crimson piece. And it really is a great sounding piece, all moody and gothic in feel, with barely suppressed guitars wailing underneath. The rhythm shifts around a bit, but the mood is unshakable. And then it jumps to…
Give Me the Stuff opens with a heavy groove not too far off from the last one; they could be twins, except that they make lots of room for Viveca in the verse to grumble in low register as she builds up a wall of dark pleading. I’m left with the unshakable impression I’m hearing a pained confession of drug addiction, but really, I’m not sure we’re hearing anything autobiographical. Dark, grim tune with a seriously insistent groove to it. And then, gone.
I Remember You has a slightly warped anthemic feel to it, keys and bass bouncing in 4/4 with one of Thomas’ straightest rhythms on the whole album. It occurs to me that maybe this IS supposed to be the closing number, because I’m starting to wonder if the immediacy of the lyrics of the album and Viveca’s passionate singing haven’t managed to mask a rather dark concept album. It just motors to a finish, organ and guitar grinding to a halt.
I’m struggling to think of what to say here. It took me a year to find and hear this album, and I’m thinking I wasted a year. Not because it wasn’t worth it. It was. What wasn’t worth it was the time lost waiting. I should have known about this album last winter, so I could go out and buy it when it came out. For lack of more Mars Volta, I’d gotten curious about the drummer (I’m a big fan of great drummers), but could only find a vague wikipedia reference to this band project of his. Having heard it at last, I’m floored. I’m also genuinely worried, because I’m not hearing any buzz that convinces me they’ll continue. Thomas has already been in and out of another project that has yet to get off the ground, but if he’s house hunting, where does that leave these guys?
Anyway, this album still doesn’t shake my assessment of the album of the year for 2011 (I’m a Yes fan; shut up, okay?), but it’s going to get played a lot more before I get tired of it. See if it doesn’t rub off on you too. Recommended for music lovers who dig really crunchy prog with funk, latin and soul grooves worked in, darker lyrics sung by a black woman with attitude and no need to make you feel comfortable, and a drummer who can play just about anybody under the table… so long as his kick peddle doesn’t break. 😉
I’ll be recommending this to my buddy David Jones, and to my other buddy Jason Knowles, if he ever calls me.
© 2012 Lee Edward McIlmoyle
Postscript: I have gone online and found, of all things, The Memorials’ Facebook page, which assures me they are hard at work on a new album. Worries allayed. As you were.