Ever since some unfortunate overexposure to Dream Theater in my formative years, I’ve been subconsciously avoiding progressive metal for ages. While I loved the technicality, epic song structures, and wild emotion the genre was able to evoke, I couldn’t stand (to put it plainly) all of the absurd instrumental wanking that was so common in Dream Theater tracks. Between the incredible talents possessed by each individual band member, I would get lost somewhere between Mike Portnoy’s 60-piece drum kit and Jordan Rudess’ theramin solos. The technical virtuosity of each gifted member always seemed to strain and pull in opposing ways, resulting in jumbled, rambling songs that never went anywhere…all accompanied by this absurdly dependable instrumental wanking that carried on into infinity. I realize that bands like Dragonforce are guilty of similar crimes, but they at least understand the basic theatricality of metal and moreover have a sense of humor regarding 5-minute quintuple-octave guitar solos.
But I am not here to spout on about Dream Theater and their pathological need to wank on their audience; I’m reviewing a relatively obscure California band formed by brothers Jasun & Troy Tipton called Zero Hour, and their album SPECS OF PICTURES BURNT BEYOND has shattered my longstanding aversion to prog metal.
In SPECS, there are no extended, aimless instrumental passages that drop in on the listener out of the blue. There aren’t 10 layered vocal tracks or 30 separate guitars all fighting for my attention. There aren’t even many keyboards (woah!,) but the songs sound rich enough not to need them. Vocalist Chris Salinas evenly uses the full range of his impressive vocal prowess, from King Diamond-esque falsetto shrieks, guttural whispers, and midrange crooning to a confident high tenor. Jasun Tipton’s guitar work is fierce and technical without dominating the rest of the mix, rising and ducking seamlessly wherever most appropriate. Bassist Troy Tipton’s playing represents some of the best use of bass guitar I’ve ever heard in a metal album; he sounds equally comfortable driving songs forward with complex chord patterns, locking in with drummer Mike Guy’s double kicks, or simply doubling his brother’s guitars.
Describing exactly what Zero Hour’s songs do without getting technical isn’t plausible for a succinct review – there’s just too much dynamic movement and flow going on, though songs rarely lose cohesion or get stuck in aimless ruts. Opening opus “Face the Fear” glides between skittering bass arpeggiations and mellow, vocal-driven choruses without batting an eye. Each instrument weaves seamlessly in and out of the mix, introducing and reiterating new musical ideas and moods effortlessly. “The Falcon’s Call” adds some Opeth-style transitions, moving from a chaotic series of riffs and shrieks to a gentle acoustic-driven midsection. Salinas’ soothing vocals erupt into wildly emotional heavy riffs and pounding drumbeats before tapering off again.
The third track “Embrace” is a calming acoustic instrumental that serves as a bridge to SPEC’S ultra-heavy title track. Deep grinding guitars duel with some scary-quick bass solos (yes, bass solos!) with manic drumming accenting the off-beats until Salinas’ croon reenters to restore order. This is Zero Hour’s attempt at an aggressive epic masterpiece, and it works. Follow-up instrumental “Zero Hour” is thankfully brief, but it sounds technically overwrought and doesn’t really go anywhere – fortunately, this is the sole weak track on this otherwise excellent album.
Next is a sorrowful, but gorgeous acoustic ballad entitled “I Am Here” that really showcases Salinas’ emotive vocal capabilities (which for better-or-worse, strongly echo Geoff Tate.) Zero Hour has never kept the same vocalist for subsequent albums, but Salinas fits their sound perfectly and I hope he sticks around. The final track “Evidence of the Unseen” is the most technical song on the album, alternating between 5/4 and 6/4 time with some super-fast shredding in-between. Salinas’ voice floats above the intensely rhythmic guitar riffing and then decays into a sinister whisper, closing SPECS out on a powerful headbanging groove.
With SPECS, Zero Hour has proven that sensible, near-minimalist prog metal can be made without sacrificing technicality or grandeur. All my presumptions and grudges towards this genre have been completely lifted by this album, and I urge with the utmost potency for any skeptical metalhead to pick this up and rid themselves of any bad tastes left in their mouths by less disciplined prog bands.
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