Reviewing instrumental music is a difficult thing. So many people latch on to a vocal line as a way of identifying with a song or album. Most people dismiss instrumental music as self-indulgent posturing from a musician with too great an ego.
More often than not, this is simply not the case. In a lot of cases, instrumental music can be more emotional and expressive than a song can ever hope to be. Take Joe Satriani, who has written some of the most beautiful pieces of instrumental music I've ever heard, or Steve Vai, one of the most creative and expressive musicians on the planet.
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Hell, even take Ron Jarzombek's Blotted Science project, an exercise in technical insanity but with masses of charm and appeal. All too often instrumental music is just ignored.
One of the new boys on the instrumental scene is the delightfully forward thinking Chimp Spanner. Here we have him at full force with his second album 'At The Dream's Edge'.
Chimp Spanner is the brainchild of the insanely talented Paul Antonio Ortiz. That's right, this is the definitive one man band. Ortiz plays all the instruments on the album, guitars, bass and keyboards while the drums are programmed into a software package called Superior Drummer. Chimp Spanner does act as a live entity, featuring members of Monuments and a few session musicians but they haven't played on the album.
Right from the outset it is clear that 'ATDE' is no ordinary instrumental album. Opening with the orchestral 'Galaxy Rise', the grand sound of the album is distilled into a 53 second microcosm as it blends into the first proper track, 'Supererogation'. Opening with a squelchy low tuned riff and a lead melody things get off to an immediately melodic start. Chimp Spanner often get lumped into the djent subgenre (Ortiz was one of the initial musicians of djent, along with Acle Kahney from TesseracT) which at this point I don't think is the case. This is more progressive, melodic Metal.
Throughout 'Supererogation' and the following track, 'At The Dream's Edge', Ortiz displays his virtuosity on the guitar. While he never descends into clich├ęd wank-fests, he has flurries of pure technical brilliance sending a blur of notes towards the listener at the most appropriate times.
By the time we reach 'The Mirror' it's clear that Ortiz is using his guitar almost like a vocal line. The 'verse' section of 'The Mirror' features a singular lead guitar melody which moves very much like a vocalist, never getting wild and out of control, always remaining memorable. The main riff for this song is worth mentioning for the sheer heaviness of it, but also that despite it being heavy (I suspect from how low the riff goes, it was played on his Ibanez 8 string guitar, yes, 8 string) it is catchy and you can sing it to yourself.
What is remarkable about 'The Mirror' is it's length. At 8:36 it is pushing the attention span of most mortals, but like the best Dream Theater instrumentals, it has enough changes and melody to keep the listener engaged. Moving from light melody to bone crushing heavy frequently enough keeps it from getting boring.
By the fifth track on an album, you've normally heard all a band are capable of throwing at you; not so with Chimp Spanner. 'Bad Code' opens with an ambling digital synth line which I can only guess is supposed to signify a computer analysing the titular bad code.
When the guitar kicks in, Ortiz plays the same line on the guitar which as a guitarist, I can say I'm very impressed at because the notes in the synth line almost sound random. The rest of the track carries on with a mix of heavy and ambient, fusing clean guitars and washed out synth pads with precision riffing and lead guitar lines.
For all the ambience and intelligent musical design, Ortiz is clearly still a fan of the traditional monster riff. Enter if you will track six, 'Harvey Wallbanger'. Something tells me that the track was named for the main riff in the song, which is anything but sedate. In fact, its colossal.
I've seen tower blocks with a smaller sense of scale to them. This is definitely back in 8 string territory, but it's catchy as hell and a track destined to get a mosh pit going at a live show. The energy and pace behind it are unique to this track but it's no less beautifully constructed or considered for it. It also features one of the few moments Ortiz gives in to showy guitar solos, but as with all great guitarists, he knows when to stop before things get overly self indulgent.
After the brutal spas out of 'Harvey Wallbanger', things calm down a touch with the ambient interlude of 'Ghosts Of The Golden City', featuring a light piano and synth line backing a clean guitar with swells up and fades away again. This leads into 'Far From Home', an altogether heavier affair than the rest of the album (except track 6).
Low tuned riffing, harmonised lead lines and a marching drum beat. It evokes thoughts of a battle or a war, camaraderie and heightened tension. It builds a wonderful crescendo near the end counterpointing the main melody against an enormous breakdown of a riff and then just drops to nothing but a fading lead melody.
'Far From Home' links into the three part 'Terminus' saga. According to the liner notes, Ortiz describes this as a battle between man and machine, or at least that was his inspiration for it. Part one builds up the calm before the storm with synths and light smatterings of guitars leading up to a riff/melody that sounds almost like an alarm siren which links directly to part two. For me, part two sounds like the machine side of things as it starts of with an almost robotic lead melody and cold, discordant riffing, creating a sinister air about it, before what I can assume is the battle kicks off properly.
The second half of the track seems to be based around the human aspect as the music gets much less robotic and becomes very fluid, almost emotional. Part three starts altogether more sinister than part two. More ambient sounds and discordant guitar lines almost make it like the soundtrack to a horror film.
When the rhythm guitars kick in properly, the wash of sound creates the idea of a bleak battlefield, or the quiet before a battle. When the drums and rhythm guitars start the second half of the track things get more frenetic, which to me typifies another battle/skirmish. It's been a long while since I heard a piece of instrumental guitar music which so vividly paints a picture in my mind of a scene or experience. This is what instrumental music is about for me.
To recover from the intensity of 'Terminus', things take a change of pace for 'Under One Sky', which starts off with a very late 80s, early 90s inspired synth melody. In fact, when the lead guitar line begins, it really does sound like a piece that Steve Vai would have included on the seminal 'Passion And Warfare'. It doesn't last long like that, it does get heavier after the first couple of minutes, but somehow everything still gels and works out for the best.
To close the album, the uplifting 'All Good Things' takes us on an orchestral journey, punctuated with moments of subtle guitar brilliance. There's no shredding, no ear-drum bursting low end riffing here, just a beautiful piece of music that wouldn't sound out of place on a film soundtrack, so good is the composition.
There are a couple of niggling issues I have with the album. On the whole I'm not a fan of the bass guitar work, mostly due to the sound of it. It's very high end and the almost slap style of playing can be quite distracting when all there is to focus on is the music around it. Some of the guitar tones don't sit too well for my liking, for instance, the echo on the lead line at the beginning of 'At The Dream's Edge' itself. None of these things ruin any of the album for me, but they are things that immediately attract my attention.
Throughout the album, Ortiz demonstrates not only a musical proficiency that is unmatched in his field but a scope that outstrips a lot of the instrumental musicians out there. It's not a case of he can play the fastest licks or the heaviest riffs, it's more that he writes some of the best instrumental music that I've ever heard. If Ortiz can keep up this level of quality then soon enough he will be hailed as the next Steve Vai.