It has been nearly three years since I reviewed the recording Levin-Minnemann-Rudess, which I described as a “powerhouse onslaught of uncompromising instrumental joy”. It is one of those albums I ripped and added to my iTunes library and have listened to ever since.
But it is not without a couple of minor flaws, so when I heard a new release was coming out I couldn’t wait to hear it and see how they trio progressed from a one-off to a band. The results are stunning.
Honestly, I love the phrase “powerhouse onslaught of uncompromising instrumental joy” that I used to describe the original recording – but words you would generally not use to describe the recording are ‘subtle’ or ‘nuanced’. That is not to say that the approach isn’t layered and that there weren’t nuanced moments, it just wasn’t the focal point of the recording.
With ‘From the Law Offices of …’ there is a change in terms of the depth of the compositions, the broadening of the dynamic range of the recordings, and an increased focus on all the little things that make a huge overall difference. And YES I would say that you can add subtle and nuanced to the descriptions of this recording.
Listening to the Album:
‘From the Law Offices of …’ consists of 17 tracks with 16 distinct songs and two versions of ‘The Tort’ which is one of three ‘bonus tracks’. Across those songs there is a great depth and variety of experiences, so much so that I spent quite a while debating with myself which song to have as my ‘quick hit’ featured song.
The bottom line is that I really love this album, and there are a number of reasons why, some that are about the songs, some about the artists, and others just about the journey.
While my appreciation of these artists was made evident in the previous reviews, and one listen will affirm why I love these songs, what do I mean by ‘the journey’? Two things – there is simply the trip that we take from start to finish of any album, and particularly a ‘concept’ album such as this. But more to the point, throughout the album I found myself catching references – little nuggets from Jeff Beck and Frank Zappa and King Crimson and Yes and Stevie Wonder and ELP and Return to Forever and Miles and Hendrix and Bruford and on and on and on. This felt like a trip that explored the history of instrumental rock and jazz fusion and prog rock that was handled with love and respect, never lifting anything and never taking an easy path. As a result, I felt more like these guys were telling each other and their audience “I have loved this music for decades, and this is what it has inspired me to produce.”
The album starts strong with the ‘welcome back’ feel of “Back to the Machine”, a strong up-tempo prog-rock that instantly reminds us why we loved these guys as a combo the first time around. Catchy phrases, deftly handled polyrhythms, constantly shifting blocks, all incredibly challenging but made to sound easy.
From there we jump into “Ready, Set, Sue” and then “Riff Splat” – these are two excellent hard-driving songs which are rhythmically potent yet intricate. “Ready, Set, Sue” jumps from a polyrhythmic introduction to a driving beat to a Zappa-esque fun-house section back to the opening riff, to a lilting guitar-led section and finally into a solid melody about half-way into the song. It is these shifting passages that make the song at once so fun and challenging – you are just never allowed to settle to deeply into a single groove, yet it all fits perfectly together.
“Riff Splat” has a similar ‘formula’, but instead of jumping about through extended segments it dives into an enormous groove so deep and dark that it just drags you into its primordial ooze and before you know what is happening you’re a couple of minutes into the song and your body is moving to the intense rhythmic pulse and gritty solo. But it is also here that after a few listens you start to really grab the subtle ferocity of what the band is able to accomplish, the shift of intensity from in-your-face to more laid-back, before it all comes to a pounding conclusion that you knew was coming but were incredibly happy when it arrived.
After that, things settle down a bit with the solid “What is the Meaning” followed by “Marseille”, which I consider the weakest track on the album and will discuss later. “What is the Meaning” probably evokes Emerson Lake and Palmer more directly than any other reference, but in this context, it serves to set a mood and tone for the rest of the song.
Then we are in the ‘meat’ of the album – a run of seven songs that you will never want to interrupt and embodies the excellence that has me constantly replaying song after song. From “Good Day Hearsay” through “Magistrate” the songs are all of incredibly high quality, meticulously executed, joyfully improvised, and range from introspective to other the top. I could spend hundreds of words on each song, but instead, let me highlight a few of my favorite moments.
Starting off like a metal anthem but quickly returning to the quick-shift format of “Riff Splat”, “Good Day Hearsay” sets you back on course and features Rudess really stretching out on squealing synth riffs. Later in the set we get another fun romp with “When the Gavel Falls”, very polished and structured in many ways, but still
“Balloon” is gorgeous acoustic guitar based song with a lilting melody playing over the top that builds slowly, with nothing superfluous or overdone, just a sentimental feeling that reminded me of classic ‘Winnie the Pooh’ songs from classic cartoon movies. I love this song for showing off an entirely different side to these gifted artists, full of nuance and whimsy.
Perhaps my second favorite song on the album, “Witness” starts with a simple catchy riff, adds guitar, a groove and a whistled melody that doubles the bass part. It is simple and fun and beautiful and build slowly … and then it all falls apart! The groove deconstructs, the melodic elements are still there but fragmented, a searing solo flies over top, and then we fall back to just the deconstructed bass and drums with guitar over top. And when it all comes back together we fell that consonant resolution – and then realize it is a trick! For what we’re hearing at 3:30 into the song isn’t a restating of the introduction, but a whole new groove that swings and has a much easier feel. I still smile every time that transition happens because the resolution is what we’re looking for, but it is handled in a way that allows the band to take a new direction without us noticing.
Ending up the set we get a two-part song – well, one leads right into the other – with “Free Radicals” and “Magistrate”. “Free Radicals” sounds like it could have come from Emily Remler’s last album (sadly out of print), which is a great thing. But just as you get comfortable with the band working through the lovely harmony and melody, everything starts shifting – first into a new melody, then a piano break leads us into what feels like a dark cave that musically reminds me of early 1970s Paul McCartney & Wings ‘007’ music. But while the melody plays on, the groove is building up in the background, growling with intensity.
But in spite of all of these great songs there are two songs that I found disappointing for very different reasons. I called “Marseille” the weakest song on the album, and to be honest out of 17 songs it is the only one I cannot pull out of my memory instantly – and I have the album playing on repeat as I am writing this review! It isn’t a bad song, but on an album such as this, something has to fall to the bottom, and for me this was an easy choice.
Perhaps the greatest disappointment for me was “Shiloh’s Cat”, but it is a dubious distinction – because even while ‘disappointing’ “Shiloh’s Cat” is one of my favorite songs on the record and contains several of my favorite moments. The opening is gorgeous, the groove and harmony pull you in, the melody is infectious and beautiful, capped off with a synth-sax line played to perfection that cascades right into a perfect bridge. Two minutes in this is one of the best songs – so what happens? The song drops to allow for a solo by Rudess, but rather than play beautiful lines as he did on other songs, the result is an over-the-top rapid-fire explosion of notes that completely loses the thread of the song. With about a minute left, we rejoin the main theme, and then jump into a powerful and pulsing conclusion worthy of early 80s Journey that very nearly recaptures the magic.
“The Tort” is another brilliant piece that once again visits the dark and gritty grooves of “Magistrate” and “Riff Splat”, with a complex structure that is at once driving and laid-back, fun yet haunting. The improvisations are searing and tortured, with the pounding hi-hat driving home each grueling note.
The remainder of the album is solid – “Testimony” is another introspective piece, and “Habeas Porpoise” (love the name) is rhythmic romp that will have musicians immediately trying to count time, then follow the sections as they shift to an almost carnival-like atmosphere before falling into a small club vibe before exploding again. And the album closes with a fun re-recorded version of “The Tort” – when it is finished, you are completely satisfied from this incredible musical journey.
‘Quick Hit’ Song: “The Verdict” – there are a bunch of songs I loved on this album, but ultimately I wanted to pick the one I simply couldn’t get out of my head – and THIS is that song. Starting with a pounding groove and sizzling arpeggios that at once evokes 70s funk/disco and 80s New Wave and modern techno, but of course with some complex time signatures and pattern arrangements. About a minute into the song things break down, but there is a sense of anticipation for what is coming next, propelled by Minnemenn dropping suggestive fills to counter Rudess’ squealing lines … and THEN it gets really good. A big triplet drum fill leads back into a deep and heavy groove with Rudess soaring over top with a raunchy lead that would have the crowd at an EDM concert pumping.
But wait – there’s more. On the second time through this groove, Rudess adds a gorgeous 90s-esque synth pad playing an ascending chord sequence followed by a dramatic Minnemann fill that launches into a solo that is immediately reminiscent of Jeff Beck’s “There and Back” style of playing. It is a gorgeous song filled with some of the most dramatic and satisfying musical moments of the year – I smile whenever I starts and won’t switch it off until the song is over.
Would I recommend?: Absolutely! As noted throughout – I believe this recording is stronger than the first release in every way: compositions, interplay, production values and the overall depth of the experience. And given that I adored the first album – this one is a ‘must have’ for anyone who enjoyed the first album … or pretty much any sort of prog-rock, musician-focused instrumental music, and so on.
As I said, the album covers loads of ground from rock to metal to fusion to prog. These musicians are all technically brilliant, but the album captures much more than that – it brings across creative synergy between artists of disparate backgrounds that somehow coalesce to produce a whole greater than the sum of parts.
Suggested audience: I will echo what I said three years ago – if you love musician’s music you will totally geek out to this. If you are a fan of instrumental music you will love it. If you focus on the deft interplay on classic prog rock and fusion albums, please just buy this already!
Source: Publisher provided review CD
Here is the group playing ‘Back to the Machine’: