The closest I’ve got to any prog metal may well be the David Cross Band’s Sign of the Crow (2016) where the ‘metal edge’ runs deep and at the live premier of the album, the power of the ensemble was incredible. Cross’ heavy credentials shouldn’t come as any surprise even though his primary instrument is violin because during his tenure in King Crimson he was fighting to be heard over band mates who were increasingly moving into proto-prog metal territory, a band which around 30 years and a couple of iterations later would unleash their mixture of prog and prog-metal visions The ConstruKction of Light (2000) and The Power to Believe (2003). I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy the performance promoting TCoL at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire on July 3rd 2000 which I felt had an almost threatening intensity.
Looking through my collection, the three studio albums Imperio de Cristal (2011), Volver a nacer (2012) and Nuevo Mesias (2014), plus the live Medusa (2015) by Peruvians Flor de Loto contain far more hard rock than Andean folk or prog and are consequently somewhat disappointing; Cumbemayo from Nuevo Mesias contains a degree of variation, including good prog flute but I couldn’t find their eponymous debut album, which is said to have more of a prog mix, during my couple of days in Lima. Buying these four albums isn’t my only mistake; prompted by Andrea Parentin’s Rock Progressivo Italiano (Createspace.com, 2011) I thought I’d look for some Il Bacio della Medusa music but instead of Discesa agl'inferi d'un giovane amante from 2008 I found their first, self titled album from 2004 cheap on the BTF website. It turned out to be hard rock and even the presence of flute can’t shift it into prog territory.
This admission that I have a bit of a problem with prog metal meant it was with some trepidation that I embarked on a review of the recent release Radiant Memory by Process of Illumination; I’m not really much of an expert. Fortunately, based on a suggestion by the band to listen to their debut EP Fifteen from 2016, I wouldn’t really class the Texan outfit as straightforward prog metal and, to be fair to the band, they actually state that their music is ‘an ambitious blend of progressive rock, instrumental music and metal.’ It turns out that Fifteen was in fact a good place to start, as the three tracks making up the release all feature on the full-length Radiant Memory. The group is made up of KC Cheek on guitar, Robert Schlembach on drums and percussion, Erik Schow on bass, and Aaron Smith on keyboards and it’s evident from very early on that they are supremely capable and pleasantly adventurous. Forest Temple opens the album and it was the first track I listened to on YouTube and was one of the first compositions penned by the band. This is a mini-epic with interweaving guitar and keyboard parts, some fast synth lines over crunching guitar and nice ambient keyboard washes which provide a cinematic feel and provide the backing for a really tasteful guitar solo at a little over the six minute mark. The bass and drums work effectively together, especially during the intro and the reprise at the end of the song where the primitive tattoo conjures images of the indigenous people of the title; I was reminded of Peter Gabriel IV and was immediately hooked.
Fifteen is fast and tricky. If my counting is correct there are alternating sections of heavy riffing in 15/8 and 9/8 time but there’s some nice variation with melodic electric piano over a drum and fuzz bass backing. The main melody line is in 5/4 and is picked out on electric piano, synth, lead guitar and the guitar plus synth. It may be a short track but it’s upbeat and deceptively complex.
Omen begins with ominous keyboards which resolve into more up-tempo riffing on keyboard and guitar. At times the music sounds heroic, and could even be the theme tune to some HBO drama set in feudal times; a successful TV series because it’s got another catchy melody line. Amongst the bright keyboard tones Smith uses a brass synth setting which gives the track a sound characteristic of early Asia and there’s an unexpected denouement, with a sparse, heavily reverbed unaccompanied piano, hinting of some unfathomable darkness once more.
Aura commences with picked guitar, complimentary bass and bright keyboards but after this almost-jazz rock intro the drums kick in with an 80s synth pop groove. This doesn’t last too long and we’re treated to another slow, tasteful guitar solo over atmospheric keyboard chords, very befitting of the title. The pop refrain recommences but it’s mostly buried under a more energetic guitar melody. I think this willingness to play widely different styles is admirable but I’m not sure the electronica works in this context; it’s more Sheffield circa 1981 than Berlin or Düsseldorf in 1974. I think that this is the weakest track because what begins and ends with haunting atmospherics is spoiled by the retro electronica, the keyboard sounds and the percussion sound; photos of the band playing live show Schlembach behind a Roland V-drum electronic kit and most of the patches he uses mimic acoustic drums.
The Complex was one of the three tracks on the original EP and another early composition. Well thought out and executed, it opens with a brooding keyboard chord, subsonic bass and percussive bells before kicking into gear with a heavy churning guitar over haunting keyboards which reminds me of Porcupine Tree. The alternating guitar and keyboard leads are riff based until Cheek lets loose with a fast solo, followed by a fast synth solo complete with baroque flourishes and a reprise of the heavy-ambient-prog guitar and keyboard.
I had been concerned with the influences cited by the group but the next track shows their roots are much broader than I’d feared. Resolved is a concise piano piece with drum, bass and keyboard chord backing. It’s moderately slow paced with an uplifting, almost heroic melody line. The tempo picks up when the military drumming is introduced half-way through the tune and could even serve as a companion piece to Omen as a piece of music for film.
Another track where the music creates suitable mental imagery, Gallows Call begins with a Geoff Downes string keyboard patch in a minor key before the deployment of tattoo-like drums and the introduction of a strident lead synth line backed by heavy crunching guitar. At around the three minutes mark there’s an atmospheric section building up to a fast, screaming guitar solo which in turn gives way to a restatement of the synthesizer melody and a fade-out. There’s a short passage during the guitar solo where it sounds as though the instrument is double tracked – which reminds me of classic 70s Wishbone Ash - but I just wonder if it’s a brilliant piece of synching with the keyboard which had up to that point provided a bubbling backing line. It’s certainly a very effective example of expressive playing.
Off the Edge of a Nightmare begins with a piano motif which is joined by multiple synth lines before the rhythm section commences in 6/4 and the guitar adds subtle backing to a piano melody. A melodic variation is introduced halfway through the track, punctuated by keyboard-choir and some nice piano trills herald a riffing guitar solo. There’s a false ending before the return of the piano motif and the ensemble pick up the melody again. The dark title of the song isn’t reflected in the music which is on again bright and uplifting; final track Hopeful Bridges continues this positive feel with a variation on the dominant piano melody, this time in 3/4 and though it’s relatively brief, it could be my favourite track from the album because the instrumentation and the harmonies work so well. I may be a fan of prog-staple fuzz bass but here it’s got a treble click and the syncopated lines, like the understated guitar, are clever and clear.
Part of my problem is that I’ve not listened to a wide enough range of heavy-prog or prog metal and by looking at the list of influences quoted by Process of Illumination, I’d convinced myself that this was an album I’d maybe not like and certainly one I’d find hard to review. This is partly about comfort zones and I’ve just succeeded in pushing mine back a bit further; it’s also about avoiding pigeonholes and abandoning preconceived ideas. So I’m happy to announce that yes, Radiant Memory does contain traces of an influence of metal, but it tends to be keyboard dominated with styles reflecting a range of classical, symphonic prog and jazz rock sensibilities and the combination of strong melodic lines with vivid atmospheric backing and a hint of thematic continuity, certainly for the second half of the album, gives it a cinematic scope. I love the fact that it’s wholly instrumental; it contains plenty of good ideas and some memorable melodic hooks, displaying amazing dexterity and not shying away from complexity – the fiery guitar-keyboard interplay is standout but no individual eclipses the whole.
It may not be a perfect album but it’s a very good start.