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Derek Sherinian

Black Utopia

Review by Gary Hill

This album is just getting reissued. Somehow when it came out the first time, I missed getting it reviewed. So, this is a great opportunity to remedy that scenario. This is an instrumental disc with a wide range of sounds. It switches between progressive rock, fusion and even metallic genre – sometimes within the same song. Each musician here (in addition to Derek Sherinian this features Zakk Wylde, Yngwie Malmsteen, Al di Meola, Steve Lukather, Billy Sheehan, Tony Franklin, Simon Phillips, Mike Shapiro and Jerry Goodman) puts in amazing performances. It just doesn’t get much better than this. If I had heard this when it was first released, it would have probably been close to the top of my “best of” list for that year. This is amazing stuff.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2014  Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
The Fury

A cool keyboard voice opens this. Then guitar (Malmsteen) screams out in passion. From there it turns darkly symphonic and begins building as that guitar keeps preaching its message. There’s a crescendo and it drops way down. That’s the end of this action packed, but short introductory bit.

The Sons of Anu: For the Glory of Enki/Of the Ashes Of Ur/Return Of The Nephilim

Can you imagine a song that features both Yngwie Malmsteen and Al di Meola? Well, that’s what we’ve got here. Add in two bass players (Sheehan and Franklin) and Jerry Goodman (violins) and Simon Phillips on drums and it’s clear this is something special. They power out into a jam that’s part metal, part fusion and all smoking hot. After the minute and a half mark it drops way down and the guitar starts powering solos over the top of that, too. Eventually it builds back out into a more full arrangement. This is a bit mellower and more melodic and more purely progressive rock. Still, that guitar shreds over the top. Then a false ending gives way to an acoustic based, Spanish guitar styled bit that rocks out despite the lack of distortion. They eventually power that up into something like a proggy technical thrash. There is a lot of classical music in this as it moves forward, but make no mistake, it’s all rock.

Nighmare Cinema

There is almost a Black Sabbath feeling to the riff driving the intro here. It drops from there to a keyboard based movement that’s mellow and menacing. The arrangement fills out as it moves forward. After a time that Black Sabbath riff returns to take over. They work through that, and then shift to a jam that seems to combine Sabbath and Metallica. When the keyboards come over the top they bring the proggier elements back. Still, this certainly would please most metal heads. It rocks out like crazy. We get a return to the mellower proggier sounds, but this thing just keeps going by alternating between those two modes. The lineup here is Zakk Wylde, Tony Franklin, Jerry Goodman, Simon Phillips and (of course) Sherinian.

Stony Days
Keys open this in much more sedate and pretty tones. As the bass (Franklin) joins it feels like it might move out into fusion. Instead, though, this works it way forward into more melodic progressive rock. As it moves forward we get quite a few shifts and changes. This really does move between more purely prog sections and movements that could clearly fall under the “fusion” banner. Still, it’s not like there are clear division points. This flows from transition to transition smoothly and it all feels unified. Steve Lukather handles the guitar and Simon Phillips lays down the drums.
Starcycle
The lineup is the same here as on the previous number. This works through some little short blasts of sound on the introduction. From there it becomes something like a cross between Steve Vai and Kraftwerk before turning more towards fusion. The piece keeps rearranging with various modes and themes returning for reinterpretation. It’s another compelling piece on a disc full of great stuff.
Axis of Evil
This powerhouse at times lands in the territory of thrash with progressive rock placed over the top. Then other points it comes in as very fusion-like. The guitar is seriously on fire on this thing. That said, the bass playing is among the best of the set, too. This is a screamer for the first couple minutes. Then it drops to a mellow keyboard led section. There is some melodic guitar at times in that movement and it lands pretty firmly in fusion territory. They take it through several changes as it builds out. The riff that powers it back into metallic territory makes me think of a thrashy “Peter Gunn” theme. That works to some seriously thrashy sound before ending it. Both Yngwie Malmsteen and Zakk Wylde are included on this piece and both Sheehan and Franklin play bass. Jerry Goodman provides violin while Simon Phillips is the drummer.
Gypsy Moth
Classical sounding keyboards are joined by Spanish guitar (di Meola) as this builds in intricate and pretty patterns. There is definitely a lot of world music built into this thing. This piece is fairly short and remains pretty constant throughout. That makes it one of the most purely mellow songs here. Still, it’s intricate complex and beautiful. The musicians in addition to Sherinian and di Meola on this number are Franklin, Goodman and Mike Shapiro (percussion).
Sweet Lament
Sherinian is joined on this song by Lukather, Franklin, Goodman and Phillips. Here we get the most purely vintage rock sounding piece of the set. There are things here that make think of bands like Klaatu, The Beatles and ELO. Overall this piece is melodic and very classic rock in nature. It’s one of the most instantly accessible moments of the set. It’s also quite strong.
Black Utopia
The title track starts off mysterious and atmospheric, building up gradually. The lineup is Sherinian, Wylde, Sheehan, Franklin, Goodman and Phillips. It works through as fairly mellow, melodic prog for the first minute or so. Then the guitar screams in lending some thrash sound to this thing. The keyboards come in to center it more in the realm of prog. Still, the guitar continues to take it forward and it gets very thrashy at times. It works through a number of shifts and changes, overall though, this lands in the metallic progressive rock range more often than not until around the five minute mark. It’s a real screamer.  Then it drops to mellower keyboard driven sounds. Although there are some variations from there, that general style holds it to the end. After some extended silence there is a bit of, shall we say “drug related,” found sound.
 
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