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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Matthew Parmenter

Horror Express

Review by Julie Knispel

Matthew Parmenter may be best known to progressive music listeners as vocalist (and keyboardist, and occasional guitars/violin/saxophones) and erstwhile leader of Discipline, a Michigan-based progressive rock band responsible for two highly regarded albums released in the 1990’s, including the modern masterpiece Unfolded Like Staircase.  The band remained active through 1999, at which time they were "mothballed," so to speak, with Parmenter going it alone, for the most part, since then.

In 2004 he released his first solo album, the 68-minute long Astray.  This release showed the years since his last recorded output had not dulled his songwriting skills nor his distinctively theatrical voice; if anything, the passage of time had honed those elements to an even sharper edge.  It has been four years since new material has been made available, but the wait finally ends with the release of Horror Express, his newest collection of original material.

Parmenter’s signature elements are in full force here...the songs are dark, dramatic, and very symphonic.  Piano battles with mellotron and synthesised strings, drums snap and pop, bass pulses, while above it all, Parmenter’s voice soars, snarls and wails, alternating between angelic highs and growling lows.  Showing a more diverse side to his material, Horror Express includes a number of instrumentals among the expected vocal tracks, offering him a chance to show off his skills on multiple instruments.  Unlike his previous release, Horror Express sees Parmenter handling all instruments (former Discipline band mate Mathew Kennedy contributed bass to Astray). Horror Express is continued evidence that Matthew Parmenter is a vital, important voice in progressive music, American or otherwise.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2008  Volume 3 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
In the Dark
Chopped piano chords and layered, choral vocal bursts lead into the Horror Express opening track.  As a whole, the song feels as if it has been lifted fully formed from the 1970’s, with a heavily symphonic arrangement.  Orchestration is lush and rich, with guitars mixed just far enough back to sound is if they are calling out from the deep.  The track moves through several sections, each with distinctly different feels (solo piano, lushly arranged vocal sections, et cetera) in typical Parmenter form.  An epic in nearly every sense of the word save for length (the song is "only" 9:22 long), it’s an impressive piece that sets the stage for the album to follow.
O Cesare
This piece was debuted at NEARfest in 2005, during Parmenter’s 30-minute solo spotlight.  The piece has evolved since then, with added instrumentation and orchestration enriching a number that features some of Parmenter’s most emotional and theatrically dramatic vocals.  His shifts from lower sung tones to nearly keening high tenor lacks some of the screamed quality that Peter Hammill (with whom Matthew has been compared many times over) has, yet the shifts are just as effortless.  The song feels and sounds deep, with warm, almost bottomless piano filling the song.
Escape into the Future
“Escape Into the Future” takes the album in another direction entirely, with an arrangement that is far more electronic.  Sections feel as if they have been built up in loop fashion, with pulsing, electronic bass and a tight drum loop that propels the track forward.  Synths buzz over top, lending a sound that is more 1980’s than the more typical 1970’s influences that typify Parmenter’s material since 1997.
Kaiju
Kaiju is Japanese for monster; the word is most often seen in conjunction with films such as the Gojira (Godzilla) series, the Gamera films, and so on.  This instrumental features backward tracked guitars, evocative and emotive violin playing, and a sorrowful, somber tone.  If music is also visual in nature, as it can be for some, one might be tempted to compare the emotional feel of this piece to some scenes in the first Gojira film from 1954, as cameras track over a devastated Tokyo and choirs of children sing an almost wordless paean to the dead.  An elegy of sorts, “Kaiju” is one of the most interesting and impressive tracks on this album, and marks a high water mark for Parmenter compositionally.
Snug Bottom Flute and Starveling
This piece is the second straight instrumental on the album, and opens in a burst of violent sound and cacophony.  Guitars buzz under a repeated piano line, yet the song settles into a quieter groove with fractured guitar work over piano and gentle drums.  Far from a static composition, this piece is as much a showcase for Parmenter’s solid keyboard playing and attention to sonic detail.
Golden Child
Only two words fill this "vocal" piece, those being the two words of the title.  The opening piano line sounds like a minimalist take/distillation on the main piano riff that “Snug Bottom Flute and Starveling” was built around.  A far more guitar based track than any before it on this release, the words buzzing, fuzzed and overdriven are most appropriate for describing the guitar’s presence here.  Vocally Parmenter continues to vary his delivery, with a good bit of his singing of the titular two words done in a high falsetto, verging on sotto voce.
Monsters from the Id
Quite possibly the most disturbing piece in a catalogue of disturbing pieces, “Monsters from the Id” features eerie lyrics that verge on the diabolic without descending to adolescent displays of overt demonic intent.  Parmenter’s piano playing is as impressive as ever, while his vocals are powerful, assured, almost growling with emotion.  Opening vocal sections sound almost like a slow piano blues, with bridges building in intensity with quiet bass and subtle bits of guitar mimicking the piano theme several octaves higher.  At 7:53, the song feels far shorter than the amount of material packed into its length.
Polly New
Horror Express is the first album released by Parmenter or Discipline to not include a song over 20 minutes in length since the debut Discipline release in 1993.  “Polly New” comes closest, just barely breaking the ten-minute mark.  Having made mention of this, like the other mini-epics on this album, “Polly New” fits far more musical information per minute than one might expect.  It is also perhaps the "brightest," "happiest" sounding composition on this album.  Of course, in Matthew Parmenter's world, bright and happy are words that might only want to be taken at face value, as even at its brightest, the material on Horror Express is dark despondence at its purest.  “Polly Knew” also features some of Parmenter’s most literary, poetic lyrics to date, wrapping the entire package in a shifting, symphonic arrangement that calls on the melodicism and pop sensibility of the Beatles and George Harrison as it does the darkness of Peter Hammill or Anekdoten.
All Done (Horror Express)
This is the final vocal track on this album, and it opens quietly, with subdued piano and resigned vocals intoning the opening lines: “All done, I’ve finished the job/All done, I’m finished for now.”  Save for “Between Me and the End” on Astray (which was initially a Discipline song before being recast for that solo album), this is the most Discipline-sounding piece Matthew has released since placing Discipline on the shelf in 1999.  Much of that comes from his vocal delivery, which shifts toward the more fluid style he exhibited in that band versus the more overly dramatic, sometimes clipped style which he has developed over his two solo releases.  Like many of MP’s best works, this track moves through several distinct sections, each with its own musical feel, each of which contributes a bit toward the song as a whole.  Saxophone finally makes a more present appearance here, and the ending one to two minutes are among the most intense material Parmenter has ever committed to tape.
The Cutting Room
Matthew takes a bit of a risk in closing out Horror Express with an instrumental.  The risk is pushed even further by making it one of the more avant garde pieces on the album, excerpting bits and bobs from the previous nine album tracks and pasting them together in an almost hodge podge manner.  These bits are wrapped around some original material as well, the end result sounding much like the audio equivalent of fractured fever dreams.  This is as experimental as I have ever heard Parmenter, and the risk pays off in spades, leaving the listener disoriented, off balance, and possibly a little disturbed, rather than being gently released from Horror Express’ taloned grasp.
 
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