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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

OSI

Blood

Review by Julie Knispel

It’s been three years, and thus the two-headed beast that is OSI awakens from deep sleep to present us with another slice of electronic-inspired prog in the form of Blood, their third LP. OSI has been a shifting, unsettling musical entity. While the first album drew equally from the talents of Mike Portnoy, Kevin Moore, Jim Matheos and Sean Malone to create an impressive debut release that added a significant dollop of electronic modern-ness to the often staid genre of progressive metal. 2006 (yep, three years following their debut), OSI returned with Free, which saw Portnoy’s participation greatly reduced, and Malone replaced by Joey Vera (Armored Saint, Fates Warning) on bass. Blood sees further shifts in band line-up, with Matheos handling bass as well as guitar, and Portnoy replaced by Gavin Harrison, currently of Porcupine Tree and one of the more busy progressive rock drummers currently active in the genre. Also guesting on Blood is Opeth frontman Michael Åkerfeldt on the appropriately titled “Stockholm.”

Moore’s vocals are subtle, mixed down, not overly nuanced, but perhaps perfect for the sound the band has crafted here. There’s an eerie sense of distance here in his vocal presentation, a kind of disconnect, that suits the processed, chopped up music Moore and Matheos has crafted here. Meanwhile, his keyboard sounds rely more on mood than flash. Little buzzes, sweeps, moog and processed Rhodes-like electric piano are constants in his sonic repertoire, and it’s his sense of mood and colour and shape that perhaps hint most at what was lost when he left Dream Theater in 1994. Matheos acquits himself well on bass, and his guitar playing exhibits every bit as much awareness of space and shape as Moore’s keyboard playing does. If you’re buying this to hear Matheos let loose and show off, you’re making a mistake…his playing is restrained, subtle, and centered around the needs of the song and arrangement. Gavin Harrison’s performance here is not a surprise. There’s a reason he’s so well regarded as a drummer, and his abilities are showcased well here. When he has to let loose and pound, he does so with admirable force and dexterity…no plodding dinosaur beats for him. Elsewhere he adds little touches of percussion and subtlety (I keep coming back to that word a lot here) adding to the arrangement without distracting from the arrangement. He’s the right drummer for this material, certainly.

OSI is a tough nut to crack in some ways, and they are a hard band to easily recommend. They’re not really prog metal any more, they’re not electronica, they’re not ambient, even though they certainly have elements of each style, and explore each of them in time. Unlike supergroups like Transatlantic, OSI’s sound really is less about what each individual musician brings to the table and more about the chemistry that results from combining them…one could easily tell, for example, what Neal Morse or Roine Stolt brought to Transatlantic, yet OSI’s sound is entirely its own. Blood is an album that offers something new with each subsequent listen, unraveling and revealing secrets every time it’s spun.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2009  Volume 3 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
The Escape Artist
Blood opens, perhaps appropriately enough, with an eerie musical interlude of processed keys and guitars leading into a fairly propulsive rhythm.  When the full band kicks things into gear, we are hearing OSI in a fairly heavy mode.  Kevin Moore’s vocals are subtle and processed as well, and his fairly flat delivery continues to take some getting used to.  “The Escape Artist” is a very tightly composed song, and everything locks together with nary a space to breathe…quite appropriate for a band whose sound can be quite claustrophobic and menacing, in a sort of post-industrial way.
Terminal
Listening to the rolling opening to “Terminal,” I admit I could hear some digeridoo on it…maybe this is a bit of an odd side comment, but it’s just the way the track opens.  Moving on, we hear some nicely placed synth bloops and bleeps, offering a bit of analogue warmth to the mix.  This is a very laid back track, and shows the kinds of contrasts the band works with very well when compared to the heavier opening track.  Matheos’s bass playing is sublime here, and mixed up nicely so it becomes one of the dominant themes in the track.
False Start
“False Start” sees Matheos rip on rhythm guitar, his bass playing tight and heavy, while Harrison lets fly with some impressive rolls and fills propelling the song forward. Add to that some carefully placed keyboard bits and Moore’s disaffected, distanced vocals, and you have an interesting mix that really succeeds as a result of the tension inherent in the two different styles.
We Come Undone
On the other hand, “We Come Undone” is far more keyboard driven, opening with a gentle, yet slightly unsettling keyboard line, brushed traps and hi hat (processed by the sound of it), and more of Moore’s trademark vocals. I like the variety of keyboard sounds here, and this song certainly fits the bill as late night chill out music, albeit with a twist. Like so much music in this genre, nothing is really ever as simple as it seems.
Radiologue
Some white noise, a slowly building cadence, and then…very restrained guitar arpeggios and a percussive/bass loop create a quiet, somber aura for Moore’s vocals.  I enjoy the trance-like opening, and when the band comes in, with power drill guitar and simple, but effective, flourishes of drums from Gavin Harrison, the shift in sound, vibe, and intensity really push the song upward.  The shifts may not be intensely abrupt, but they keep the song from falling into too deep a rut, and add variety and colour to the piece.
Be The Hero
Like many tracks on this release, “Be The Hero” opens with some audio verite/musique concrete/looping before kicking into what some people would call the song proper.  One would be forgiven for anticipating a lighter, trance like song from the way things open, but instead we get several bursts of dinosaur beats and slashing, angry rhythm guitar.  Another interlude, and then…BANG!…we have one of the heaviest tracks on Blood, with plenty of Matheos guitar to please his ardent fans.  If anything, songs like this and “False Start” would benefit from a stronger, almost angrier vocalist.  I’d love to hear this sung (not screamed) by someone like, oh, I don’t know, Devin Townsend or someone of similar ilk.
Microburst Alert
“Microburst Alert” is about as processed as they come, with loads of samples that sound as if they have been acquired from recordings at some scientific research station of control center. Keys, percussion, bass…everything has been manipulated within an inch of its life until nothing, I think, sounds like it did when initially committed to tape or digital 1’s and 0’s.
Stockholm
As an Opeth fan, I have to admit my biggest interest was in hearing how Mikael Åkerfeldt was integrated into the band’s sound. “Stockholm” gives us that opportunity, and I am thankful to say his voice has seen limited, if any, post-production processing, and we get his gloriously smooth tenor-baritone, filled with inflection and emotion, on a song that could easily have fit on an album like Damnation or Watershed. It’s eerie, it’s dark, and Åkerfeldt’s voice just makes it even more so. I hate saying a guest-driven song is the highlight of an album, but for this listener, “Stockholm” definitely is.
Blood
The album’s title track closes out proceedings with some tasty keyboard work, thick, heavy bass playing, and nicely distorted guitar chording.  The shift to a quieter mood is nicely navigated, and while the song retains some heaviness, it is still intensely moody and dark.  Moore’s vocals fit this piece better than on the heavier tracks; while I think it’d be a mistake to have an OSI album be entirely mid-tempo moody pieces (that’s what projects like Chroma Key are for, among others), “Blood” is an impressive piece that shows how strong the band can be at their collective best.
 
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