When I hear that a group of musicians first got together in a Yes tribute band, the last thing I expect is anything heavy. The first ten seconds of the new ARZ album, Solomon’s Key, completely changed that opinion for me. Forget any preconceived notions that a couple of guys imitating London’s premier prog giants would be doodling in some Roger Dean-backdropped universe of lofty art school tunes – this duo is putting out some awesome instrumental progressive rock that mixes a prog metal edge with a deep artistic core and incredible musicianship. It’s also one of those albums that constantly makes me think “how do they ever play this stuff live?” But they do!
First of all, I did say duo. The Portland, Oregon-based ARZ consists of guitarist Steve Adams and drummer Merrill Hale. What’s interesting about this is that both also double on an array of various synth and electronic doodads, with Hale adding to his standard drum kit a Roland SPD-20 drum pad, essentially a Rock Band controller on steroids that triggers a whole array of various synth and world music percussion instruments. Adams also uses some MIDI magic to play along his synth parts while still tackling the guitar parts. (He’s also the de facto vocalist of the band, although there are no lyrics on the latest release.) When I first heard of these guys, I thought maybe this was just a gimmick or a studio-only trick, something done in lieu of having some additional members, or while between bassists and additional guitar players. I’ve often heard bands doubling up the strings in the studio, or playing along with a drum machine, in a demo-only situation while seeking out other members. But this is a system that works well for the band, and within the first track or two of this release, the complexity of the music made me forget I wasn’t listening to a four or five-piece group.
Solomon’s Key is an eight-track concept album of sorts, using the theme of the myth and mystery of the Middle East as a medium to explore various minor-mode tapestries of instrumental rock. I don’t know the exact storyline behind any of this album, although I know King Solomon from the old testament of the bible, and there’s a medieval book on magic called Solomon’s Key that might be part of the mythology of the songs here. There are three sub-five minute songs following more rock-oriented structure, but the rest are longer form pieces, with the title cut weighing in at just over 18 minutes.
What I like most about this album is that it weaves heavy, straight-up metal with more complex, prog-oriented melodies, and doesn’t do one while sacrificing the quality of the other. For example, the first cut, “Almadel”, starts with a super-low-end power metal start, like a Nu-metal band out of the gate, but then immediately cuts into a harmonized, Steve Howe-esque clean guitar melody, and trades off intricate verses with metal-form guitar solos. Adams is a student of classical technique and jazz performance, and uses his intricate playing style to meld together multiple styles of music. This is a band that’s well-schooled in all of the classics, like Rush, Yes, and ELP, but manages to mix in jazz and world music influences into a project that moves beyond the typical rock band structure. Add to this the fact that Hale’s robo-drum setup enables him to weave things like tubular bells and glock within the acoustic and electric guitar, and you’ve got an incredible soundscape.
Aside from the writing and musicianship, I was also impressed with the quality of recording and production in general. For a release without the funding of a major label, there’s an incredible amount of production skill here. They’ve skipped the step of physical retail on this one, and went direct to digital, making this release available only on iTunes, Napster, and other digital format mediums.
Head over to thearzuniverse.com and check these guys out. You can also find some video evidence there that these two can actually play this stuff live. And stay tuned – their next album is already in the works!