Here are a few things that can’t be mistaken: When Chris Squire plays that first mighty note, when Phil Collins introduces a song with one of his huge fills, when David Gilmour doesn’t need more than just a few notes to say it all. When Roine Stolt composes harmony sequences, when Marco Minnemann amazes with his insane use of cymbals, when Daniel Gildenlöw reaches unknown heights with his voice, when Jonas Reingold enchants you with his fretless bass lines. I wish I could say the same about Tom Brislin, but I honestly don’t know most of his work. And after hearing this album, I realized what a shame that is. Tom knows his craft extremely well and he has that incredible taste for retro-like yet fresh and organic keyboard sounds. He fits into this band perfectly and delivers flawless contributions. But so do the other members. And when these people come together to form one band, one can expect something awesome. You can hear everybody’s compositional and instrumental influence on this record. It doesn’t sound entirely like The Flower Kings, Pain Of Salvation or The Aristocrats, but you can definitely hear the personnel overlap of these bands at some bits and pieces of the album.
The band first came together last September to start working on material provided by everyone. Here lies the first of many qualities of the album: Everyone contributed, composed, played different instruments, sang, wrote lyrics and vocal melodies. According to Roine, the basic recording process took about six months, but the work on the album was not finished after that. Everyone added some nuances in instrumentation and arrangement later in their home studios. This is the second of many qualities of the album: It’s not rushed. It wasn’t written and recorded within a week; the songs were given time to be developed and listened to with some distance. Not one song is being faded out, every ending is composed and thought through. The arrangements are colorful and rich. But still - and that’s actually a third quality - it’s no Chinese Democracy, ideas weren’t overthought and overproduced, it still has some kind of spontaneity and freshness to it, with some parts even sounding like first takes.
The albums kicks off with a cannonball of a song. „Ashes Of Dawn“ evolves from a distant augmented chord and some sound effects, before Marco introduces the mighty main riff by one of his characteristic tom-tom rolls. The riff itself is one of the heaviest of the album, reminiscent of the Red-era King Crimson. The vocal line of the verse is quite simple, but it leaves enough space for the instruments to vary the arrangement with every repetition. Plus, Daniel can make every melody sound great. Jonas’ bass lines are far from just providing root notes, Marco’s cymbal use is extraordinary as usual and Toms hammond organ sounds retro and dramatic. The song’s chorus is catchy and a bit apocalyptic and reminds me of Pain Of Salvation’s Road Salt albums. A first climax is reached with Roine’s guitar solo, before Tom’s organ introduces a wild saxophone solo reminiscent of King Crimson’s „Starless“ and David Jackson’s saxophone escapades on the early Van Der Graaf Generator albums. It was provided by Rob Townsend from Steve Hackett’s band and fits so well into the music that I actually wish we had gotten to hear more of him on the album. „Ashes Of Dawn“ is the perfect opener that already shows a lot of the band’s potential, but doesn’t give it all away
The next two songs tone it down a little bit. „They Know My Name“ has one of those hooklines you won’t get out of your head for days. It builds up delicately with a simple, yet beautiful piano pattern, a fragile Daniel and a very mellow atmosphere. Marco adds an unconventional touch to the later verses by a shuffled, slightly busy groove. The chorus appears very often in this song, but each time it’s played, it’s concluded differently. Roine plays one of his very finest solos toward the end and Toms keyboard sounds are very versatile and tasty. „They Know My Name“ is one of the more unobtrusive songs on the album. Either its characteristic melodies appeal to you or they don’t. They definitely do to me.
„The Void“ lacks those appealing hooks, but it has that unmistakable melancholic, unsettling atmosphere that I only know from the mellow songs on Pain Of Salvation’s Road Salt albums. In fact, the vocal melody reminds me a bit of „1979“. Daniel’s performance is simply outstanding, reaching from fragile to mighty and ominous, sometimes within seconds. The song is constantly building up energy during verses and pre-choruses, but never unloads it in a hymnic or huge chorus. Instead, the only time the tune breaks out is yet another great guitar solo by Roine Stolt, before it returns to the fragile calmness of the beginning. The lack of the mentioned chorus gives the song the impression of a sketch, a short episode or the expression of a feeling.
„An Eye For An Eye For An Eye“ and „Goodbye“ are two perfect Retro-Progressive rockers, with the former as one of my personal favorites of the album. This impulsive, straight forward song starts off with a hectic tom-tom roll and a melody that - I could have sworn - has Stolt written all over it (remember the faster middle section from The Flower Kings’ „Love Is The Only Answer“?). But it was in fact written by Marco Minnemann, and he gets the chance to show what exactly he’s capable of by pushing the rhythm forward with his insane breaks and ride cymbal attacks. While having a slight Alternative rock vibe to it, the song completely changes its direction after a few minutes into a piano-driven uptempo swing section that is not only incorporated as a gimmick, but as an integral part that lasts for over two minutes. That’s exactly the amount of jazz I sometimes miss in prog music. Marco proves that he wouldn’t be out of place in a jazz trio (which is absolutely not a usual thing for a drummer of rock origin), and interlinks perfectly with Jonas’ walking bass. Tom’s open position chords and fast inside and outside lines remind me of the late Esbjörn Svensson and make me wonder what this guy is NOT capable of.
„Goodbye“ is introduced by long, spheric keyboard and guitar notes that imply the following of a soft ballad. But that expectation is soon smashed by a Chris Squire-like 7/8 bass line and a kinky main theme that sounds a bit like a darker version of „Monkey Business“ by The Flower Kings. For a second I was perplexed by the vocals, until I remembered that The Sea Within actually announced a second lead singer: Casey McPherson. While Daniel could have pulled this song off just as well (duh), Casey’s voice fits into „Goodbye“ perfectly. The song takes its time to build up after the main riff, only to fool the listener once again and NOT end up in a huge chorus. Instead, the following optimistic chorus creates a strong contrast to the darker verses and pre-choruses of the song. „Goodbye“ also benefits a lot from the musician’s instrumental performances, especially Tom’s romantic piano, organ and mellotron, as well as Marco’s hammering double bass drum and Jonas’ pumping bass. The song is somewhat cut off in the middle of a newly introduced bridge and ends with something sounding like an off switch. A very cool idea that rounds this song up in a weird way.
„The Sea Without“ is a short instrumental piece in which Jonas Reingold can finally shine at one of his signature fretless bass solos. It’s based on somewhat of a 7/8 variation of the famous march-like „Bolero“ rhythm by Maurice Ravel, which has already been given attention by several other bands of the prog genre, like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and King Crimson. Yet it sounds completely sounds like The Flower Kings (because, as indicated earlier, you can’t misinterpret a Jonas Reingold fretless line), if still with a slightly darker, more apocalyptic touch. Although the rhythms and harmonies of „The Sea Without“ are not reprised in the following „Broken Cord“, it functions well as an introduction for this 14-minute centerpiece of the album. It begins with a quite conventional verse-chorus section that, while clearly inspired by later Beatles efforts, can’t hide having had Roine Stolt’s hands in its harmony progression. The mixolydic-b13 based vocal melody with its simple, uplifting character is one of my favorite of the whole album, and so is Daniel’s job presenting it. Bass, piano and drums do a good job supporting the melody by adding accessory kicks and thrown in lines. The song shortly breaks down into a mellow section consisting almost completely of Daniels lone voice and revealing what later turns out to be the actual leitmotif of „Broken Cord“. Apart from this short interlude, the song keeps its poppy vibe for almost five minutes, before evolving into a crooked, triplet-based shuffle rhythm. A second breakdown completely changes the song’s mood into unsettling and mystical, and reprises the initial vocal line and the leitmotif, closing the first circle of the song and opening up another. Casey takes over the lead vocals here, and we can hear dozens of harmonizing Jon Andersons; a contribution that, while „only“ serving background purposes, is crucial for the vast, mystical character of the section. The band kicks in again, but doesn’t lead into a whacky instrumental section, that would have ruined the wonderful atmosphere. Another Yes-reference („Awaken“) is created by rich major chords ascending in fourths, before a newly introduced triumphing vocal theme preludes the finale of the song. During the slowly evolving closing section, Daniel’s vocals return, before the same ascending chords as before lead into a fading coda consisting of innuendos of the leitmotif and richly layered Jon Anderson vocal-chords. Truly beautiful.
„Broken Chord“ is not the usual „epic“ you’ll find plenty of in the prog genre. There is not one huge theme in the beginning that is reprised in a huge finale in the end. Themes are mostly presented by the two singers in a very discrete way or even just hinted, only to be continued and finished minutes later. I was a little disappointed in „Broken Chord“ at first listen, but once I recognized and re-recognized all the motives and themes in this piece, it grew to become my favorite song of the album.
„The Hiding Of The Truth“ evolves directly from the spheric coda of „Broken Cord“. Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess is featured on piano here and it’s clearly audible. His characteristic voicings and fast arpeggios are all over the place and contribute to this bright and flowing song. It’s the only track on the album that follows a completely uplifting vibe. While it’s probably my least favorite one on the album, it does a very good job closing the first disc on an optimistic note.
But of course, the story doesn’t end here. Not unlike Spock’s Beard’s latest release, The Sea Within comes with a 26 minute long second disc. No statement on the purpose of this splitting has been made by the band or the label. The songs on the extra disc are just as good as the ones on the main album. In fact, it holds some of my favorite tracks of this release. „The Roaring Silence“ is a dark, straight prog-rocker, evolving from keyboard and wordless vocal layers. An 80s like, percussive keyboard pattern introduces the song’s rhythm and could have lead into a groovy artpop-song. The arrangement is very rich and versatile and dominated by Tom Brislin’s synths, organ and piano, as well as Daniel’s vocals. It’s probably also the song where the most background vocals by the other band members can be heard. This tune is very cleverly composed. Many different sections are introduced, but always lead back to the verse. While the actual chorus is introduced early, the song continuously works towards a catchy, hymnic closing section that has never been introduced before, but works perfectly as a finale.
A fragile piano pattern and what I believe to be Tom Brislin’s voice introduce „Where Are You Going?“. His fragile, almost wailing vocals makes the beginning sound a little eery. The Gildenlöw/ Brislin composition seems to be inspired by both The Beatles and Muse and is equipped with a melancholic, nostalgic, yet strange atmosphere. Tom’s keyboard arsenal is versatile and once again very tasteful, reaching from synth sounds, mellotron and Tony Banks-like piano to a George Harrison inspired cembalo solo. What I said a about „They Know My Name“ also applyies to this song: It lives off catchy hooklines that either appeal to you or not. And once again, they do to me.
„Time“ is a very dark song about the transient nature of life. While of course not being a cover, its thematic approach is similar to the 1973 Pink Floyd song of the same name. „Months turn to years, years turn to lives“, „This was my life - as if it really mattered“ - lyrics about one’s impact on the world that make you think. The music to these lyrics yet again sound like a mixture between the Road Salt albums and a darker version of The Flower Kings. While the chorus line has the potential to be presented in a big, vast gesture, a reggae-like bass line keeps the rhythm a little funky and unconventional.
The last song, „Denise“, is a hauntingly beautiful song that probably no one could have performed better than Daniel. He sings about a man saying farewell to his loved one, because he is leaving for a place he can’t come back from, probably a prison. A slow, march-like rhythm indicates regret, nostalgia, the sad, dramatic ending of something loved, just like in Pink Floyd’s „High Hopes“ and Pain Of Salvation’s „Sisters“. A soaring guitar represents sorrow, a continuously ascending bass line a glimpse of hope or a last look back. „Denise“ gives this great album the epic ending it deserves.
The Sea Within’s debut album is one of progressive rock’s finest efforts of the year. These musicians have come together to fuse their compositional and instrumental talents and create an album that I am not really able to compare to anything else. Of course, occasional influences can be heard, and some passages can’t hide their composer’s main formation, but everything is incorporated very well to form something new. It’s amazing to (finally) hear Marco Minnemann in a retro-progressive rock band where he can bring in his ideas or to know how Roine Stolt’s harmony sequences function in a darker context. I am also overwhelmed by Tom Brislin. I loved his work with Yes, but I did not expect this guy to completely comply with my idea of what a keyboard player should do and how keyboards should sound like. The guest musicians were not only invited to perform for their names, but add the last cherry on top of this album. Casey McPherson will take over the role of the lead singer on the band’s upcoming tour, since Daniel will be touring with Pain Of Salvation. While it might seem a little weird that a band goes on their first tour without their lead singer, I think that Casey will do a very good job performing those tracks live.
In the end, there’s only one thing left to hope: That this „amalgamation of talents“ doesn’t remain a one time thing.
Favorites: Broken Chord, Denise, An Eye For An Eye For An Eye
The Sea Within – The Sea Within (77:21)
1 Ashes of Dawn 00:06:00
2 They Know my Name 00:05:10
3 The Void 00:04:55
4 An Eye For An Eye For an Eye 00:07:00
5 Goodbye 00:05:30
6 Sea Without 00:02:27
7 Broken Cord 00:14:20
8 The Hiding of Truth 00:05:30
1 The Roaring Silence 00:08:00
2 Where are you Going? 00:05:50
3 Time 00:07:12
4 Denise 00:05:10
Marco Minneman: Drums, Percussion, Vocal, Guitar
Jonas Reingold: Bass
Tom Brislin: Keyboards, Vocals
Roine Stolt: Guitars, Vocals, Add. keyboards
Daniel Gildenlow: Vocals & additional guitar
Casey McPherson: Vocals (Broken Cord, The Hiding of Truth, Goodbye)
Jon Anderson: Vocals (Broken Cord)
Jordan Rudess: Grand Piano (The Hiding of Truth)
Rob Townsend: Soprano Saxophone (The Ashes of Dawn)
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