Beyond the Bridge – The Old Man and the Spirit – 5/5
January 2nd. Two days. That's how long into the year we got before we received what wouldn't surprise me if it became the must have album of the year. Just two days into the year and a debut album from a band you probably haven't heard of, despite first existing over a decade ago; forming in '99, disbanding, reforming in '05 and then after more than 6 years of planning, devising, forming and perfecting – and make no mistake, they have indeed created something challenging the very notion of perfection – have emerged triumphant with a concept album so simple, poetic, beautiful, emotional and philosophically contemplative yet offering plenty of room for personal interpretation. Comparisons to the likes of Kalisia, Ayreon and Avantasia are easy to make, and certainly from a instrumental point of view there can be no doubt that it falls very much into the progressive metal / rock opera mould but where these artists created elaborate and complex concept pieces, the fact that this remains such a simplistic story means a greater focus can be held on the finer details, a notion that they take full advantage of.
Telling the tale of an old man as he reaches the final stages of his life, he looks back on all the memories that has forged it; the tragedies, fears, loves and hopes he has for when his clock finally runs out. Despite having lived as any man could have hoped for, holding a wealth of experiences in his wizened old age, he still desperately longs to know the meaning behind his own existence, crying out to the heavens to offer the answers he seeks. Hearing these cries, the spirit descends upon him and not bound by mortal knowledge, she holds all the answers to the meaning behind life, but she too longs for answers. Despite her immortal and all knowing benevolence, she is incapable of feeling human emotions. It is such that she offers a trade; all the knowledge her limitless years have given to her in exchange for all the emotion he has felt throughout his, but for that she'll need all his memories.
As you might expect, the lyrics remain an integral part of the music, detailing the events as they unfold with a film-like precision, including the occasional spoken passage to further clarify the tale being told, but with such weight on the lyrical content also comes an importance on the production values and clarity of speech, an issue that they've dealt with deftly; save for a handful of high octane passages where the two engage in a verbal sparring match, it's all been very carefully balanced. The volume of the vocals is always just enough that the words can be discerned but not too loud that it feels dominative; the guitar lines and layers of keyboards have been blended into a single harmony whilst both retaining enough of a raw edge to lend impact, but enough clarity to make out every little detail, each listen allowing you to pick up on some new nuance previously missed. Even the vocal performances themselves stray just enough from the usual 'dream theater-esque' style and into 'musical theatre' territory, placing great emphasis on the words being sung and the emotions behind them, rather than merely the tone the words make when sung in a particular way.
But this is only one small part of the work that they've created. The instrumentation – and don't fear, there is ample time in this release for a plethora of solo's and instrumental passages – is used in such a way that it adds emphasis to that particular passage and the atmosphere at each point in the story, shifting in style as the other vocalist emerges and enhancing the emotions of each particular section. It's an ambitious idea that could easily have gone wrong, sporadically hopping between styles in a dissonant manner, and if it all wasn't blended so seamlessly, transitioning with such a sense of fluidity that never feels jarring, or indeed anything but perfectly natural, it probably would have. The music may never feel too complicated, and if you're looking for virtuoso performances you might be better off looking elsewhere, as everything is designed with the sole intention of furthering and enhancing the atmosphere.
Certainly there is versatility in their playing; the ethereal and almost middle-eastern mixture of fear of the unknown, an adrenaline rush of guitar-induced energy preceding the spirit's first appearance; the deep aggressive crunch as the man fully comes to realise the gravity of the offer being given to him and the outrage at being asked to give up his memories, leading to jazz-laden passages of chaos; the gentle piano melodies and “Pink Floyd-like” guitar tones representing the Spirit as she explains the beauty to her knowledge of the world; even the melancholy of silence as the two speak free from backing entirely. There's no question there's a wealth of talent on show here but it's used in such a precise way, layered with such intricate thought gone behind each sound that it never feels anything less than using their musical knowledge to further the story.
And yet through all the elaborate instrumental creations, slowly reaching crescendo's from the gentlest of passages, it is the phenomenal vocal work that makes this such a breathtaking piece of art. With no offence to the more than capable Dilenya Mar singing the role of the spirit in her perfectly suited 'breathy' voice, it is the emotional capabilities of Herbie Langhans (Seventh Avenue, Sinbreed) that demonstrate abilities reserved for the highest echelons of vocalists. Half Prog/Power Powerhouse and half Broadway superstar, he transitions between a bitter depression; a guttural rasped aggression, to melancholy and sadness with what seems like effortless precision. Each track retains it's sense of individuality, telling the story in bite-size chunks, but it is when the piece is put together as a whole that it truly shines. This is one to treat like a film; don't just listen to it in the background as you do other music but just sit back and devote your full attention to it's depths. There's more than enough here to keep the most inattentive on the edge of their seats, contemplating the question that is being posed in all the aspects explored. Is knowledge of how the beauty of the natural world; how the birds fly, the rivers flow, even the very reason for our existence; is it worth trading for all a man's emotions and memories; of love and loss, hope and fear, the very fabrication of what defines you. This is the question they pose but it's up to the listener to find the answer. Next up, Beyond The Bridge: The Broadway Show?