October 18, 2020

About forty years ago, I bought a second-hand LP by a band called Isotope. Not because I had heard of them, or indeed of any of the musicians involved, but because the bloke who owned the market record stall knew what kind of stuff I liked, and he slapped it on when he spotted me approaching.

What took me was that the music was prog-fusion and musically highly advanced, but also some of the tracks rocked like hell. On the back was an extract from a review in Melody Maker that said, in part: “So much is spoken about bands attaining a balance between rock energy and musical intelligence. To my mind, only two bands have ever achieved that balance. One was the short-lived Tony Williams’ Lifetime. The other is Isotope.”

Much has happened since 1974, and you can probably reel off a roster of artists that have walked that particular line since, but if your list doesn’t at present contain Derek Sherinian, then it will now. Because The Phoenix is musically as intelligent as it gets, but it is performed with the full power of heavy metal and the pounding rhythms of the best of the boogie boys.

The core of the band is keyboard maestro Sherinian himself, currently tickling the ivories for Metal monsters Sons Of Apollo and rocking supergroup Black Country Communion, and veteran rock drummer Simon Phillips, whose chops have been heard in every land from the New Wave Of Heavy Metal onwards, including a 20-year stint with Toto. These two wrote, played and produced the album, while drafting in a veritable Who’s Who of the great and good to play guest spots. It’s an instrumental album with the exception of one track, on which Joe Bonamassa plays guitar and sings – but rather than get ahead of ourselves, let’s start at the beginning.

Firstly, although it is easy to get a list of guest stars, none of the promo material gives any clue who plays on which tracks, and sadly, it’s not possible to get such info from a download link. For those who wish to know, Sherinian and Phillips have thoughtfully filmed a 25-minute documentary on the making of the album, which can be viewed on the ‘Gallery’ tab of Sherinian’s brand new website at www.dereksherinian.com  .

The set kicks off with the title track, an opening salvo that is guaranteed to clear the mind of anything other than pounding metal, as Sherinian turns up the overdrive and pounds the keys, trading licks with the screaming guitar of Zakk Wylde and the finger-tapping bass virtuosity of Sons Of Apollo’s Billy Sheehan. Phillips keeps up a thumping beat that simply didn’t exist in 1980, when he was playing ear-catching backings for the likes of Jeff Beck and Michael Schenker.

This onslaught eventually winds down after five and a half minutes, and second track Empyrean Sky starts in with an entirely different vibe. The intro could be Level 42, but then a jazz keyboard line with a tripping 13/8 time signature still manages to rock, due in large part to the meaty guitar backing of Sons Of Apollo teammate Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal and the rock-solid, rumbling 5-string bass of Jimmy Johnson. Bumblefoot solos on the fretless neck of his famed twin-neck axe, which is a trick worth seeing.

‘The genius of the space-age guitar’ as Brian May once described him, Steve Vai pops up on the next track, the fittingly-named 7/8 screaming guitar anthem Clouds Of Ganymede. Veteran session maestro Tony Franklin plays fretless bass on this one. “Whenever I hear Tony’s fretless bass on my music, it feels like home,” opines Sherinian of one of his favourite musicians, who has played on all eight of his solo albums.

A complete change of style for the next track, Dragonfly is a modern jazz piece played as a trio with Phillips on drums, Sherinian on acoustic grand piano and Ernest Tibbs on bass. Sherinian wrote the first section, which morphs seamlessly into an entire section written by Phillips, which Sherinian had to learn on piano!

Temple of Helios (Greek god of the sun, for those who wish to know), ramps up the drama once again as Bumblefoot returns to the fray for a piece heavily inspired by classic jazz-fusion quartet Return To Forever, which featured guitar wizard Al Di Meola – in fact the guys say that ‘RTF’ was used as a working title for the number before they settled on the actual name. It’s as smooth and creamy as you like and heavily features an analogue Moog synthesizer.

The next number is a step outside the box, firstly because it is the only vocal piece on the record, and secondly because it is a cover. Them Changes was written by jazz drummer Buddy Miles, with whom Sherinian had his first break into the musical premier league. The choice of musicians is inspired, with a heavy dose of vintage Hammond and Joe Bonamassa’s guitar, heavily overdriven and flanged, lending it a classic rock feel. The ghost of Hendrix lives on in this track, along with heavy overtones of Robin Trower, but with the album’s ever-present jazz-rich tones taking it to the next level. Bonamassa also performs the vocals, and nails it one hundred percent.

Back to prog metal for the beginning of Octopus Pedigree, featuring the same band as Empyrean Sky, and a juggernaut wall of sound that drops away into John McLaughlin-styled jazz. Megadeth’s guitarist Kiko Loureiro is introduced to co-write and play on the final track, the Latin-influenced Pesadelo, on which he plays both acoustic and electric guitars and which once again recalls the work of Al Di Meola, particularly in his Casino era. Tony Franklin is back on fretless bass, and as well as a tomtom-heavy drumkit, Phillips offers percussion on a range of instruments, from bongos up to a massive marching band-style bass drum. Just to add extra savour to this final piece, bonus guest performer Armen Ra draws spooky Twilight Zone stylings from a theremin over the fadeout.

So if you like your rock hard and heavy, your jazz complex and unpredictable, and your prog deep and complex, you could save yourself a bit of money this year by getting it all on one album – try before you buy, by checking out the aforementioned video on the link below…

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