Date: August 15 2006
Man, these guys are good. I write this as someone who likes the idea of heavy prog rock in principle but often finds it disappointing in practice. Sure, a lot of these bands have the chops, but I cannot stand cookie monster vocals, I find the technical proficiency often comes at the expense of songwriting ability, melody, and/or a soulful sound, and lyrically these bands are often nothing to write home about. Let's be very thankful, then, for Philadelphia-based quartet, Divided Sky, who have come into an overcrowded scene and are already towering above much of their competition.
But are Divided Sky prog metal? Not strictly, I wouldn't say, though they do have many prog metal elements. The band have described themselves at different points as ambient, prog metal, prog fusion, post-rock, and more generally as heavy divergent rock or hybrid rock, an attempt to distill their assorted influences, which include heavy rock, jazz, pop and classical music.
On the whole, I don't think you could compare them with, say, Dream Theater they definitely have a metallic edge but tend to be a lot subtler than DT overall. I think two more appropriate comparisons would be King Crimson and Echolyn.
The Crimson comparisons come thanks to the musical complexity on display. Divided Sky don't generally sound like Crimson as such, but you could imagine Fripp and his buddies, perhaps from the Larks Tongues In Aspic era or alternatively from the 1990s, playing some of this very guitar dominated music, and it's only really the heavy metallic crunch that makes it just a bit too metallic to be Crimson. So again I stress, Divided Sky don't sound much like Crimson, but the music is so intricate and complex, with its constant shifting of gears and time signatures, and its effortless amalgamation of rock and jazz, that you could easily believe it was King Crimson. Yes, it's that good.
The Echolyn comparison is perhaps less obvious musically, though I do find Divided Sky's lead vocalist, Sean Crisden, to be rather reminiscent of the Echolyn vocalist, Ray Weston. I have no idea if this vocal similarity is entirely coincidental or intentional, but as the band never refer to Echolyn as an influence and don't sound that much like them otherwise I'll assume it's the former. As with my comparison to King Crimson, the suggestion of a similarity between Crisden's vocals and those of Ray Weston is meant to be entirely complimentary. Just as Divided Sky sound as musically tight and as compositionally interesting as Crimson, Crisden's rich, confident and clear vocal stylings put him into the same arena as the mighty Ray Weston, and it's this combination the band's impressive musical chops, their compositional abilities, and a great lead vocalist that enables them to stand out from most of their contemporaries. And one thing they are not, despite my clumsy attempts to compare them to other bands, is derivative.
But Divided Sky's confidence and quality belies their years - the band only began in 1999 and this is only their second album (the first being Spectral from 2003) - and their lack of label support (both DS albums are entirely self-produced and self-released).
But whilst the band are relatively new, the individual members have clearly been around for a bit longer: the aforementioned Crisden has been trained in classical violin, in addition to his fine guitar playing and excellent vocals, and has also spent many years as a session musician, while Richard Banister (guitar/vocals), Art Franklin (bass/vocals) and Scott Radway (drums and percussion; recently replaced by Jonny 'Chops' Henrich) all sound like superb musicians, providing impressive levels of power, intensity and finesse to the music. Also, note the general lack of keyboards, something else that makes me think of King Crimson, and just as with Crimson, the lack of keyboards does not prevent the music from being multi-layered and complex; in fact quite the opposite is true.
More about the music itself: the album is divided into sections - there are eight separate songs at the start of the album, followed by a five track epic called “Kaironomaea” (where each part has a separate subtitle – “The Welkin Eye”, “Patterns”, “All We're Made Of”, “Cycles”, and “Figure 8”), and then the album ends with “Coda”.
Of the opening eight tracks, “Impermanence” is a blistering opener but it doesn't shy away from being complex, playing with assorted musical textures and timbres, and setting both the tone and the standard for the rest of the album.
“Farther” actually sounds to me like a very heavy Echolyn track, and not just vocally either because there's perhaps something of Echolyn about the music too. Yes, this could almost be Echolyn meets Metallica, and I mean that in a good way.
“Sheep and Kings” is a great, melodic, primarily acoustic song, quite a contrast to the songs either side of it - it largely consists of acoustic guitars and piano, with typically strong vocals and some powerful lyrics.
The track which follows it, “Failure” starts with the force of a freight train, therefore coming across as a real contrast to the previous track with its house-shaking metallic riffs and howls from Crisden. But as with the rest of the album, “Failure” is definitely not just relentless noise; there's loads of variety within this one (nearly 10-minute-long) song, including some spacey fretless bass, some particularly fine drumming from Radway, and a truly epic closing section.
“Bridge” is a dreamy little acoustic instrumental, not even lasting a minute and a half - think “Masquerade” by Yes and you'd not be far off. Another short instrumental follows, called “Tremors”, which is perhaps more like Discipline era King Crimson in style, and this segues seamlessly into the excellently titled “No Earthquakes, No Displacements”, which sees a return to the vocals and heaviness of earlier numbers. Again, I'm left thinking of a heavier Echolyn with this track.
And then we have a particularly rocking end to this section of the album, in the form of “Memory and Desire”, probably the heaviest track on the album and perhaps the closest Divided Sky come to sounding like recent Dream Theater. “Memory and Desire” is an excellent, driving, almost breathtaking piece of prog metal, filled with all the riffs, energy and technical proficiency fans have come to expect from this genre.
Then it's time for the five-part epic “Kaironomaea”, a real highlight on an already impressive album. There's a lot going on across the five parts, far more than I feel able to summarise within this review, but basically we hear the perfect realisation of what has already been constantly hinted at throughout earlier parts of the album - a wonderful combination of prog rock, jazz and metal, drawing off the likes of Crimson, Dream Theater, Echolyn, and Tool, but never really sounding too much like any of them.
“Kaironomaea” is a wonderfully coherent and original piece of work, impressive throughout, though perhaps never more so than in the all-instrumental workout that is “Cycles”, and the closing section, the rhythmically challenging “Figure 8”. “Kaironomaea” is likely to be one of the best multi-part prog rock epics you'll hear in 2006, if not the best.
And the album ends wonderfully with the appropriately named “Coda”, a combination of spoken word samples, static electronic drum beats, and yet more Discipline era King Crimson style guitars. It makes for an unexpected but rewarding end to the album.
Ideally I'd like to finish by writing something thoughtful, witty and inspiring about this excellent second album from Divided Sky, but I can't really think of a better way to end the review than how I started it: Man, these guys are good.
Best tracks: “Impermanence”, “Sheep and Kings”, “Failure”, “Kaironomaea”, “Coda”.