Degree Absolute - Degree Absolute - Sensory Records 2006
9 Songs
Running Time: 57:16

Back in the day - before the media manipulation and inundation of sub-par bands which currently plague us - , there

were bands you could rely on based solely upon the label to which they were signed. Case in point; though musical tastes

may differ, you knew that both Slayer and Flotsam And Jetsam had at least some merit due to the Metal Blade imprint. This brings me to today, and Sensory Records. From the neo-Cynic prog/death of the seminal release by Spiral Architect to the instrumental jazz/metal cacophany of the sophomore full-length of Canvas Solaris, Sensory has trod steadily where others stumbled, letting experimentation lead the way. With the debut album by Degree Absolute, this musical Midas touch continues.

The skronk and stagger of the intro to 'Exist' soon knuckles down into barebones metal, but only for a moment. As musically interesting as Degree Absolute is, it's the vocals of founder and multi-instrumentalist Aaron Bell that caught my attention initially. Part lower-register Guy Ritter and part Warrel Dane, his gruff delivery blends excellently with the near- Vanden Plas stylings of the music. Bell's pipes lend a masculine tone to Degree Absolute, setting him apart from the legions of pansy-ass prog-lite singers content to mimic LaBrie, Kiske, or Tate, usually coming off as a shoddy aping in the process. All this talk of power and hard-hitting metal is not to say that Degree Absolute doesn't have its melodic ear to the ground. When the robotic background vocal layerings of 'Laughing Alone' subside into muted, fluid chordings around the three-and-a-half minute mark only to lift off into Jim Mateos-inspired soaring leadwork, it all comes across as quite natural. There's a bit of Fates Warning (Perfect Symmetry era) influence in the drum patterns and start/stop guitars in 'Questions', and to be honest, throughout the album, subtle touches of Fates Warning worship persist, mostly in the musical side of things. Vocally, Bell doesn't fly off into a ball-crunching falsetto once, preferring to stick to his more than capable midrange delivery, as in the lazy, liquid phrasings (both musical and lyrical) found in 'Confession'. If the mixing style here sounds familiar, chalk that up to the band's wise decision to cough up the ducats for a mix by famed producer Neil Kernon (Nevermore, DA labelmates Spiral Architect). The mix here renders the leads crystalline, the riffs crunchy, and the rhythm section sounding full and robust. Bassist Dave Lindeman's Berklee-schooled contribution to 'Distance' must also be noted, his major in music synthesis coming in quite useful, keeping the instrumental afloat without overplaying, and thereby torpedoing the whole piece. Subdued keys begin 'HalfManHalfBiscuit', the electronica-based drums here flirting with ambient stylings, while sustained guitars let chords ring, ring, then fade into Alan Parsons-esque keyboards for the coda. 'Pi' is an uber-experimental instrumental (Three in a row?!) wandering, where pummeling riffs collide with washes of the now more consistently-present keyboards. Some would see the placing of three instrumentals consecutively as a lull in the album, and some as a welcome tangent yet once more giving Degree Absolute a life of its own in a sea of monotony. I'd say there is truth in both accounts, but part of accepting Degree Absolute (much like avante-metal pioneers The Gathering) is being willing to go where the music takes you. Worry not, metallians, for 'Ask Nothing Of Me' not only features Bell's distinctive vocals again, but to my ears the best melding of metal and ambience into a cohesive form on the entire album. Flaming leads blast off into the stratosphere, while Lindeman and drummer Doug Beary rumble in the background, creating a song that is both memorable and technologically challenging. 'Ergo Sum' is the final listed track on the album, and was at first mistaken for yet another instrumental. Not that the tune needs words, the quiet guitar-based beginning shifting into blistering solo, then back to an ethereal tone about six minutes in, just before Bell's vocals return, ending the album perfectly with lyrics of "Now is not the time for regret. Now is not the time for fear. Now is not the time for repentance. Now is the time for hope.". The message is universal, as is the best music.

Degree Absolute has both in abundance. Your standard power metal fans may shy away from an album with so much instrumental material, but for anyone willing to take a chance on something truly unique, Degree Absolute could be a jumping-off point into another dimension of musical appreciation. With their debut release, Degree Absolute join TOC, Stream Of Passion, and Green Carnation as a band truly pushing past the well-defined boundaries of modern "progressive" rock/metal.

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