Originally called Gates of Delirium, the band was formed in 1999 by guitarist Vince Benaim who then hooked up with new members and released a well-received demo called The Burning Box. The band also played gigs to make a name for themselves before there were several member changes (including the addition of current singer Franck Garcia). Soon, they decided to change their name to Spheric Universe Experience and got a management deal with IntroMental whose relations with noted producer Tommy Hansen (Helloween, Beyond Twilight, Pretty Maids) helped them get their music its deserved sound quality.
Mental Torments is a fine hybrid of melodic prog with occasional quirky moments a la Pain of Salvation's great debut Entropia and plenty of crunch-filled moments. The album starts with one of their best and most diverse cuts, "So Cold". Dark acoustic guitars and atmospheric keyboard work set the tone for the piece as waves of Entropia period Pain of Salvation traces can be noticed, moreso writing-wise than musically though. It's just the way the vocals are recorded; sometimes doubled, sometimes a higher register voice singing over incomprehensible spoken parts. From here on, the band opts for a more melodic, clearly Dream Theater-inspired (think Images & Words) style, utilising a lot of keyboard and guitar solos, backed by a powerful rhythm section, and soaring vocal harmonies. The slow and atmopsheric synths that begin "Now or Never" give way to angry vocals that are unmistakably Labrie-influenced, only more aggressive. Garcia's tone could be likened to that of Evergrey's Tom Englund, as he likes to use his throaty voice quite a bit while exotic synth melodies and melodic guitar solos enrich the soundsacpe and drive the piece to its melodious ending.
There are three instrumental songs on the album, one of them being the US-only bonus track "Sidereal Revolution", a song which the band's fans owning the European version will want to hear. At seven minutes, it is filled with interesting key and tempo changes and chops aplenty. However, the best instrumental on the album is arguably "Burning Box Gala". It starts with electronic bleep sounds and delves into a complex, multi-textured number, allowing each instrument to play the lead role during different parts and bordering on some of the most technical riffs and chord progressions you can hear on albums in this vein. There are even moments where they touch on jazz territory akin to Liquid Tension Experiment but with more emphasized rhythm guitars. The last instrumental is the mostly piano-based "Halleygreto", where drums, bass and guitars join Fred Colombo's classically-influenced playing, lending it a powerful coda.
With due respect to all the songs on Mental Torments, it is "Saturated Brain" and the 15-minute title track that give it its special edge. The former, while distinctly Dream Theater-influenced, is an excellent piece of work balancing both majestic heavy and soft parts, and melodic and technical moments. Fred Colombo extracts rich and diverse tones out of his keyboard while guitarist Vince Benaim's solo is truly heart-felt and expressive. The title track, on the other hand, is more ambitious. It starts with a strong bass motif, picking up acoustic guitars, cutting leads (including a killer blues-inflected solo), and even ambient passages where Garcia sings a capella over an ominous piano melody. Speaking of Garcia, as with most other French singers, he has a noticeable accent, but it's far from distracting as most songs on this album are quite heavy and fast-paced. It's only on the aforementioned ambient section and the ballady closing track "Echoes of the Stars" where his accent is really audible, but his emotive singing makes up for it, if not add the song a unique flair. This song clocks in at over ten minutes but the last two minutes are all silent except for the brief ending where the band plays sick, off-the-wall time signatures proving they are capable of all kinds of wizardy as well.
The production is good, but I feel it could be better (mixing and production are not the same thing; Hansen's mixing is great). Somehow listening to this album reminds me of two discs in particular: Wastefall - Soulrain 21 and Lalu - Oniric Metal. Both bands are technical, proggy and heavy with a capital H. There are also moments when I had to think of Pantommind's amazing Shade of Fate except that I feel Shade of Fate has a much better production. Mental Torments is a must-have if you like Dream Theater's earlier albums, but can also take heavier stuff with great keyboard and guitar playing, and a somewhat different vocalist.
- So Cold
- Now or Never
- Burning Box Gala
- Saturated Brain
- Mental Torments
- Sidereal Revolution (bonus track USA only)
- Echoes of the Stars