Following Zero Hour's indisputable 2001 masterpiece The Towers of Avarice, we had to wait four years for a follow-up. Sadly, by then, the band had parted ways with their amazing singer Erik Rosvold and had hired Fred Marshall for the A Fragile Mind sessions. In many ways a combination of the band's first two discs, A Fragile Mind saw the band utilising heavier keyboard work and a stronger focus on melodic vocal lines. That, of course, meant less guitar crunch and technical arrangements. I still stand by my opinion that A Fragile Mind is a very strong effort, but with the replacement of Marshall with former Power of Omens vocalist Chris Salinas, it was perfectly obvious that their next release would be a step forward in a heavier and more aggressive direction.
Specs of Pictures Burnt Beyond will be a huge surprise to those that discovered Zero Hour on their previous disc, but those who love Metamorphosis and especially The Towers of Avarice will rejoice. The band is back in action full force. Keyboards are almost non-existent; the music is once again formulated by the Tipton brothers' unmistakable rhythms and Mike Guy's forceful drum beats. Chris Salinas is a very different singer than both Rosvold and Marshall. Coming from the Geoff Tate school, I was curious how he would fit in Zero Hour's style. The songs on this album have definitely been written with Salinas in mind. Salinas not only wrote the lyrics for most of the songs together with Troy Tipton, he also has excellent vocal harmonies and melodies on this disc. However, don't go expecting he is constantly screaming or doing high register singing. On the contrary, this is easily his most versatile vocal performance ever.
On the first two songs, "Face the Fear" and "The Falcon's Cry", the new Zero Hour sound is successfully introduced. Filled with chaotic bass and smashing rhythms, "Face the Fear" is highlighted by an incredible drum performance - perhaps Mike Guy's best in his recording career. His timing is so precise and tone so solid that it forms the backbone to the Tipton brothers' ferocious rhythm syncopation and Chris Salinas' powerful delivery. Moving from thunderous guitar passages to calm acoustic sections allows Salinas to showcase his spoken and whisper-like singing as well as his unique vocal phrases. As the music seethes and the guitars pick up momentum, Salinas shifts into agressive screams to enrich the dynamics. However, the song is far from single-minded aggression, as it's broken up by nice arpegeggiated acoustic sequences and chiming cymbal work. At the very end of the piece, when Salinas sings the line "The end is here" atop a dreamy melody, I get goose bumps, and I am convinced Chris Salinas is the future of Zero Hour.
"The Falcon's Cry" is arguably the best prog song of the year. Its brutal riffage and solid bass lines strung across thick drum beats continue through the song's first half until an invigorating vocal section arrives. Salinas sings the lyrics in a way only the likes of Keith Sudano and Daniel Gildenlow could manage; his tone is deep and confident, almost mechanical. However, when it comes to one particular line, he shifts to an extremely melodic and emotionally damaging tone, saying "The water runs the falcon cries" only to return to his calm, withdrawn tone. It is simply awe-inspiring that he is capable of alternating like this in the blink of an eye. Also, his "Something's gonna die!" screams and the tenacious bass accompaniment throughout the whole song are spectacular.
The two instrumentals "Embrace" and "Zero Hour" underscore the Tipton brothers' compositional skills. "Embrace" is almost entirely acoustic guitar-driven, and somewhat recalls the material on Jasun Tipton's solo album. However, the recording is a lot more advanced, highlighting the doubled guitar work where the melody is draped over beautiful acoustic chords. Strangely, I have to think of Jason Becker when I listen to Tipton's playing; his warm and expressive playing is totally unique though. On "Zero Hour", Jasun is joined by his brother and the duo create harmonic brilliance, merging icy electric leads and big, angry bass notes. Replete with unexpected chord progressions and an enchanting bass solo, the piece takes on a slightly fusion-inspired flavour at the very end, which is sublime.
On the heavier front, the title track is perhaps the heaviest song they have composed. The riffing is merciless - and perhaps makes a nod to their material on Towers - and the drum and bass playing rumbles violently, plowing through the whole seven-plus minutes. Plenty of staccato riffs a la Meshuggah and dramatic vocals, which are significantly higher than the other songs, dissolve into idiomatic silences before Jasun Tipton unleashes a sick, terrifying electric solo. You have never heard him shred like this before. Likewise, the last song "Evidence of the Unseen", perfects the band's crude brutality, churning out waves of distortion and discordant guitar effects. The pulsing drum beat only serves to thicken the whole sound, rendering it unbreakable. The ending of the song is particularly striking, as the bass and guitar tandem thunder endlessly, up until the last second when Salinas simply remarks: "You are the evidence of the unseen."
There is also a great acoustic ballad on the album. "I Am Here" finds Salinas returning to his Geoff Tate circa Empire and Promised Land phase, singing passionately and relaying very personal lyrics. Needless to say, this track is vital in that it bridges the band's busy, complex instrumental frenzy and the album's breathtaking finale.
Dino Alden is quickly becoming the most amazing producer in metal. Anything he touches turns to gold; and his work on Specs of Pictures Burnt Beyond is no exception. Sonically, this album has more of a Towers vibe happening, but some of the warmth of A Fragile Mind has also been carried over. The best thing about it is that you can still discover a whole new range of dimension when listening to it at rather low volumes. When cranked up, however, the CD will become all the more rewarding and powerful.
It seems I cannot praise this album enough, so I'll sum it up. This is the best release of the year. It has surpassed Vanden Plas' Christ 0 for me and found its place in Zero Hour's never-disappointing catalog.
- Face the Fear
- The Falcon's Cry
- Specs of Pictures Burnt Beyond
- Zero Hour
- I Am Here
- Evidence of the Unseen