The Fusion Syndicate is another Billy Sherwood project in the wake of a similarly orchestrated progressive rock outing called The Prog Collective — TFS combines Sherwood's music with contributions from jazz-fusion icons, along with several surprise players seldom or never associated with the genre — and that's the problem with this album. On paper (or tablet), it no doubt looks amazing, with alumni from the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Brand X, Dixie Dregs, Yellowjackets and Tribal Tech. The surprises come by way of ex-Hawkwind-er Nik Turner, fellow space rock notable Steve Hillage, Tool bass player Justin Chancellor, and the Caped Crusader himself, Rick Wakeman.
Sherwood essentially produced, arranged and laid down the basic tracks for the guests to play over — as estimated, those parts were electronically submitted. Hence, it sounds like the musicians are literally playing "on top" of each other. The results are akin to a battle for oxygen in a breached airlock. Joe Zawinul would have had a fit. Oddly, all of the finished pieces are between seven and eight minutes, which further suggests a suspiciously prefab ethic in tow. Rick Wakeman's technique as a pianist is rightfully lauded, and lovely as his playing is, its classical vibe doesn't gel when combined with lines by violinist Jerry Goodman and bassist Jimmy Haslip (Nik Turner gets lost in there, somewhere). "Molecular Breakdown" is a too-smooth, ongoing vamp that becomes a vehicle for Spyro Gyra saxman Jay Beckenstein to solo long and hard over. Save for a few spots, Billy Sheehan's otherwise distinctive bass style is strangely muted. "In The Spirit Of" features Chancellor and keyboardist Scott Kinsey of the edgy L.A. fusion quartet Tribal Tech led by Scott Henderson and Gary Willis. Again, though, the finished presentation is another meandering jaunt more closely aligned with smooth jazz than the jagged corners and intimidating precipices of electric fusion.
Somehow, along the way, The Fusion Syndicate never quite comes together the way it should. There are solos and breaks aplenty, so that isn't the issue. It's not that the album comes off the rails, it never gains enough steam to reach that kind of speed. The drumming, by crushers like Billy Cobham, Gavin Harrison, Chester Thompson, is consistently laidback in its feel and never develops the kind of urgency for which fusion is so often cited. The curveball comes in Syndicate's unexpected highlight "Atom Smashing," with Sherwood on bass, Soft Machine guitarist John Etheridge, drummer Chad Wackerman, and once-upon-a-time Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye. Kaye turns in an understated, precisely molded Hammond organ solo that takes the prize. Wackerman delivers what is probably the album's best drum performance.
So what does it boil down to? Too many cooks? Too much gas, yet not enough heat? The answer won't be the same for everybody. It's a valiant effort, though. Maybe another shot clinches it.
1. Random Acts Of Science 7.53
2. Stone Cold Infusion 7:31
3. Molecular Breakdown 7:19
4. Particle Accelerations 7:38
5. At The Edge Of The Middle 7:37
6. Atom Smashing 7:35
7. In The Spirit Of 7:16