The year 2003 saw the release of what has become one of InsideOut Music's top selling albums. What was it that made Office of Strategic Influence such a success? Of course, it is impossible to tell, but it is likely a multi-factorial effect. Dream Theater fans, who are often rabid and follow the members from side project to side project, picked it up to hear Mike Portnoy smack the skins. They also likely picked it up to hear more from ex-DT keyboardist Kevin Moore. And Fates Warning fans snagged it to get a fill of more of Jim Matheos' vicious chops. Add in bassist Sean Malone, and you have the formula for a veritable prog super group.
So just what happens when you combine the rocking song writing of Jim Matheos with the ambient, spacey writing that Kevin Moore has been writing with Chroma Key for a few years now? You get a thing of beauty. You get OSI.
And their most recent release, Free, is no different.
Noticeable immediately from the start is that Free is a more relaxed and laid back record than its predecessor. Also apparent is the fact that only one song even cracks the 6 minute mark (as compared to the 10+ minute masterpiece "shutDOWN" from the first album, and 17+ minute "The Thing That Never Was", if you got the bonus disc). But don't let that fool you. This is very much a progressive record.
Free focuses a lot on the keyboards and programming of Kevin Moore, but Jim Matheos is always present. His heavy guitar riffs, while not as frequent on this disc, have an even harder edge. They have an energy, and urgency, and serious metal crunch to them that will make any rocker sit up and pay attention. Likewise, Matheos does his fair share of programming. As evidenced on Fates Warning's most recent release FWX, Jim Matheos has learned much from his collaborations with Kevin Moore.
That history of collaborating also helps to make Free such a strong record. It is a magnificent symbiosis of metal and experimental electronica. Very few of the songs can be taken at face value, and multiple listens are required to really get a hold of each song. Even after so many listens, songs still pack surprise punches.
The performances from each band member are fantastic. As mentioned, Matheos' guitar work is always excellent. Kevin Moore's vocal work, an almost painfully restrained monotone, is often in such stark contrast to the music that it serves to heighten the tension of the songs. Mike Portnoy continues to amaze with his adaptability, playing perfectly with just about whatever style of music. Finally, Joey Vera's presence on the heavier tunes adds extra strength and depth to the rhythm section.
Tracks to catch: "Sure You Will" is a high octane electro-metal rocker that will get you our of your seat every time. "Free" is one of the few obvious heavy tunes on the album, but the multi-layered instrumentation sets this track apart. "Home Was Good" is a haunting, minimalistic tune. "Kicking" has a great groove. "Our Town" strips back all the electronics and leaves the listener with Moore's minimalistic vocals and Matheos' acoustic guitar. It is a beautiful way to end the album.
Free is a deceptive album. On the surface, it appears to be a rather accessible bit of music. However, it is just the opposite. A dense, meaty album with tons of substance, there is something to keep the listener coming back for more, time and again. Free is a masterful evolution of the sound of two fabulous musicians. It isn't an album for everyone, but those who delve its progressive depths are sure to find it a rewarding experience.