A Deep Breath
Sound Language, 2010
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/07/2011
The phrase “prog-rock renaissance” has been thrown around enough times over the years to give it the feel of a hoary cliché—and let’s face it, in an era splintered into a thousand microgenres and niche markets, and with the old music industry business model shattered by the rise of DIY and social marketing, the old chart-position method of measurement has been rendered meaningless.
Personally, these days I pay more attention to quality than quantity. And while plenty of folks would point to stalwarts such as Marillion, the Flower Kings, IQ, Spock’s Beard, Porcupine Tree, etc. as evidence of the renaissance of the prog genre in the ’90s and beyond, I’m personally both more intrigued by and more impressed with recent work from artists like Big Big Train and now, Lo-Fi Resistance.
Lo-Fi Resistance (hereafter LFR) is a virtual one-man band, with Randy McStine writing and performing everything but the drum tracks on most of this album. Interestingly, LFR and Big Big Train [BBT] are connected through Spock’s Beard drummer Nick D’Virgilio, who serves as “permanent guest” drummer for BBT and provided both drums and mixing for McStine and LFR on A Deep Breath.
Still, the focus is on former child prodigy McStine, who at 22 has now been a working musician more than half his life. McStine’s adoption of the LFR name signals a new direction for an artist who had two albums of shred-happy instrumental guitar work under his belt before he could drive. That new direction, while drawing on a variety of influences, is at its core distinctively prog.
That much is in evidence from the very beginning, as McStine hits you with a blast of Floydian found sound, a very Dark Side Of The Moon way of prefacing upbeat opener “Hello New Star!”, which alternates between ringing licks on the verses that D’Virgilio supports with an adventurous worldbeat approach, and more straight-ahead power-poppish choruses.
That hard/soft dichotomy becomes even more striking on the next two cuts as “Embrace” comes in with a heavy Ritchie Blackmore feel before downshifting to a sparsely atmospheric blues ballad, and the enigmatically named “.” alternates raging power chords with dreamy, airy laments before erupting into a sky-scraping solo toward the close. “How It Works” integrates the two feels more organically, while also allowing McStine a virtuoso moment as he devolves the giant electric riff at the core of the song into a lilting acoustic solo over D’Virgilio’s restless foundation.
At times A Deep Breath feels like a concept album, a shape-shifting set of ruminations on mortality and morality, and the way the tracks flow into one another tends to accentuate that impression. Still, for every progalicious ten-minute multi-themed suite like “Simple” / “Too Simple”—complete with guest shots on flute and sax from Rob Weinberger and a blazing synth solo from Lloyd Landesman—there’s an expansive power-pop number like the rather Gin Blossoms-meet-Spock’s Beard “All We Have.”
Toward the end, McStine’s lyrics become more topical and focused as he zeroes in on the messages underlying “On My Own” and “Moral Disgrace”—think for yourself, and treat others as you would want to be treated. Doug Pinnick of thinking-man’s metallers King’s X delivers powerful guest vocals on the latter track, in the process underscoring the one weak spot in what is on the whole a very impressive album—i.e., it does feels like McStine is still searching for a comfortable groove as a vocalist. He sounds most confident when he just lets it rip on big songs like “.”; less so when the tune is softer and his vocals more “naked.” In an interview he acknowledges Jeff Buckley as a vocal influence, and Buckley seems like a very appropriate reference point for him as he continues to grow in this area.
This much is obvious: Randy McStine has the instrumental and compositional chops to tackle whatever type of music captures his imagination. While not as polished or cohesive as some of its prog peers, A Deep Breath is full of the kind of bold, engaging, complex songs and superb playing that marks the best prog rock. McStine’s continuing evolution as an artist is going to be a lot of fun to watch—and listen to.