Album Review: Bigelf - "Into The Maelstrom"

Alright, class. The subject we'll be discussing this week is a genre commonly referred to as "progressive metal". When I hear the word "progressive" I think of acts like Rush and King Crimson. Technically, Fates Warning and Queensryche are also classified as progressive along with one of the most successful progressive metal acts, Dream Theater. Add to that list the album I'm reviewing today, "Into the Maelstrom" by Bigelf.

Bigelf has been in existence since 1991 and, in that time, they have released three EPs and three full-length records. "Into The Maelstrom" is their fourth full-length album. Apparently, their 1996 EP "Closer To Doom" helped establish Bigelf and founding member Damon Fox as "fathers" of the psychedelic doom movement that spawned the L.A. stoner-rock scene.

Bigelf has, for the most part, dropped the "doom" but kept some of the psychedelic elements on this latest album.

Lead singer Damon Fox is described as the "eccentric front man" of Bigelf and the music he creates reflects that label. Of "Into The Maelstrom" Fox explains, “I have been reflecting on the band and pondering what it would take to get us to the next level, I believe we have accomplished this task on the new record". Whatever he feels "the next level" is, I think Fox has achieved it on this album.

In addition to Fox on vocals, keyboards and guitar, Bigelf also features the superior work of Duffy Snowhill on bass and Luis Maldonado on guitar. And, as a special treat, Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy has added his own unique touch to the percussion work on "Into The Maelstrom".

Progressive metal by definition combines elements of metal and progressive rock. More specifically, they take the "heavy" from heavy metal and meld it with the experimental aspects and complexity of progressive rock. Generally speaking, most acts who are labeled progressive are so named because they use time signatures that differ from the common 4:4 and, often, polyrhythms. This is Mike Portnoy's specialty and he does not disappoint on "Into The Maelstrom". The beats, and the music in general, are eclectic to say the least.

Speaking of eclectic, upon listening to Bigelf, five acts came to mind; The Beatles, David Bowie, Queen, Black Sabbath and the River Bottom Nightmare Band (look it up).

Here's a discussion we can have at a later date... In my slightly less than humble opinion, the first big progressive band was The Beatles. They were the first to experiment with different sounds and instrumentation in their songs. From the piccolo trumpet in "Penny Lane" (somewhat replicated on Bigelf's "Theater of Dreams"), to backward drum tracks (such as those on "ITM").

The reason Sabbath came into my head on a few of the tracks was simply because of the overall heaviness of the songs, their focus on the riff and the similarities at times to the musical phrasing of Ozzy.

Ozzy himself has stated that the Beatles were a big influence of his so, it seems, the circle continues. In fact, there's a riff on the album that sounds very much like the riff from "Electric Funeral".

Lead singer Damon Fox has a voice that falls somewhere between Mr. Osbourne and the snake/lead singer from the River Bottom Nightmare Band. That's not a bad thing. It adds to the experimental nature of the album.

What should you expect on this record? Variety. You'll hear lots of keyboards, lots of changing time signatures, heavy metal guitars, crazy vocal arrangements, and on and on.

A good example is the opening track, a musical mosaic entitled "Incredible Time Machine". If you like your music a little on the crazy side then this is the song for you. Polyrhythm drums, swelling keyboards, falsetto vocals and some rockin' guitar work make "Incredible Time Machine" a great way to start a record.

A couple of my favorite tracks include "The Professor & The Madman", "Mr. Harry McQuhae" and "Control Freak", one of the heaviest and the shortest song on the album coming in at 2:41. And, while these few are my favorite cuts, every song has something unique to offer the listener. Some progressive bands, in an attempt to stay different, end up with songs that use the same tricks over and over. You'll find none of that on "Into The Maelstrom".

The way I see it, the term "progressive" is just a place to put bands who don't neatly fit into any other category. Change the drum beat? You're progressive. Add keyboards and a different way of phrasing a lyric and you're progressive. Bigelf pushes the boundaries of what is expected from a rock band and they do a fine job of it. If you're tired of the same old, some old, then definitely check out "Into The Maelstrom". It'll make your day and help you march to the beat of a different drummer. Or, in this case, Mike Portnoy. Class dismissed.

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