Sunday 10 June 2012

From ARZ to XYZ

ARZ are a progressive rock duo from Portland, Oregon, consisting of Merrill Hale on drums and Steve Adams on everything else (vocals, guitars, bass, keys), and they kindly sent me a copy of their new album, Turn of the Tide, released last November on Unicorn Digital (home to Mystery and other bands).

While Steve and Merrill met in a Yes tribute band, for me the first half of the album evokes Signals-era Rush more, both in its music and in its intelligent lyrics. Other influences are apparent as the album progresses. The bombast of "Hope and Glory", for example, is more in the vein of ELP, and a work-out for Hale on drums.

But, like Mars Hollow, another band I've championed, what makes ARZ worth trying is that they are more than the sum of their influences. They have their own style and Turn of the Tide successfully combines toe-tapping, hummable melodies with interesting arrangements and strong playing, making the longer pieces on the album still fly by. If I have a complaint, it is that the band could do with a more distinctive sound palette.

Speaking of Rush, just out is XYZ—A Tribute to Rush, a 5-song EP of Rush covers from Dave Kerzner's Sonic Elements project. As a keyboardist, Kerzner has worked with the likes of Kevin Gilbert, Steven Wilson and Simon Collins, but he is also the founder of music software company Sonic Reality. The gimmick behind XYZ is that it uses a set of drum tracks recorded by Neil Peart and available through Sonic Reality (Vol. 2 The Grooves sample library). Kerzner has then assembled various guest stars to record these covers of "Tom Sawyer", "Red Barchetta", "YYZ" and "Limelight" around Peart's playing.

For Yes fans, the interest is in Billy Sherwood, who appears on every track: bass on "Tom Sawyer" and "Limelight", additional bass on "Red Barchetta", bass and guitar on "YYZ" and bonus track "Trifecta" (more on that below). Other guests include Porcupine Tree's John Wesley on "Tom Sawyer" (vocals, guitar) and "Limelight" (guitar), and Rik Emmett (vocals, guitar) on "Red Barchetta" (vocals, guitar).

These are great songs, well played, making for a fun EP. The interest in a covers project is often in how it relates to the original recordings. Here, Kerzner, Sherwood et al. stick very closely to the source material. Kerzner's keyboard work at the beginning and end of some of the tracks is where he deviates most from the original versions. I, as I'm sure many of you reading this, are very familiar with the originals, so even small differences stand out and provide interest, but I would have liked more variation.

Perhaps that conservatism in the arrangements is a necessary result of using Peart's drum tracks. Perhaps as a counterpoint to that, there is an extra song on the EP, "Trifecta". This takes the drum track for "YYZ", but Kerzner and Sherwood have recorded a new composition around it. (A second original piece, "Times Gone", built around the "Tom Sawyer" drum track, was also available for those who pre-ordered, but I missed that opportunity.)

As an experiment, "Trifecta" is interesting, but I didn't find it wholly successful. The piece has some OK riffs, but I don't feel it hangs together in its own right. The ghost of "YYZ" hangs over the piece, dictating the overall flow.

Sonic Elements have plenty more in the pipeline, much with Sherwood, including both covers and more original material. The covers include Yes songs, but the next planned release is another EP, It—A Tribute to Genesis & Peter Gabriel.

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