(Professor D. Grover the XIIIth [ex-The Number of the Blog] returns to our pages with this review of the new album by Odyssey from Spokane, Washington, which is being released today.)
Greetings and salutations, friends. A week ago I promised a full review of the new Odyssey album, The Swarm, and today I return to deliver on that promise.
Now, when you’ve been listening to a band or artist for the majority of their career, often you begin to foster a sense of casual ownership, that feeling of I Knew Them Back When, that helps to deepen your connection to them. You know their albums intimately, to the point that when you somehow manage to go an indeterminate stretch of time without listening to them, everything still feels comfortable and familiar.
Odyssey is, for me, one such band, as I became a fan back in my early blogging days (around the time their second release, the Schematics EP, was released). In the nine years that followed, Odyssey have released two full-length albums, two EPs, a live Blu-Ray, and a couple live albums, and the journey as a listener has been something akin to watching your child grow up. (This is especially relevant given that last week my oldest daughter turned 9, eliciting all sorts of emotions and “How has that much time gone by?” reactions.) The band’s instrumental prog sound has matured as guitarist Jerrick Crites and the Hilker brothers (bassist Jordan and drummer Lukas) have aged, broadening from a heavy and fast approach to a greater exploration of groove and tempo, but Schematics has always stood out in my mind for its aggression. It’s long been a favorite of mine, because like Lightning McQueen, I like speed.
Thus, you can likely deduce to a reasonable degree of accuracy my reaction to the opening fusillade of The Swarm’s initial track, ‘Infestation’, which gives you a 15-second warning of building distortion before blasting off like a brick to the side of the head. This is the Odyssey of old, fast and lean and heavy, relenting for stretches within each track but returning to that breakneck pace. This continues with ‘The Culling’ and ‘Days Are Numbered’ before the aptly named ‘The Calm Before’, a track that pulls the rug from under you with its laid-back groove and beautiful guitar and bass solos.
The calm is short-lived, however, as the track flows into the album’s title track, another faster-paced track that feels like something of a turning point in the album. ‘The Swarm’ is followed by ‘Hive Mind’ (if you’re reading this, hopefully you checked out the track premiere last week), which uses a variety of tempos and emotions and feels like a journey of its own. From this point, the album takes its foot off the accelerator for greater stretches and lets its story breathe. ‘Ether’ is another light interlude that segues smoothly into ‘Perdition’, another song relying more on a moderate tempo but still maintaining its unpredictability. ‘Exiled’ represents another lighter track, giving the listener a bit of a breather and a note of hope before the album’s penultimate track, ‘The Great Dying’.
On my first several listens, I would listen to ‘The Great Dying’, the album’s longest and most (pardon the cliche) “epic” track, and wonder why it wasn’t the last track on the album. It feels like a buildup and resolution, full of conflict and then triumph, and it feels like an excellent place to close out the album. And then ‘Lapse’, the album’s closer would start, and I would remember why. If ‘The Great Dying’ feels like climax and resolution, then ‘Lapse’ feels like the closing credits, an outro to the album constructed around a single guitar note and relying on the bass to carry the melody. It works incredibly well.
From front to back, The Swarm is an album with a story of its own, told through song titles and moods rather than words. There’s a cinematic sense that becomes more apparent with multiple listens as you become familiar with the ebb and flow of the album. It’s not an easy thing to accomplish in an instrumental style, but Odyssey does just that. Using the obvious combination of album title and artwork, it’s easy to imagine The Swarm as a movie about a massive locust infestation. The movie drops you into the action from the beginning, perhaps introducing the threat of said swarm and demonstrating their power through ‘Infestation’, ‘The Culling’, and ‘Our Days Are Numbered’. There’s a step back, perhaps to introduce or flesh out our movie’s protagonist or protagonists with ‘The Calm Before’, then thrusting them into the middle of things with ‘The Swarm’. ‘Hive Mind’ then represents a negative turning point, putting the characters through ‘Perdition’ and seeing them ‘Exiled’, where there is a reckoning and a turn for the better. They make their triumphant return in ‘The Great Dying’, the movie’s victorious final conflict and denouement, before the end titles of ‘Lapse’.
It’s an interesting experience and really needs to be heard in its entirety to truly be appreciated. (This is probably something I say about most of the albums I review these days, which is both a reflection on my own listening habits and also the types of albums I tend to listen to.) Odyssey aren’t and have never been shy about their influences, and you can hear nods to Rush and Dream Theater in The Swarm (and indeed, throughout their career). But their sound is also distinctive, based heavily around Jordan Hilker’s acrobatic playing style and recognizable bass tone, clear with a little bit of a rattle to it, mixing well with Jerrick Crites’ beautiful solos and dynamic riffs and held down by Lukas Hilker’s versatile drumming.
In an old review of mine from the band’s second full-length album An Abstract Existence, all the way back in 2011, I wrote the following:
“Odyssey feels like a band that plays for the love of music. I mean, you don’t really get big by playing nineteen-minute instrumentals, unless you’re Dream Theater. But, rather than hopping on whatever trend they felt would get them to the top, this talented threesome has chosen to make dynamic, unpredictable, technical music. […] with Odyssey, it doesn’t feel forced. It feels natural. And that comes from playing the music that you love from the heart.”
I know, quoting yourself is lazy, but this is to supplement my initial point about familiarity. When I wrote this in 2011, I had no idea what the future held for Odyssey. Would they break up two weeks after writing that review? Would they become the Next Big Thing? The answer to both of those questions, both fortunately and unfortunately, is no. Odyssey are still a pretty obscure band, for the most part, but they have a die-hard and devoted following who feel a sense of ownership and intimacy with a band who, after ten-plus years, are still making music that they love from the heart. The Swarm feels like, in many ways, a culmination of their career to this point, a revisiting of their earlier, rawer, heavier style, melded with their more recent progressive output, and the result is perhaps my favorite work of theirs yet. I have no idea what the future holds for Odyssey, but I hope it’s a future that holds more of their music, because it’s been a great ride thus far.
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