Artist: Derek Sherinian
Album: The Phoenix
Label: InsideOut Music
Derek Sherinian is a prolific American keyboard wizard, whose name might not instantly ring a bell, but you’re certainly prone to have a vague feeling that you must’ve heard that name before if you’ve listened to any progressive metal since 1994. After his stint with Dream Theater in the 1990s, Sherinian released two albums with the recording project band Platypus and then plunged into a prominent solo career. He is undoubtedly one of the most significant keyboard players of the modern era of progressive rock, currently contributing keyboard chops for the band Sons of Apollo, among others, including a series of acclaimed solo albums over the last two decades. Sherinian will be releasing his first solo album since 2011’s Oceana on September 18th, 2020, via InsideOut Music, hence titled The Phoenix. It is indeed an album that rises gloriously from the ashes with a radiant selection of new songs
The album bursts into flames with the title track, ”The Phoenix,” which is packed full of high-energy pyrotechnics strongly reminiscent of Steve Vai’s early endeavors, especially his guitar performance on David Lee Roth’s 1986 song ”Shyboy.” Sherinian actually plays keyboards in a style akin to guitar playing, often turning his keyboard at a reflexive angle. Thus given this guitar-like approach to the instrument, it comes as no surprise that the album features top-line guests such as the guitar virtuosos Zakk Wylde, Joe Bonamassa, Kiko Loureiro, Ron ”Bumblefoot” Thal, and Steve Vai – the last of whom Sherinian has also cited as one of his influences along with prog and fusion keyboardists Jan Hammer and Keith Emerson, and jazz guitarist Alan Holdsworth. The album features also bass tracks by Billy Sheehan, Jimmy Johnson, Tony Franklin, and Ernest Tibbs – and a bit of Theremin by Armen Ra.
Speaking of Steve Vai, ”Clouds of Ganymede” is another song on the album that radiates a somewhat similar vibe to his trademark guitarism. Neither the liner notes of the promo nor the press release specified which guests contributed onto what tracks, but my guess would be that the guitar lines on ”Clouds of Ganymede” may well have been contributed by Mr. Vai. The song resonates densely with the air of Vai‘s magnificent 1990 album Passion and Warfare.
”Empyrean Sky” takes off on a completely different tangent, balancing beautifully between the modern jazz fusion of bands such as Snarky Puppy and the Hammond organ-induced grooves of vintage prog icons. Sherinian‘s organ playing leans more toward the style of, say, Deep Purple than old jazz groovers. In fact, no less a luminary than David Coverdale has praised Sherinian as being ”Like the son of Jon Lord.”
Yet, the album has something more to offer than mere keyboard pyrotechnics and fusion-tinged organ mayhem. ”Dragonfly” proceeds with a cubistic piano motif that sounds like the jazz legend, Thelonius Monk, joined a rock band and had a seizure at the piano. ”Them Changes” is a cover of the title track from Buddy Miles’ first solo album after the Band of Gypsys stint with Jimi Hendrix. The song did appear on the Band of Gypsys album, too, with this version being the most famous due to some remarkable guitar solos by Hendrix. Sherinian‘s version is very different, to say the least, featuring Joe Bonamassa on vocals and guitar. Different does not mean bad in this case though. Compared to the Hendrix power-trio version, Sherinian‘s rendition is a bit more fleshy with his juicy and blues-savvy Hammond stabs and Bonamassa‘s prominent blues vocals.
Sherinian‘s past in Dream Theater best shines through on the track, ”Octopus Pedigree,” which showcases some of the best oddball riffs on the album. Along with the tracks ”Temple of Helios” and the flamenco-tinted closing epic, ”Pesadelo,” it is one of the paradigm tracks to prove that the moniker ”modern prog” is not necessarily just a handy excuse to compose lengthy pieces of technical wankery. Undoubtedly, these songs require a certain degree of technical prowess but nonetheless, Sherinian‘s modus operandi is to proceed music-first. I dare to postulate that shredding is not evil by essence, but I guess the technical prowess required is such a ferocious dragon that it needs to be tamed and cast into the ocean before you can resort to using it as a method of conveying complicated emotions. Way too often, the young and aspiring musician does not end up riding the dragon, but rather the dragon ends up riding the musician. Derek Sherinian certainly has tamed his dragon.
The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche once stated that you must burn yourself in your own flame in order to rise anew, like the great mythological phoenix. Sherinian‘s new album, The Phoenix, is a magnificent and exciting case history of such a phenomenon. Even if you’re not exactly a fan of modern fusion-tinged prog, or maybe in that case especially, I highly recommend checking this album out. It is a mind-expanding sonic journey. A disclaimer might be in order here, though: yes, the album contains a fair amount of shredding – but it’s conducted with musical elegance and grace.
Rating: 9/10, 4.5 stars
1. The Phoenix
2. Empyrean Sky
3. Clouds of Ganymede
5. Temple of Helios
6. Them Changes
7. Octopus Pedigree