|Musical Style: Progressive Hard Rock Fusion||Produced By:|
|Record Label: Independent||Country Of Origin: USA|
|Year Released: 2013||Artist Website: Visual Cliff|
|Tracks: 8||Rating: 80%|
The simplest way to explain how Between Two Kingdoms, the seventh album from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s Visual Cliff, sounds is to tell you that it closely mirrors past Visual Cliff releases, which is to say it sounds very good in preserving the group’s trademark jam-fusion-progressive rock-meets-hard-rock tendencies. Visual Cliff are quite the veterans of the scene, having been put together in the late nineties by founding members Rob Perez (guitars) and Rick Mals (bass & drums) prior to cutting its teeth on instrumental debut albums Lyrics For The Living (2003) and Key To Eternity (2004). Later recruiting vocalist Shane Lankford with the goal of “adding another dimension to its sound”, Visual Cliff hit its stride with follow up instrumental and vocal hybrid projects Freedom From Within (2005), Into The After (2007) and Collective Spirit (2010).
A late 2013 release, Between Two Kingdoms acts as a companion album to Out Of The Archives, the previous Visual Cliff full length from earlier the same year made up of re-recorded version of older demo tracks. Between Two Kingdoms picks up where Out Of The Archives leaves off in taking a similar musical approach - breaking down evenly between heavier rocking songs and those reflecting a lighter touch - but made up of new material instead. Where Between Two Kingdoms further diverges, however, is in placing added emphasis on vocal material, allowing Lankford to front three tracks as opposed to the single track from Out Of The Archives.
The album gets off to a strong start with “Full Scale Faith”, a brief (3:03) instrumental that exudes a laid-back feel with its lighter guitar tones and mirthful use of piano. While I could be wrong in saying this is the shortest piece ever from Visual Cliff, quality does not lack either. Remaining four instrumental tracks highlight that ‘heavier rocking’ sound but intermingled with occasional calmer moments.
“Crucible Of Truth” is the heavy hitter of the bunch, dark and weighty in capacity (in which metal-laced guitars kick up a storm) but also descending into some gentler passages (that find Rob Perez’s bluesy lead guitar holding sway). “Soul Speak” delivers its share of muscle as well, with up-tempo interludes carried by forthright guitars but also decelerating for calmer moments allowing Jaymi Millard’s bass to breath in the mix (Between Two Kingdoms maintains the high Visual Cliff standard in the area of production).
“Stained Glass Dreams” might be the most varied of the instrumentals in transitioning between outbursts of guitar driven angst and tranquil hints of piano- all the while Perez again displays his adept soloing, ranging from the fiery to bluesy. Organ in the backdrop helps make the slower but poignantly charged “Waiting In Tow” stand out, as does the airy tight guitar harmonies and catchy as it gets riff action. One also cannot help but be impressed with the technical drum work of Thomas Schuffert.
The albums vocal material trends towards the previously noted ‘lighter touch’. They also represent the albums most lengthy.
The ballad based “The Divine” does a good job emphasizing Lankford’s warm and richly flavored vocal abilities. A laid back environs is established accordingly, the song smoothly flowing its length to subdued guitar tones (for the tranquilly done verses) in giving rise to an emotional edge overall (particularly for the moving chorus). “The Divine” talks about the One that sets forth the path we must follow:
How if ever, How could I ever, Find my divine, You are The Divine
When You reach out, You truly seek out
You are my Divine, You are The Divine
Lord these words I’m singing, Prove to me I’ve been freed
I sing out so unashamedly, for all the world to see
Take their pain, and make their way
“Pain And Sorrow” also flows evenly, with Kansas-like piano upholding the gracious setting and abundant melody throughout. Yes, a ballad based feel as well, but what separates this one from “The Divine” is how it abruptly moves to a more forthright direction at the halfway point with some staunch rhythm guitar and jazzy flavorings prevailing. The focus here is how as Christians we are not exempt from ‘pain and sorrow’:
Today I’m reaching out. I know that You’ll break through
Pull me above these waves as only You can
I know that You stay the same forever
and You never change no matter what I do
And now I am safe, I’m not afraid my path is sure
I know You’re with me evermore
Let all the pain, let all the sorrow bleed away
The albums nine minute title track plays up an atmospheric feel. The song starts its first minute and a half in an ethereal instrumental direction, continuing to flow exquisitely through the refined touches of its verses and imposing feel to the grand and stately chorus. Crisp rhythm guitar and organ step forward for the lengthy instrumental stretch. “Between Two Kingdoms” touches upon how we literally exist between that, both of which are fighting to own our allegiance and souls:
Caught between two kingdoms, journeying and free
Men as trees walking, this is what I see
Change comes with the running, The finish line is near
Caught between two kingdoms, and You take away all my fears
Only seen / Through dark glass / Till we meet / Face to face
Now I know / Just in part / Then I’ll know / As I’ve known
While I hesitate to invite direct comparison, Visual Cliff reminds of Fourth Estate, a group also heavily focused on instrumental hard rock music, with both camps bringing musicianship of an equal level. Missing, at the same time, is a lot of the overdone ‘wankery’ associated with instrumental guitar shred albums from the likes of Satriani, Vai, etc. Yes, I like that stuff as much as anyone but there is so much more to Visual Cliff (and Fourth Estate for that matter).
Fall of Echoes comes to mind from a vocal standpoint, if only for representing a collaboration between Perez, Lankford and Mals on its 2006 debut Red Tree. Despite including several Visual Cliff members, Fall Of Echoes is its own bands with a distinct sound- keeping in mind if you like the Visual Cliff vocal material I cannot help but point you in the direction of Red Tree.
Lone downside to report is that Between Two Kingdoms is the last full-length Visual Cliff album. No, the band is not going away, but rather for 2014 and beyond you can expect Visual Cliff to release singles throughout each year as they record them. In moving forward, let’s hope that Visual Cliff stays busy recording singles or at the very least once they compile eight or nine release them as a full-length package.
Between Two Kingdoms adds up to another good Visual Cliff album. If you like what the group has produced in the past, whether instrumental or vocal material (or both), then the album comes with a strong recommendation. Again, strengths in musicianship, production and multi-dimensional songwriting continue to shine. Only thing constructive to report is perhaps the group could have come up with another song or two (I also do not wish to be unfair when factoring Visual Cliff’s two album output in 2013) or included a vocal piece heading in a heavier direction. Still, I am glad Visual Cliff is not calling it quits and will be around to deliver more quality jam-fusion-progressive rock-meets-hard-rock in the future.
Review by Andrew Rockwell
Track Listing: “Full Scale Faith” (3:03), “Soul Speak” (3:40), “Between Two Kingdoms” (9:03), “Crucible Of Truth” (4:09), “Stained Glass Dreams” (3:47), “Pain & Sorrow” (6:42), “Waiting In Tow” (3:52), “The Divine” (4:58)
Shane Lankford - Lead Vocals
Rob Perez - Guitars
John Neiswinger - Keyboards
Jaymi Millard - Bass
Thomas Schuffert - Drums
Rick Mals - Bass & Drums