If you think you know what The Sea Within will sound like just from knowing who’s involved — The Flower Kings’ guitar/bass team of Roine Stolt and Jonas Reingold, Pain of Salvation’s Daniel Gildenlöw and Flying Colors’ Casey McPherson singing, Tom Brislin on keyboards and Marco Minnemann on drums — think again. Sure, put these six proggers together in a studio, and they’ll work from their signature sounds and strengths. But they also play off each other in unique ways, stretch out in unexpected directions, and come up with a rewarding, thoroughly listenable debut.
The atmospheric drone kicking off “Ashes of Dawn” quickly gives way to hard-hitting prog-metal riffage. Gildenlöw brings an edgy tension to his opening vocals; when he finally unleashes a scream, Stolt’s takes over with his trademark retro-psychedelia, followed by distorted Brislin organ and a gutsy sax solo from guest Rob Townsend. Gildenlöw’s desperate final chorus is genuinely satisfying, with Stolt unleashing his wah-wah for the playout. Everyone plays off each other, listens hard, and navigates the twists and turns with aplomb.
“They Know My Name” simmers down a bit, a restrained piano ballad anchored by occasionally trip-hoppy drumming. Muted verses lead into the yearning chorus, then an interweaving guitar/piano instrumental. The final chorus takes off, with Brislin weaving solo synth licks around Gildenlöw; Reingold and Minnemann stoke the fire underneath as more Stolt melody caps the track.
Chiming 12-string guitar a la early Genesis opens “The Void,” ornamented with wispy synth decorations a la Richard Wright. The quietest track so far is very much Gildenlöw’s baby, with his gritty singing complemented by Stolt’s subdued harmonies, along with Brislin’s sombre orchestrations and dual oscillator solo work.
Suddenly, “An Eye for an Eye for an Eye” flies out of the gate with some serious speed punk! Gildenlöw sings with spit and vinegar; the verses simmer, the choruses explode — and it gets a bit predictable, right down to more wah-wah psychedelia from Stolt. Until Brislin launches a jazz piano solo over Reingold’s walking bass and Minnemann’s ride cymbal work! The first total surprise of the album, the sudden detour into bebop freed up my expectations, brought a smile to my face, and had me eager to hear more.
“Goodbye” is McPherson’s first vocal, riding a funky pop-metal groove. He fits into TSW’s overall vibe remarkably well, darkening his range and tonal color to complement Gildenlöw’s on the verses, but coming on strong with his own more lyrical sound on bridge and chorus. The loose groove gives Stolt and Brislin ample space to trade solos that build in tandem, and glimmers of light break through– until the finale slams on the brakes hard, powering down as suddenly as the opening track spun up.
“The Sea Without,” a reinvention of “Beck’s Bolero” with Reingold and Brislin thundering in tandem over Minnemann’s snare work, introduces the album’s epic, “Broken Cord.” There’s poppy late-Beatles piano, thick guitar accents a la Queen, and soul-inflected Gildenlöw singing, and all seems well for a change — but vocal breakdowns and heavier backing cast creeping shadows across the sunny feel. Heading for the heart of the sunrise, Stolt unleashes his inner Steve Howe, Brislin stirs in a dash of Rick Wakeman, and a big unison crash brings proceedings to a halt. Then McPherson ventures into the devastated silence, matching Brislin’s wispier, floating keyboard colors. A synth march builds to a gargantuan symphonic crescendo; the 12-string coda brings both vocalists together (along with Jon Anderson on guest harmonies), riding the ebbs and flows of an even bigger build to one last release, with Reingold’s melodic bass taking the lead again for the fade. Impressive in its constant shifts and reworkings of form, color and style, the whole thing reminded me of Abbey Road’s Pop Symphony and side two of Yes’ Fragile — but it’s thoroughly imbued with The Sea Within’s creative DNA.
McPherson again takes the lead for the main album’s finale “The Hiding of Truth,” another poppy groove with a variety of textures from Minnemann, piano foundations by guest Jordan Rudess (with flourishes by Brislin), melodic bass on the bridge, and cathartic Stolt accents on the third verse. Another repeated swell and fade prods at the material from so many different angles, finding something powerful yet unique each time.
After this journey, the bonus material on CD 2 seems a bit of a let-down. (Maybe that’s why it’s bonus material!) Nevertheless, there’s something intriguing about every track: the stretched-out, brooding emo-funk of “The Roaring Silence,” the calm contrapuntal harpsichord/bass/muted guitar interlude of “Where Are You Going?”, the bashy chorus and guitar-heavy coda of “Time” and Gildenlow’s pulsing, agonized vocal crescendo across the whole of “Denise” (with a widescreen Ennio Morricone feel underneath him, to boot) are all worthwhile moments, and not necessarily what you’d expect from this particular combination of players.
The Sea Within didn’t leave me absolutely raving — but it didn’t leave me raging over a lost hour and a half, either. It’s a solid, creative, powerful album that leaves me wanting more from this new band; it’s well worth your cash and your time. Here’s wishing The Sea Within success at their upcoming live gigs (at Night of the Prog and Cruise to the Edge 2019) and in their future endeavors!
— Rick Krueger