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Syzygy - Realms of Eternity CD (album) cover

REALMS OF ETERNITY

Syzygy

 

Crossover Prog

3.93 | 75 ratings

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Conor Fynes
Prog Reviewer
4 stars 'Realms of Eternity' - Syzygy (73/100)

To their credit, Syzygy are one of the few progressive bands I've heard that reinvent themselves each time a new album comes about. That they release a new album averaging every eight years probably doesn't hurt that fact; with the three albums that we have so far from Syzygy (including the debut they wrote under the Witsend moniker) paint an impressive sense of progress. Cosmos and Chaos had a certain charm to its Genesis-inspired meanderings, but felt light on substance. When their lives permitted, Syzygy's second album emerged a decade later; The Allegory of Light was an incredibly different animal than the debut. It featured well-rounded contributions from each of the three Syzygians, and offered as much instrumental complexity as could be fit on a traditional prog album; the effect was generally more impressive than that of its predecessor, but new problems emerged in the music. Most importantly, it felt like the band had contracted a moderate case of Transatlantic syndrome- that is, technical bravado and overbearing prog cliches coming at the cost of an emotionally empowered listening experience.

With Syzygy's third outing Realms of Eternity dropping a mere six years later, it's once again clear that the band have done some soul-searching. Though it's not as bold of a leap as the one they took between Cosmos and Chaos and The Allegory of Light, Syzygy have finally given their style a much-desired sense of balance. Between melody and instrumental fireworks, the intimate and ambitious, Realms of Eternity is the first album in the band's career together that sounds like they know not only where they want to go, but how to get there.

The importance of Syzygy's fleshed-out roster to the album's success cannot be overstated. The introduction of Mark Boals (listed here as a guest vocalist, although he's obviously so much more than that) has finally given Syzygy the confident voice their music deserved. While Carl Baldassarre's sparing vocal performances weren't bad in the past (he offers a great vocal performance of his own on the mellowed acoustic "Echoes Remain"), his plain delivery wasn't well-suited to the bombastic lengths the renewed Syzygy were reaching for. Mark Boals' induction not only frees Baldassarre to concentrate on the guitar, it's opened up a swath of musical possibilities for the band as a whole. It was clear on The Allegory of Light that Syzygy wanted to write songs with a heavy vocal presence, but without a full-time singer they shyed away from it (that possibly explains why the album was so heavy on the instrumental pyrotechnics). Boals is everything Syzygy could have wanted out of a vocalist. He's got a resolve in his performance that could stand toe-to-toe with some of the great vocalists in progressive and heavy metal, and knows exactly when to tone down his delivery. Realms of Eternity also sees the entry of bassist Al Rolik, and while a full-time bassist isn't as much of a boon to Syzygy's music as the new vocalist, I noticed a confident aggression in his playing here, closely reminiscent of the ballsy presence Chris Squire had on the best Yes albums.

The longstanding core of Syzygy aren't any worse off for the change either. While the more melodic and palatable approach doesn't give Baldassarre or keyboardist Sam Giunta as much space to explicitly strut their skills as they had on The Allegory of Light, there are still more than enough Dream Theater-type instrumental breaks for the band to explore ideas at greater leisure. Again from the past album, Paul Mihacevich's drumwork is a testament to his expertise with dynamics. Not only do these guys have decades of experience between each of them, they have decades of experience playing together, as a trio. With the chemistry and partial telepathy that arises from working together for such a long time, I imagine it was that much easier for Rolik and Boals to join in on the fun.

Including a better-than-ever mix and production, Syzygy's execution is the best it's ever been with Realms of Eternity, and they put themselves head and shoulders above most other contenders in traditional progressive circles. My feelings are more mixed towards the songwriting and composition on the album. Realms of Eternity sounds as enthusiastic as Witsend did with Cosmos and Chaos, but they're not as used to working with vocals as with their proggy instrumentals. Some tracks- like "Echoes Remain", the excellent "Dialectic" and parts of the half-hour epic "The Sea"- are really successful with the vocal integration. "Dialectic" in particular is one of the best tunes Syzygy have ever done, better than "M.O.T.H." off of The Allegory of Light and maybe even better than Voyager from the debut. With other parts, I'm less impressed with the way Syzygy incorporated Boals. The worst offender is undoubtedly "Dreams", which has an AOR "fist-pumping" chorus that feels lame and awkward, especially given its otherwise cerebral surroundings.

Even though Realms of Eternity has been improved most with the new vocalist, it's unsurprising that Syzygy's best strength lies in their instrumental interplay. Like the best of Spock's Beard or Beardfish (how many beard-related prog bands are out there, I wonder?), Syzygy have a nostalgic, throwback flair to their proggy explorations that is pleasantly refreshed with the energy they put into it. Take "Darkfield" or "Dialectic"; the way Syzygy incorporate these extended prog passages isn't particularly innovative (they usually function in the songwriting as extended bridges, often following a chorus) but the energy they pour into these parts makes them exciting even to a seasoned prog veteran.

Of the most importance to Realms of Eternity is obviously "The Sea", a mammoth that roughly eats up the last third of the album's disc space. While Syzygy hinted at tracks being linked with The Allegory of Light, the sense of a 'suite' didn't extend much past the CD booklet. With "The Sea", we're looking at Syzygy's first full-blown epic, one that's received a fair bit of acclaim in the years since its release. Undoubtedly, "The Sea" is home to Syzygy's best melodic integration; it's driven by motifs and themes, some of which closely recall earlier parts of the album. Even if it doesn't feel like a standalone epic so much as a particularly idea-heavy chunk of the album, "The Sea" is one of the band's best achievements to date. The overture balances out introduction of themes with playful solos. Throughout the dynamic shifts and bright melodies, Syzygy keep me reminded of Spock's Beard in the way they merge prog traditions with accessible hooks. "The Sea" is largely a joy to hear, with the two "Variations" exercising the limits of the band's intensity. Given how impressed I am with "The Sea", it's all the more disappointing that its "Finale" ends with such a default reprise and bombast. Slowing down the central melodic idea and adding gospel(?) ad- libbing in the background may have conceivably worked, but on the coattails of some of Syzygy's most technically accomplished instrumentation, I'm consistently underwhelmed with the way they capped the epic. With each album, Syzygy have impressed upon me the fact that they are potentially excellent composers, but the way they structure and arrange their most challenging work tends to feel mechanical.

In spite of the obvious leaps Syzygy have made here, I have enough issues with Realms of Eternity (some of them fresh with this album) to hold me back from really loving it, certainly enough for me to disagree with the 'Album of the Year 2009' buzz it triggered some years back when the record was new. Yet, having listened to Syzygy's albums in their chronological order, I can't help but be impressed by how far they have come as musicians and a band. Especially considering that traditional/'throwback' progressive rock usually repulses me this side of the new millennium, that they've effectively livened up the style is a feat unto itself. In a way, each of the three Syzygy records could be seen as debut albums; Realms of Eternity doubly so. If this may be seen as a promise of even better things to come from Syzygy in the future, I hope we won't have to wait a decade to hear their next step. If recent interviews ring true and the band are indeed in the midst of fresh material, that wait will be over before we know it.

Conor Fynes | 4/5 |

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