Eric McGrath – Quests Of Inventive Warrior Phinasor – Album Review
It’s rare, but it can certainly happen – we’ve got a five-song full-album for ya here in review today. According to the ol’ notes where it’s posted up online, this is Eric’s third solo record – and for only five tunes on it, you’ll find over seventy minutes of adventures ideas & highly-skilled musicianship give you more than enough to listen to. Think of it this way…the average album by Weezer is roughly thirty minutes or less in length, almost always with ten songs or more – Eric’s giving you half the song count & more than twice the running-time! Even visually, it’s pretty clear on paper these tunes on Quests Of Inventive Warrior Phinasor are going to serve you up an adventurous journey long beyond what your average Pop/Rock song could ever provide ya with. Pushing play on the record and stepping into the Progressive-Jazz world of sound being explored via the opening song “Time Machine” quickly confirms.
While the music itself is largely avant-garde & imaginative in every way – you’ll find the cohesion exists in the way these songs are presented to ya. “Time Machine” displays the format…you get your keyboard intro from McGrath, additional musicianship to follow with Ken Pepe (Bass) and Alex Rindone (Drums) joining in, and then a storyline revealed through the lead-vocals of Marlena Phillips. Each of these tunes will play like their own chapter in the overall tale of the Quests Of Inventive Warrior Phinasor, and of course, just like a great story should do, more of this story is revealed piece by piece. You’ll also find that Marlena will show up in the first halves of these songs for the most part, leaving the majority of the second halves to echo the idea through the music. Chances are, it’s the fact that “Time Machine” is shorter than the rest of the songs and the introduction to the entire story, that she’s featured a bit more prominently throughout the length of this first tune. You’ll hear the complexity in the design of the music & the vocals – there’s no question about the ambitious style & artistic approach they’re taking together on this adventure…and there’s no possibility of you singing along with it either. Lyrical imagery plays a huge role on these tunes and fueling the storyline – and “Time Machine” is essential to understanding the core concepts presented throughout this set of five cuts on Quests Of Inventive Warrior. Musical transitions like the depths they surge into via the bass-lines from Ken around the 2:30 mark, or how things can brighten up with an inspired spark or sound from the keyboards like around the 3:10 mark show that Eric’s got the juice as well. Impressive use of language, poetic by design, but also written with real flair & consistency that holds tight to the themes on this album – everything fits; as odd, wild, or innovative as it can all be at times, these songs certainly belong together. And like…LISTEN to the killer drums & keyboards that flow throughout the final two-minutes or so will ya? Eric and Alex make all kinds of huge moves in the last minutes of this first experience and leave good ol’ Ken to hold the fort down as they wander & roam into fantastic melody & musicianship as one.
At eight-minutes & forty-four seconds in length, “Time Machine” was also the record’s shortest tune – the ideas from here, in addition to the running-time of the tunes themselves, gets evermore progressive as Quests Of Inventive Warrior Phinasor. “Adventures In 1260” continues the journey, taking us into a pitch-shifting keyboard intro from Eric before we jump into the bulk of the story/song to follow. Incidentally, out of the sheer curiosity I normally go through when hearing or experiencing something I know almost nothing about, I decided to Google good ol’ Phinasor, just to see what would come back – and everything that did was all Eric McGrath…so as far as I can tell, from character to concept, this is all born out of his own unique ideas. On the page at Bandcamp where you can find this record posted, at one point in the description, it reads: “This CD could be characterized as musicians’ music.” Songs like what we’ve heard already so far in both “Time Machine” and “Adventures In 1260” certainly prove that to be true…I have no doubt whatsoever that musicians like Eric, Ken, Marlena, and Alex probably get into some seriously involved conversations about intricate timing signatures and how to make music do more than it typically does in terms of substance. Are the average set of ears going to be able to hang with the complexities of what McGrath is creating with his musical cohorts? Not likely, no! But in my opinion, if you’re reading between the lines and listening between’em as well, you can infer that Eric’s long past that and come to grips with this long before pushing record to get these new songs down. You don’t make music like this with the expectation of dominating the mainstream or the modern-day airwaves – you do it because you truly love the art & the craft and the wonderful freedom of expression that comes along with it. I dig the way Eric represents that time-travel aspect of this record with smart inclusions like the way “Adventures In 1260” begins with its warped & bending synth notes shifting around like we’re all on the ride together, waiting to find out where or when we end up landing in time. Jazz-infused moments like around the 3:00 mark were a huge highlight too…small instrumental breaks in between the verses and storylines provided by Marlena on the mic count for a ton of the personality you’ll find in this song and its sporadic movements. Deadly bass tones from Ken in the fourth & fifth minutes show just how much contrast between the light & dark that Eric McGrath uses to his advantage within the music when combined with the bright keyboard melodies scattered on the surface. For what it’s worth…if you’re out there happily still listening to Zappa…honestly, stuff like what McGrath and his band are doing with songs like “Adventures In 1260” have a much similar intensity, intricacy, and passion in the wildly ambitious ideas you’ll find. It’s heady material for sure…musically, intellectually, artistically…but at the same time, the sheer difference in a record like this by comparison to the rest of EVERYTHING else that’s out there, can’t be expressed enough here in words – and the value in that, is enormous. The next time someone asks me what they should listen to when they want something that’s not at all like the rest, I’m simply going to point them in the path of Eric McGrath and call it a day.
I’m actually quite fascinated with the vocals provided by Marlena Phillips all throughout this record – I think she’s got some excellent moments and genuine highlights, and perhaps a few spots here & there where you might want a bit more strength or melody to her tone – BUT – when it comes right down to it, I think she should honestly get an award for her efforts here. I think she’s got a nearly impossible task when it comes right down to it…and for what it’s worth, I think she does an excellent job with a remarkably difficult style of music to sing overall. Listen to a track like “King Varbadon’s Challenge” and recognize the amount of art, skill, and precision a performance like this takes to make work! Of course it’s there in the music…we’ve already established & talked about that…but for those of you out there that have ever stood in front of a microphone or written a song to an instrumental – just try for a moment, to imagine find your way into a tune like “King Varbadon’s Challenge” as a vocalist. Challenge indeed! And challenge accepted from the way you hear Marlena go after this tune. She rises to the occasion and makes the most of a difficult part, relating a string of complex words at a quick pace in the storyline-designed verses – but also finding incredible ways to use her voice as innovatively & inventively as the music with lots of stops, starts, pivots, and clever transitions as well. Some changes to the music itself on this track, will come right out of left-field…like say, around the 9:15 mark towards the final quarter of “King Varbadon’s Challenge” and how far the sound shifts there from where it all started – but it’s also bold moments like this that make this lengthy cut the sonic adventure it is. Of course, you’ll experience all kinds of highlights long before the nine-minute mark…the adventurous nature of Eric’s music is constantly on display…defining twists at the beginning around the forty-five second mark, or later on four-minutes later don’t go unnoticed, as short as each moment might be. The complex & unique timing shared between the keys, drums, bass, and vocals to follow – it all stacks up to a relentlessly interesting listening experience you couldn’t possibly predict. I’ll admit it’s largely based in the whole fantasy-realm & all…which may/may-not be your jam when it comes to the story of the Quests Of Inventive Warrior Phinasor – there’s always a risk in creating a concept album, because some will identify with the themes, others won’t – that’s just the way that whole gambit works. At the heart of this hero’s quest however…you’ll hear words & lyrics that reflect on Eric’s values, and insights on what’s important through the emphasis in the expression that Marlena supplies; essentially, while it might have a distinct theme, it’s still exploring a story that’s both entertaining and getting the messages across clearly. And as far as uniqueness goes? I’d be willing to bet more than half of you out there haven’t experienced anything even CLOSE to what’s being created on this album – Eric McGrath has gone his own route with Progressive-Jazz, and that identifiable character & commitment you hear will quite likely lead him to a devoted fan-base of listeners that are able to hang with his multi-dimensional sound & style. McGrath & his crew have really awesome moments in each song that always offer an access point beyond the purely mesmerizing uniqueness of it all…like around the ten-minute mark of “King Varbadon’s Challenge” and the inspired instrumental spark this song rocks until it’s finished.
“Invention In 2035 And Battle With 100 Knights” is essential when it comes to understanding the core concepts of the record…”Time Machine” of course sets the stage for the whole record and the Quests Of Inventive Warrior Phinasor – but this fourth tune on the album makes the responsibilities of such an ability like time travel clear and gives you a real appreciation for how much thought has been put into this record’s ambitious concept, lyrics, and storyline. With so much happening in Eric’s music so often throughout these five tunes on the album, hearing him take a moment in the seventh-minute of “Invention In 2035 And Battle With 100 Knights” to chill out for a bit ended up being quite a highlight in contrast for the serenity it provides ya with compared to how much busyness there normally is in the music. And of course, it won’t take long from there for the ambitious & adventurous side of Eric’s music to take on over once again, heading into wildly avant-garde & artistic instrumental sections that transition quickly, revealing a full multitude of ideas stacked inside the DNA of this one tune. Flexing that Progressive muscle even more as the album plays on – you’ll notice the pattern of the storyline/vocals from Marlena setting the stage for the music to follow…like the narrator of sorts; she’s front-loaded into all of these songs, leaving Ken, Eric, and Alex to continue the story instrumentally once she exits. As promised, you get yourself a battle in the storyline of “Invention In 2035 And Battle With 100 Knights” – like I’ve been tellin’ ya, it’s an essential part of the tale where Varbadon’s finally gettin’ his comeuppance and things get a lil’ bloody & bashed in the process. It’s such an interesting style of lyricism when it comes right down to it…it’s poetic…but like…extremely informative with very…umm…’gooder’ words than I know how to use! Yes I know that ‘gooder’ ain’t a word – that’s the point I’m trying to make here…when it comes to writing, Eric and his crew could write circles around me, no doubt about it. Anyhow – the point is that the word-selection alone is staggering – it’s really well-written stuff and the story that’s running through the Quests Of Inventive Warrior Phinasor is designed to suit its complexities…especially considering just how many ideas & ideas-within-ideas you’ll find in the music coming along with these lyrics. Smart synth work from Eric around the nine-minute mark really stands out as a highlight – and Alex Rindone…man…that dude never stops workin’ back there from the drum throne…the two of them in combination from the eighth-to-tenth-minute(ish) area get all kinds of wild with it and really show just how much fun this style of music can be to both play & listen to. Like, if you’re an audiophile or a musician’s musician – you’ll hear things like what’s happening with the timing & pace around the twelve minute mark and love what you find – or the imaginatively expressive way that “Invention In 2035 And Battle With 100 Knights” continues to play out through the exploratory instrumental…what…nearly thirteen-minutes following the vocals? Somewhere around there? Who’s counting right? Eric McGrath goes where the music takes him, no matter how far – and I dig that. Plus, you gotta admit – that smooth groove they lock into around the final three-minutes of this song makes this entire adventure worth the price of admission alone don’t it? It’d be hard to single out any specific moment in time as your absolute favorite part of a record like this – but as close as I can pin it down for ya, it’s the ending of “Invention In 2035 And Battle With 100 Knights” that had me most excited overall. They kind of find their way to a smooth & eclectic Stereolab-like groove there…sounds 100% awesome.
Not that there was ANY doubt whatsoever, but our hero Phinasor prevails and triumphs on the final cut, “Phinasor’s Victory And The Renaissance.” I gotta admit…I really started smiling around this song when listening to this record the first time…this was where I felt like I couldn’t help but truly admire just how much this crew has committed to the ideas, concepts, and songs throughout this whole record. I would never in a million years expect everyone out there to ‘get it’ – that’s just not a luxury that anyone in the Progressive realm of music gets to enjoy unfortunately – but in terms of the respect of their peers and other musicians out there, there’s no doubt they’ll gain a ton of admiration for what they’ve all pulled off here on Quests Of Inventive Warrior Phinasor. “Phinasor’s Victory And The Renaissance” is like a mini-album of its own, clocking-in at nearly twenty minutes, or approximately right around two-thirds of a Weezer album by the measurement I outlined at the very beginning of this review. Will the people hear moments like around the six-thirty mark, where the drums start to surge with energy and the keyboards add all kinds of craziness & intensity to the atmosphere…and be able to stick with it? I have no doubt that if you’ve made it this far on the record, you’ll have no problem at all – if you’ve been on the fence & you’re still hanging on somehow, then of course nearly twenty-minutes more in a final tune is a lot to ask. Like ANY of the great acts in Progressive music – it takes WORK – work to play, work to listen to as well – and by the end of the experience, you SHOULD be downright exhausted. Because that’s what genuine ideas, substance, and innovation will do to ya…it’ll exercise your brainwaves and keep your synapses firing with the surprise of each new idea included into the mix. Like listen to the low-key way “Phinasor’s Victory And The Renaissance” shifts & shapes itself throughout the eleventh minute – after all the rambunctiousness of what I’d pointed out earlier, you pretty much don’t even see a subtle moment of any sort coming at ya on this tune – yet there will be many more revealed before this is all over too. Around the thirteenth-minute, they head into a near Blues/Jazz combo for a moment, before brightening everything up with some excellent synth-keys in the minute to follow, reigniting the energy of this song and making remarkable transitions as this cut concludes the record. Timing and pace continue to play a huge role…especially towards the final quarter of “Phinasor’s Victory And The Renaissance” for sure…they’ll full-on trip you out by how fluidly they play this together and slightly slow it all down or speed it all up – ALL at the strangest of times, but together as a unit. It really does make for an exceptionally memorable and extraordinary experience…whatever your opinion may be of what you’ve heard or whether or not it suits your own personal taste – you’ll still remember hearing Quests Of Inventive Warrior Phinasor and how different it likely was from everything else you know. Another massive highlight ending of a song – and as a result, a highly effective & stunning exit to the album – the last six or seven minutes of “Phinasor’s Victory And The Renaissance” are freakin’ epic and absolutely magnificent to listen to. Admittedly, it might arguably be some of the most tangible timing and more straight-ahead moments on a structural-level – MAYBE – but certainly entertaining, even if this final groove they lock onto might be a bit easier for them as the skilled musicians they’ve clearly proven themselves to be throughout this whole record. I suppose the short way of saying what I’m saying is, Eric’s gone and made Progressive music – *gulp* – quite accessible here at the very end, even for the masses out there. All-in-all, like I’ve been tellin’ ya – you really won’t hear many records out there as adventurous and ambitious as this one is…it definitely makes for an interesting experience to listen to…one that warrants several repeats to make sure you catch the full story, stellar ideas, and relentlessly innovative instrumentation in the music you’ll find on Quests Of Inventive Warrior Phinasor.
Make sure to find out more about the music of Eric McGrath by visiting the official pages below!
Eric’s Other Bandcamp page: https://ericmcgrath2.bandcamp.com