Eric McGrath – The Balance For Tranquility – Album Review
Felt like I was lost in a time-warp for a second when I was reading the write-up on the new album from Eric McGrath online, where it goes on to mention this being the first record he’s put out in five years. As reviewers, we can sure end up listening to a massive portion of music over a short period of time, but I swore it felt like it was only just yesterday that we listened to his last album called Quests Of Inventive Warrior Phinasor…wasn’t it? As I listened to The Balance For Tranquility, I kept wrestling with this until I finally looked it up at our pages – turns out I was fairly close to being right and we were just late to the party, having only reviewed Eric’s last record here at sleepingbagstudios in the summer of 2019. It felt good to get the facts squared away…thought I was losing my mind for a moment there…though it’s also fair to point out that, when an artist releases a record called Quests Of Inventive Warrior Phinasor, it tends to stick in your mind over time, no matter how long (or short) it’s actually been.
All that being said, it’s not just the title of the record – I easily recalled the Progressive style of Jazz that Eric creates when I was searching through the files of my mind – regardless of what anyone might feel about such an inventive & creative style of music, you remember it one way or the other. Being as avant-garde and unique as it is, there’s almost zero possibility of remembering any one song note-for-note, but as an experience overall, it’s likely something that no one out there could forget…ever. To be truthful…I don’t even know how Eric and his cohorts do it! Sure there’s freedom in Progressive Jazz and Jazz of all kinds for that matter…MAYBE a note here & there is made up quickly on the spot at times – but the vast majority of what he’s creating still shows it’s all incredibly well mapped-out & rehearsed; in my mind, there’s no question that McGrath must have a memory as mythical as the elephant does. To remember every twist & turn in the music he creates is more than admirable – it’s actually astonishing.
Hmmm? What was that? Did I just hear someone out there yell ‘facts first?’ You think this is opinion? I’m laying this out for ya in black & white, plain as day! On Quests Of Inventive Warrior Phinasor, Eric and his crew of talent surrounding him delivered a full album with only five songs – and here on The Balance For Tranquility, he’s scaled it back to just TWO tracks that total over forty-five minutes of listening. How do you like them apples? I’m tellin’ ya nothing but the straight truth and anyone out there that has ever recorded a long song of even a standard length of like, more than five minutes, knows that with every minute that ticks by, things can get…progressively harder & harder. Pun fully intended. The Balance For Tranquility has a Part I & II, with one being twelve-plus minutes long, and the other is a straight staggering more than THIRTY-TWO minutes long! The ambition of Eric, is undeniable.
And quite obviously, it’s not music for the faint of heart, or those without a tangible attention span.
What I will say right off the drop here, is that I feel like I can confidently say I like this record better than the last. In my opinion, you can hear tighter musicianship in the set of ideas at work here. Props to all involved – you’ve got Zachary Zyla (Bass, Electric Guitar), Joey Leclerc (Saxophone, Trumpet), Alex Rindone (Drums on “Tranquility I”), Eric Guinta (Drums on “Tranquility II”), and Eric McGrath handling the rest – which includes organ, electric piano, regular piano, synthesizers, string effects, clavinet, and the vocals. The Balance For Tranquility is no easy kind of record to pull off, and they should all take a moment or two (to catch their freakin’ breath!) and recognize this as the achievement it genuinely is.
Do I expect that everyone out there can hang with an album like this? Heck no! But I don’t think there are any delusions about that from either side of the screen either; I’m quite positive that Eric would fully understand that the kind of songs he’s making appeals to one of the most niche areas of music overall. You gotta battle hard enough to get Jazz out there to the people to begin with – and once you start asking that same group of people to then take-in songs that are in the double-digits time-wise, that presents a whole other uphill challenge in itself. But it’s not an impossibility, and perhaps therein lies the path to victory…seeing the sheer length of these tunes should provoke a curiosity amongst potential listeners out there…and assuming you dig Jazz or Progressive Jazz, you might just like or love what you’ll find on The Balance For Tranquility. I’d argue that for ideas and creativity alone, you damn well should.
What I think a lot of people will appreciate about the music of Eric McGrath, is that while of course anything termed Progressive will likely deal with the ‘music is math’ equation, the organic creativity is displayed through a much more natural style whereby it’s the freedom of expression & artistic nature that reigns most supreme. As in, sure he’ll switch up the timing-sequences & flow a TON – but you won’t feel the strain of trying to count along with it. But let’s face it, if you’ve found a way to dance along with The Balance For Tranquility somehow, you already came prepared to dance to all music to begin with. Again, it’s not an impossibility…you could dance to it I suppose…and man what I wouldn’t give to see those moves! They’d have to be as creative as the music itself…and I wish you good luck in that endeavor.
“Tranquility I” likely has a degree or two more of accessibility for the masses, particularly with it being the shorter of the two songs on the new McGrath record. That ain’t to say that more of a good thing can be a great thing – I think he proves that much to be true with “Tranquility II” to follow, and I also think that if you had no problem being there through the thick & thin of Part I, you’ll be there for Part II.
Aside from the return of Alex Rindone to lay down the drums on “Tranquility I” and Eric himself, the lineup has also completely changed. Again, I’m not here to take away any of the accomplishments that were achieved on his last ambitious record, but to my ears, what I can hear on The Balance For Tranquility suggests that McGrath has found a new selection of talent that is perhaps more dialed-in to his overall vision. “Tranquility I” also puts Eric on the lead-vocals, which is notably different than the last experience with his music was too. When your ideas are as far-out as his are…in my opinion, the more you can be the captain of your own ship is to the benefit of your music, completely. While there’s no doubt that the vocal parts are just as complex as the music itself in many ways, personally I felt like Eric’s own voice suited this material even more. It’s a bizarre type of writing…one that most listeners out there aren’t familiar with – Eric’s singing exactly what he wants to say, without compromise; and whether than means rhyming, or in most cases not, these words are deliberate and challenge the status quo. All easily digestible hooks be damned – this music aint’ about that, not the vocals, not the instrumentation…songs like these are about serious ideas that are designed to reflect a different facet of what music has to offer altogether. The challenge of course becomes…or at least for most people that is…when you have vocals involved, 99% of the people expect to find something they can sing along with somehow…and there’s next to no hope of that here, unless you’ve put in several spins and really absorb the complex imagery & words he chooses to use. On “Tranquility I,” McGrath’s contributions from the microphone are essentially used just like the instruments you’ll hear in the music surrounding him. For people that ‘get’ the uniqueness of a style like Progressive Jazz, that’s the way you wanna hear those vocals come out anyhow…it’s much more of a battle to get the ‘everyday’ listener on board without losing them…which again, I’d expect that Eric both understands and expects that himself too. But don’t get me wrong, don’t confuse my words here – he suits what he brings to “Tranquility I” and fits the style he’s going for…it can be odd stuff at times for sure, but for fans of the genre, it fits right in there snugly.
Instrumentation-wise, I’d suspect there will be a lot that stands out to listeners in both “Tranquility I” and its sequel. In my opinion, particularly when it comes to the piano & guitar, you’ll find immense satisfaction…really clever additions to be found there. Quite often you’ll find the piano leading the way and expanding the melody, backed up by the organ/synth sounds and the rhythm section groovin’ along with him. The words are wise & well thought-out, and combined with the innovative design of the vocal-melody & music combined, you really feel both the imagination & ingenuity together. Highlights like the keys around the 3:30 mark and the saxophone at 3:50 really stand out for all the right reasons; as do the big moments for the drums & piano between the 4th & 5th minute. Once the killer guitar tones show up, for me, that’s what tends to take the top spot in what I notice most…the sound is fantastic, and the more sparing use of them also makes it quite apparent when they show up in the mix. Or sounds like the synths around the 6th minute adding in their space-like contributions with the twinkling piano keys coming in alongside them to brighten the atmosphere. Moments like where the guitar solo brilliantly invades the song around the 7th minute and the song finds a break in its Progressive swirl for a quick breakdown & dose of audible clarity…that’s a big highlight too in terms of its effectiveness. For the vast majority of what you’ll hear on “Tranquility I,” you’ll find it all lines up strongly, no matter how far the ideas may reach; conversely, like much of Jazz or any form of Progressive music in any style, there will also be the occasional note or two that’ll have you scratching your head for timing or tone. “Compromise binds human nature,” as Eric will sing…he’s likely not singing about the end results, but that logic applies all the same…if he was completely robotic with his approach, the organic roots of these ideas would quickly rot…it’s the fact that you’re right there with him and his crew trying to figure out where the next move will take you to, on audible pins & needles hoping that he’ll pull off his ambitions. I think for the better part of “Tranquility I” and its length, he’s gotta be super happy with the end results.
He also sets up “Tranquility II” with a stunning final switch in the last forty-seconds or so of “Tranquility I” – a move that displays the foresight of what’s to follow in the beginnings of the second, instrumental-half of this record. I think the musicians out there will definitely dig a composition like this and the serious challenge it would present in getting it all to happen. Eric & his crew of talent surrounding him will immediately begin to roam through timing switches and a true variety of ideas and different parts throughout the malleable movements of “Tranquility II” – and in my opinion, they really go on to display the art of enthusiasm and passion combined. You can hear the inspiration in moments like around the 4th minute where the saxophone springs to life and the bass & drums have some of their liveliest parts to support it. From the aspect of the production/clarity (produced by Zyla/McGrath) – I think you also gotta hand them a checkmark in the win column; not only is there a mad selection of sounds and instruments in the mix, but everything comes out super clear – you can hear how each element of the music contributes to the overall results on “Tranquility II.” Spots like the breakdown around seven-minutes also reveal that creativity and innovation your ears are craving as well…when you consider the clarity in the production combined with the smart use of pace & space at moments like this, or again at the eight-minute mark, you can really appreciate the efforts being made both in front of & behind the studio boards made by all involved. The bass providing the Funk fusion throughout the eighth minute and into the ninth is sure to also get the people movin’ and groovin’ along with this song as well; it has the occasional bar or two that can seem a little full when all elements are combined, but for the most part, “Tranquility II” delivers a much smoother and coherent track than you’d ever assume at thirty-two-plus minutes in length. Like heading into the eleventh minute…that’s probably where I’d be looking at in terms of how things could potentially be a little less complicated, or maybe dial back some of the organ/synth to enhance the wild contributions made by the guitars around that spot…it can definitely become a highly involved song at any point Eric and his crew want to flex that gear. It’s in the moments towards the end of the first third of this tune that you realize there really are no rules other than to bring your passion along with ya…the sound roams every which way, yet retains our interest through the way the creativity they display connects and intersects with the freedom, magic, and wonder, of music.
LISTEN to the trumpets around the fifteen-minute mark will ya? Brilliant. Especially with the piano & bass parts alongside it – that all becomes a huge-highlight of “Tranquility II” towards the middle of its length. I will say that, while I’ve mentioned the clarity that exists in the production – by the same token, I could have told you without reading the credits who was ultimately the most responsible when it came to the mix & what we hear most prevalent. It’s another part of human nature to have those moments where we’re involved become the most audible…and I think you’ll notice that when it comes to how much we hear the bass, piano, and synths in comparison to just about everything else. That happens. As to whether or not that’s something they’ll want to examine in the future, or decisions they’ll stand by forever…time will tell…but from what I’m hearing with the ears on my own face, it’s noticeable that these parts of the music tend to be right up on the surface the majority of the time we’re listening. That being said, spots like where they head towards minute-twenty, end up standing out brilliantly on the strength of their contributions, furthering the song through relentlessly adventurous & unified ideas. As the guitars show up strongly once again post-twenty-minutes, they go on to provide another sonic highlight for ya, as well as the strangely-fun/funk found afterwards around the twenty-two minute mark. Jazz yes – but make no mistake, there sure is a whole lot more that comes along with it, hence the Prog label attached. Excellent drums around this spot as well, and the piano-keys that come in for a solo around the 22:40 mark was one of the real moments that stood out as a huge highlight on the record overall…it certainly doesn’t last too long, but that also helps you appreciate how strong that fraction of “Tranquility II” is. Moment by moment, Eric McGrath and his army of musicians string together a whole slew of parts, and never quit on the entire song throughout the full thirty-two-plus minutes – and that’s quite an accomplishment. I have no doubts that it’ll be a bit restless for a lot of people out there as well – like there’s no way on earth my wife could stick with this from beginning to end for example – but there are bound to be several moments like the piano played around the twenty-five minute mark that will have people paying attention. Piece by piece, minute by minute…if you can catch the people’s ears or get them to raise an eyebrow or two in the process of listening, you have a chance to keep them even longer…and hopefully longer the next time around. That’s how you win the audio-war…bit by bit.
Perhaps a layer or two stuffed-full heading into the twenty-eighth minute…”Tranquility II” gets pretty rambunctious & rowdy around that time, but quickly heads back into a more serene combination with the piano solo to follow, bringing in the saxophone once again for a clever combination of melodies. While it can often feel like they’re drifting off or doing their own thing for a moment or two towards the end of this song, you’ll notice that it all still lines up tightly and transitions with remarkable precision whenever there’s a dramatic shift in the sound. So maybe they’re locked into their own world of sound at times…ain’t nothing wrong with that at all when you can hear that they’re still right there with each other and ready to storm into the next part of the song with confidence, together. Really incredible work with the synths & keys towards entering the last minute of “Tranquility II” – and you can hear that, even as the song fades out, McGrath & his crew are swinging for the fence at all times, never letting up.
As to whether or not you’ll find much ‘tranquil’ anything beyond the title of the record & songs – that might be another question altogether…I’d argue that the shifting nature of each instrument, the sheer number of different parts, and the overall pace of the vast majority of the album are anything BUT ‘tranquil’ really. Mind you, if you’ve ever tried to sit through the drone of a thirty-minute-plus track that could be described as ‘tranquil,’ you’d probably be bored to near tears. Thankfully, you don’t even get a moment to consider being bored on The Balance For Tranquility – both parts give you something different, and combined they yield really positive results on what’s likely one of the more ambitious records you’ll hear in 2019. Very inspiring to hear a group of musicians go after something this massive with such gusto, enthusiasm, creativity, and passion on display at all times – well done…and well played.
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
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