Eyeing The Sky – Spectral Galaxies – Album Review
Not that I’d expect anything typical from Eric McGrath and the crew of musical talents that are jammin’ with him…but for sure, you’ll notice that even in a realm of avant-garde, his tunes can turn out quickly to be some of the avant-gardiest you’ll likely ever hear. For most listeners out there, you’re going to notice all kinds of strange choices right from the get-go with “On A Whim” almost possessing an 8-bit like sound as it begins…which might be exactly what you’re looking for; if for some reason it ain’t, do not panic…stick with it…there are just about a million parts per song in these tunes for you to enjoy still coming up, and the guitar is the first one of’em up to come in & light-up the room on this first cut shortly afterwards. I’ll say this…I was a bit worried in that first twenty-seconds…for a gateway into a record, Eyeing The Sky has almost put a barbed-wire fence around this garden of sound in the very front – and of course, there’s massive risk in that. The main synth sound at the core…the most repetitive element…I’d probably toss if I’m being 100% honest…or at least give it less of a featured role in this song with a fade-in & out or something…I’m not completely sure what I’d do with that really. At the very beginning of this tune it works and draws you in with its strange fit, but by the time you’re about three minutes in, it’s hard to say that it doesn’t take away a little from the rest surrounding it. It’s the kind of sound whereby once you really hear it and you’ve focused on it, it’ll haunt each subsequent listen and threaten to be the only thing you hear…and really, there’s a whole lot more going on around it that is well worth your time. Great bass lines, incredible guitar tones, and lots happening on the keys/synths that will flash moments of the strange & shimmering ingenuity that’ll take place over the course of this whole record. I wouldn’t go as far as to say “On A Whim” is a full representation of what you’re in-store for…scattered pieces here & there perhaps…but likely it’s the cut to follow that sets the standard here.
Digging the drums from Ken Pepe right away on “In Shadows,” and I like the twinkle of the piano keys overtop as we head into the first minute…you’ll find they range from sounding fully in control to a much more artistically inclined pounding of furious keys that play a role much more for their expression than any one individual note. Like much of the music we’ve heard from McGrath in the past, what you’ll hear in Eyeing The Sky is certainly busy stuff for the most part, but when you hear things really smooth out like they do around the 3:30 mark on “In Shadows,” that busyness also allows the more subtle moments to stand out as well when it all subsides for a second or two. Whether or not Eyeing The Sky is doing that for themselves to get some oxygen or for us as listeners to collect our thoughts as we listen to this ever-wandering journey of Jazz-inspired sound, honestly who knows…but it’s an important moment of reprieve that allows us all to collectively absorb what the heck is going on and piece it all together. To go a tiny bit further with that point, the ending of “In Shadows” and the beginning of “Rapallo Ostinato” afterwards benefit greatly from a more spread out sound, allowing the core melody to speak for itself. For at least its beginning stages, “In Shadows” comes out fairly tamed and controlled to start, smooth and enticing in sound, yet still every bit as unique as we know the music in McGrath’s projects to be. As to whether or not people will dig the full scope & scale of what’s happening on the piano keys, or attach themselves to a favorite part or two…that’s harder to say. Again, for me, it’s all about the expression itself and listening to the way things are being played, not always so much what – you following me? “In Shadows” is more tangible for listeners out there by comparison to “On A Whim” in some respects, but it still presents tons of challenges along the six-minutes in length with how far outside of the lines Eyeing The Sky is willing to color their music. Around the fourth minute I felt like they really hit their stride and got this mother hummin’ in a whole bunch of fantastic ways – and the creativity you’ll find in the synth sounds on the way into the fifth minute had some really rad ideas too. Are they typical ones? No, of course not – but the textures are highly interesting to the ears, and the low-key exit & deconstructed breakdown to the finish was my favorite ending to any of the cuts I found on Spectral Galaxies.
Eyeing The Sky keeps it loose, but tight as well…make no mistake, you might not expect or agree with every choice in the music being made, but these guys all move with a purpose and commit to their instrumentation…and that makes a huge difference. When things go right, they strut confidently into incredible moments that are practically beyond duplication, comparison, or imitation of any kind – listen to what’s happening on “Rapallo Ostinato” inside that first three minutes will ya? Genius low-end grooves, fantastically imaginative layers on top, and uniqueness that you just won’t find in other genres. Don’t get me wrong, the second half is equally cool…again, incredible drums from Ken, but also huge props to Eric for really lighting up the synth sounds and fuelling this cut with all kinds of memorable moments along the way. Guitars…man…when they step into the mix towards the end of “Rapallo Ostinato,” I mean…what else can be said? Huge charisma in the way Ken Pepe plays and extraordinary skill in abundance…dude knows his way around the frets and he certainly makes that clear with the way he roams over’em all with ease and lays down these killer solos that contain everything you wanna hear. Like many of the tunes on Spectral Galaxies, “Rapallo Ostinato” plays like multiple ideas and styles fused into one…sometimes that has proven difficult like on “In Shadows” or “On A Whim” – but within the confines of this third tune, everything comes together brilliantly. Like, listen to how you head into the third minute of this cut will ya? I mean, we’re talking about next-level strange in so many ways…but the audiophile in me is absolutely loving how addictive the sound is here. While it might sound like it’s multiple parts or songs meshed together in some ways sure, I also couldn’t tell ya which part was my favorite over any of the others…and each time I spun through Spectral Galaxies, I kept coming back to the thought of ‘this is what it sounds like when that weirdness becomes an advantage and it all goes RIGHT.’ It still likely follows the whole rule of some will get it & others won’t, but whatever, I do. I think the piano & synths were excellent, the drums were spectacular, and the guitars were absolutely savage.
I don’t know if the record was purposefully laid out with progressively longer songs or if that was just a happy accident, but it definitely works well. “On A Whim” felt chockfull to begin with, and it’s nearly a quarter size of the song that’ll finish Spectral Galaxies at the end called “Phantom Planet,” which weighs in at a healthy twelve minutes-plus. “Polaris” however, shows where that extra space starts to play to the advantage of Eyeing The Sky; admittedly, they’re not going as full-out with the intensity as they did in the speed or sound selection coming at ya at the beginning of this album, they gently ease into this one and allow this set of ideas to bloom on their own time. And of course I mean that both figuratively & literally…this is Jazz music after all folks…Eyeing The Sky takes full license with speeding things up and slowing them down…sometimes it all sounds like it’s meant to be, at others you get a sense of competing leads at times, or separate ideas jammin’ together…expecting the unexpected is probably the best course of action when listening to Spectral Galaxies. Songs like “Polaris” are always interesting to me in the sense that, if you’re listening to the rhythm section and the main melody at its core, it’s just about one of the smoothest & easiest cuts you’ll probably ever hear…but is that the end results of what you hear? Hell no! And therein lies the whole…I suppose approach to music from Eric McGrath and the musicians he plays with…it’s like a motto or a mantra of ‘why make things easy when you could make them harder?’ Sure they could have played this track 100% safely and delivered an easy-to-digest piece of Jazz music that no one out there would complain about…they audibly prove at the roots of a song like “Polaris” that it would be incredibly simple for them to pull that off with the skillset they have in this band – but where would the creative rewards be in that equation? They wouldn’t exist. And so pass or fail, for better or for worse, to be or not to be, Eyeing The Sky throws themselves into every moment with full conviction in search of something more…something new…something that we’ve never heard. Pun intended, “Polaris” stands to be one of the most polarizing tunes on this record if not THE most; at its core you can’t help but connect to the melodic keys, jazzy drums & bass-lines that run throughout this song…as for the rest of the elements on the surface that come & go along the way…some work better than others, some add, and some distract a bit. For myself personally, “Polaris” came out best at its most subtle & charming moments…you really get to hear ‘how’ things are being played, in addition to the great ideas being executed – and Eyeing The Sky deserves a lot of credit for the passion they put in. Plus, between the 4:00-4:30 mark, you’ll hear another extremely wild solo from Ken that you don’t wanna miss out on; “Polaris” might come out as more of an uneven ride from start to finish, but there’s still plenty of moments in this adventurous composition that’ll make it worth the trip you’ll be takin.’
Riding in on the guitars from Pepe, you glide into the beginning of “Nebula” over the course of its first minute with the warm glow of the atmosphere & drums to keep you company. With a sweet piano break for a second, the transition occurs instantly, and we’re back off flying into Jazz-land once again. “Nebula” has a whole host of curious movements and bouncy, otherworldly sounds goin’ on as you venture along with this audible journey created by Eyeing The Sky; as inventive as ever, they roam through the galaxy of ideas with their ever persistent commitment to the art. Does it get bizarre? Of course it does! This isn’t a crew that’s afraid to get weird with it if called upon, you feel me? That being said, there’s a lot of tangible moments as well in there for the average set of ears to hang onto and not feel like they’re incredibly lost just trying to keep up to everything going on & all the twists & turns that every instrument tends to take on the inside of any given song, “Nebula” included of course. Eyeing The Sky goes a bit more decisively towards the space-like sounds on this tune, enhancing the vibes & mood you’d wanna hear on an album called Spectral Galaxies…I’m probably always going to advocate for the moments with a bit more space to get to the heart of the melody as a listener, but I can certainly also vouch for the wild fun & creativity you’ll hear in what they choose to perform in the more intense parts as well. Pepe continues to impress right from the very beginning of “Nebula,” confirming once again what we’ve definitely assumed all along in listening to this record – that dude is a serious virtuoso. I’d be willing to bet he’s got the skills to hang with some of the kingpins out there like Vai & Satriani & such. Overall though, “Nebula” certainly continues this record’s path of challenging the listeners out there with its rubbery, metamorphic composition…but there’s inherent value in also creating the kind of Jazz that people have to pay attention to, as opposed to the many out there that hear it as background music. You couldn’t put “Nebula” or Eyeing The Sky on without everyone in the room taking notice at some point along the way – and likely several; it’s the kind of music whereby moment to moment, you’ll hear that inspiration renewed with the switch of a lead or new addition to the song…lots goin’ on here. They have some very Tortoise-like moments in this tune…that’s always a big plus for me in comparison.
If you want my honest opinion…I think a lot of what it comes down to…whether or not you will or you won’t identify with what McGrath makes in the music he’s a part of, is whether or not you really have that audiophile’s bone in ya. The facts are the facts…he’s not always going to choose the smoothest of sounds – a lot of the time, they even seem to jar with a lot of the serenity surrounding him, or have even potentially grating tones like at the beginning of “Spectral Galaxy” that could be called into question by listeners out there…and I get it. Having listened to his solo work and now here in Eyeing The Sky, I get it, I get it – McGrath makes songs that are completely challenging to the mind & what a lot of us generally think we know about music. You kinda gotta really be addicted to sound itself to keep up with this guy. I’d never expect everyone out there to get what he does…but the same can honestly be said of any band or project out there ultimately…and perhaps even more-so still, Jazz-anything. This is Progressive Jazz without limitations – and any musician out there playing in a style like that would likely tell ya they’re doing it for themselves to begin with…if you happen to dig it, then right on, but it’s definitely not expected to be the standard reaction. Like when I listen to the extraordinary way they groove into the seventh minute…and consider where I came from with the near-chaos that had occurred only a minute prior on “Spectral Galaxy” – I can fully understand how this amount of sound would probably be over the limit for more than a few listeners out there. My main issue with “Spectral Galaxy” would be similar to the ones I had with the first two tracks on this record as well, which is that the repetition of a few lead parts in the synth section can be a bit hard to handle. Sometimes it’s a great thing…you find a sound everyone somehow loves and of course it’s game on; but when you find a more polarizing one and ride that out for a while, that can also potentially be enough to sour the rest around it. Fine line to walk for sure, and I’d suspect there’s a couple of tunes that flirt with that line or decide to disregard it altogether in that avant-garde & in-the-moment spirit, and hey, at the end of the day I may be a music critic, but who am I to judge? If Eyeing The Sky is into it – and they clearly sound like they are – then other adventurous souls listening out there that love the genre, sound, & style, surely will be too. This title cut’s got some really rad woodwind synths goin’ on and a whole lot of experimental tendencies; none of this song is normal by any sense of the definition…in my opinion, there’s always value in that.
A fairly gentle, atmospheric calm takes us into the opening of the album’s final song, “Phantom Planet” – but if you’ve been following along with the bouncing ball then you know there’s little to no chance what we hear at the beginning will be anything like what we hear by the end of this twelve-minute tune. Awesome bring-back around the 2:30 mark after a short breakdown…you can hear everyone hustlin’ & shufflin’ along in a seriously unified front. Shortly afterwards, you get the piano solo…which kinda has a bizarre cut-off at the end of it, but I dig the rest of what I was hearing beforehand. It did get me thinking a lot about the perception of Jazz and how people tend to hear it…I know what I hear as the wild abandon of passion in that third minute would sound potentially like it’s all over the place to someone else; and heck, maybe both of those things can still be true at the same time. My point is simply that, Jazz really has that subjective element stacked against it more than most…you could ask just about anyone out there if they have an opinion on Jazz music one way or the other, and most always will. Those that love it, will love a ton of what they hear in Eyeing The Sky because this band pushes those boundaries we know about as hard as you can imagine…and that’s the only way you can ever hope to break new ground in Jazz, or any other kind of music for that matter. No one’s going to recreate the wheel of Rock’n’Roll at this point, know what I mean? But fusion efforts like this by Eyeing The Sky, and mashing together different styles & sounds still yields the potential for all kinds of untapped creativity. The people that hate Jazz to begin with…well of course they’re going to struggle…obviously LIFE is a struggle for those folks in general, just sayin.’
I’m always fully willing to admit when I’m outmatched in a musical sense…I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that McGrath and his crew of talent assisting him are much more educated in the art and it’s technicalities than I’ll ever be myself…all I can do is speak on behalf of how people listen to music, what we hear, and what we feel about it. For you music-heads out there, I can’t imagine you not loving these extraordinarily unique compositions roaming throughout the lineup of Spectral Galaxies…for the rest of ya, this would probably be a bit of an uphill battle to get through from beginning to end. And like I said, I get that…to a large degree, I really do get it…and it’s in listening to songs like “Phantom Planet” where I really understand that the most. For a twelve minute-plus long song, I was actually quite surprised by how much of this tune was filled with ideas and sound that I felt like listeners could really latch onto – and to feel that way about the vast majority of any twelve-minute long song is a serious rarity of its own kind, but that’s really the case when it comes to “Phantom Planet.” It made me realize that even I need a bit more of a defined structure at times, or that I was at least ready to welcome that back happily when it seemed to show up in the more expanded ideas that run throughout this album’s final cut. I’m more than okay with that…I ended up feeling like “Phantom Planet” was the song that gave “Rapallo Ostinato” the biggest run for its money in terms of my overall affection for favorite tune on this record.
Technically, Spectral Galaxies by Eyeing The Sky came out back in 2016…we headed back in time to take this trip in today’s review. Word on the street is that McGrath is cookin’ up all kinds of brand-new cuts in the lab for release this year…so keep your bags packed and your seat warm…there might be another voyage into the musical beyond with Eric in one of his many projects on the go, right around the corner.
Find Eyeing The Sky and more music by Eric McGrath at his official page at Bandcamp here: https://ericmcgrath1974.bandcamp.com
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