Herman Martinez – Secret Doors Hidden Stairs: Season II – Album Review
Some artists and bands out there can really inspire you with the journey their music is on – creative genius and solo-artist Herman Martinez is one such person. Early on in 2016, I checked out a record he put out called Solopsi Radio and was more than satisfied with the results – Martinez certainly put himself on my radar with an album full of bold imagination and ideas that combined elements of grunge with experimental, innovative and ambitious ideas. When you hear an artist or band you know will continue to surprise you with their own creativity…in my opinion, it’s always super-apparent; essentially, I’ve been looking forward to whatever Martinez would come up with next because it’ll always be fresh.
He takes chances with his music and explores real depths in his songwriting to haul out some truly otherworldly sounds on Secret Doors Hidden Stairs: Season II – a fact that makes itself known right from the drop on the opening cut, “Season Premiere.” Like many artists/bands that have that inexplicable & experimental X-factor in their style & approach, some of the ideas hit the mark with immaculate precision, some of the ideas might head a bit too-far out to left-field – but undoubtedly, ALL of these tunes represent an incredible amount of hard work & effort being put in. And lest we forget, SOLO.
After a thorough listening to Martinez’s new record, I came to the conclusion that, really, while there might be a bizarre twist or turn along the way, there were also multiple reasons to appreciate each and every one of these cuts on Secret Doors Hidden Stairs: Season II. Herman is so obviously proficient, talented and highly-skilled in his music when it comes to composition, sound, structure…all the essentials of a great songwriter…it’s almost always strange to review a record from an artist that has a defined vision and knows what they’re looking to achieve on an album. Basically, I can point things out in review like I always do…but chances are, anything I could say here would be something he’d easily anticipate and likely already know. Any ‘weirdness’ would be purposeful and part of his style. You can hear from the music that Herman makes that he must have an intensely well-rounded grasp of many sounds & styles out there…and in taking chances with and challenging what we know those sounds to be typically, at multiple points throughout this record, I can only imagine that Herman likely knows exactly what the response and reaction to many of these songs will be. Let’s find out about that – here we go!
First off – there’s so much going RIGHT on the album opener “Season Premiere” that I gotta hand it to Martinez for creating one of the most enticing beginnings to a record I’ve heard all year. The haunting atmosphere of this song creeps and crawls ALL OVER YOU – the opening instrumentation of “Season Premiere” is as top-notch for ideas, execution & sound as it gets. Martinez has always made sure to shine a bright a light on the musicianship…I don’t blame him – LISTEN to the stunning and sparkling way those guitars contribute to this track! Those tones sound absolutely brilliant the entire way through – love the dusty, far-away mix they’ve got as well…you can hear the way the smart tweaks in production play a huge role in the sonic terrain that “Season Premiere” covers. The additional piano that comes into join the jam at just past the four-minute mark? THE ICING. Audibly, a perfect addition into an atmosphere that already had plenty working strongly in Herman’s favor. Vocally, I think he does a stellar job throughout the verses of “Season Premiere” and sounds great enveloped within the shroud of mystery that flows through this first tune; he’s got great tone and expression, excellent emotion to go along with it. That first major twist in key though…spots like around 2:20 and those like it later on in the track…the chorus, if you will (personally I think the instrumental sections have the real hook and could easily be considered the main pull in the song) is likely going to cost him here. In the pursuit of those meaty, rich & thick Alice In Chains-esque harmonies, Herman’s gone far beyond dissonance here into a jarring tone that will likely have you scratching your head in wonder. I basically beyond-love every choice he’s made surrounding those moments…and they ALL sound like they’ve achieved a perfect balance of haunting-meets-beautiful – as a result, it leaves you questioning if he tried to dirty this one up a bit too much…in terms of accessibility, the effect of the chorus narrows the playing field here.
Things smooth out as the dreamy-haze of “Emerther” opens-up into big & bold low-end from the bass laying the groundwork for the crisp beat to work with and immaculate guitar-work over top. Martinez is a multi-talent…let’s be clear, there’s zero doubt about that – but I’ll be damned if his intricate, involved and complex guitar work doesn’t come out sounding extremely interesting and stand-out just 10% more than anything else each and every time. It’s a real strength in his music, a real staple of his own signature sound…he’s continually inventive and always looking to create a unique experience from the last one you heard. Listen to how “Emerther” plays out though – you could argue those guitar parts are accents that complement the rhythm-section in this song, or you could completely argue that they’re the main parts of the melody you hear – and you’d be right in both scenarios. Herman’s given himself plenty of freedom to roam and explore throughout this tune by keeping the rhythm locked-down and allowing himself to add in guitar parts that add extreme value into this whole slow-burning experience. Vocally, I think he’s got this one perfectly locked-down all the way through; hooks-wise, it might be less-focused on making an impact in that sense…”Emerther” is the track you constantly look forward to on an album you love…it might not be the first one to grab you, but it’ll be one of the first to hold on to ya. The ending is extremely cool – I suppose you can start the timing on that from about the four-minute mark as “Emerther” takes you into the experimental & otherworldly breakdown before one final run-through of the chorus and a slick stripped down ending. Those ‘otherworldly’ sounds fit perfectly into this tune and into the entire concept itself – a quick dose of Google will reveal that “Emerther” refers to an alien race – interstellar travelers that potentially carried themselves all the way to earth, eventually rumored to be a species found on a ship that crashed at the Roswell site during the 1940’s.
I would go on to not just continue listening to Secret Doors Hidden Stairs: Season II, but also continued to keep Google open and on-hand. If you wanna get right into an album…sometimes you have no choice if you really want to do the experience justice; Martinez lives inside his own head and will quite often write well-above my own – to attempt to understand him is to have a dictionary of some sort very close at hand. “Paracosm” refers to that world he’s living in…a ‘detailed imaginary world’ – and by the sounds of this third tune, he’s not just surviving there, he’s thriving there. ‘Detailed’ by its very nature is an excellent way to describe the amazing guitar tones and riffs he’s putting into this track…the imagination and expression you hear within them fills in that other part of the definition quickly – “Paracosm” as a song is a perfect representation of the word itself. It’s a MEATY tune though…the third track in a row at the beginning of the record that is more than five & a half-minutes long; for those that like something extremely interesting to listen to but isn’t flashy with easy-to-digest hooks, aka songs that LAST…this is another solid jam you’ll look forward to on this record. Thematically as well, I think you can really start to hear the directions that Herman has wanted to take the ideas of this record, the concepts driving the album as a whole and his ambitions for Secret Doors Hidden Stairs: Season II becoming completely clear through the highly-descriptive imagery in the lyricism.
“Pareidolia” keeps the record flowing and the themes cohesive; for those out there like me that aren’t familiar with this word, it’s akin to the ability you have when you stare into the clouds and see something that registers as a recognizable shape in your mind. Seriously…take a timeout for a second – isn’t Herman a seriously rad guy? I think so. I’ve learned so much today while enjoying a seriously well thought-out record that satisfies through its multi-dimensional ideas. Martinez takes on “Pareidolia” as an instrumental…which was I think a great move on his part; I’ve been enjoying his vocals for the majority of the record up to this point, but it’s always a good move to mix it up and give us something new to listen to. As I’ve already mentioned, the man makes space for musicianship and instrumentation to shine throughout his material now, much as he’s done in the past…and that’s always a great thing to include when it comes to the rock genre. I freakin’ loved this track…the hypnotic elements of “Pareidolia” sink in incredibly deep, the textures of the music and brilliantly vivid and it just sounds great, plain & simple. Choosing to not overcomplicate this cut, Herman’s made a wise choice in composing this tune with added restraint while still managing to fully express the song’s meaning. You relax and drift right into this one…and if anything, the result of listening to “Pareidolia” is that you might actually end up experiencing pareidolia while you listen to it. That’s always cool with me – I’ve got all kinds of time for shapes and colors and things that are there in front of me but totally aren’t really – that’s right up my alley.
Between the lines, many things are being said here and ideas are being presented humbly, allowing you to fill in the spaces with your own experiences as you realize just how much you’ll relate to some of these tunes. What paints the real picture clearly is the way that the album itself flows – real credit to Herman for making this whole record become increasingly more enjoyable as it all takes shape. After you’ve just learned about seeing things with your mind in “Pareidolia” – Martinez takes you into another song that likely references sensory perception & reality through one of the record’s most incredible tunes, “Magic Squares.” Now…this could be my own personal bias – but I’m going to take a wild guess here and bet that the “Magic Squares” would likely be referencing the life-altering drug LSD…acid to some…squares to others. Lyrically, listening to Herman’s words here leaves me with little to no doubt that I’m on the money here with my assumption…or that at the very least he’s left that interpretation right out there for you to grab onto as a possibility through what he’s singing about. “Magic Squares” wasn’t just cool because it gave me that nostalgic craving for my own acid-heydey…it has some of the best words, best solos, best drums and best ideas inside of its progressive structure that you’ll find on the record overall. Herman does a really solid job of singing this one as well; the parts he’s written are actually quite challenging – just try to sing along with it and you’ll instantly recognize it’s no easy task. I mean, we’re talking chorus here yes…you could probably hang with him in the low-key way he performs the verse, but that chorus, he really takes this one to a fantastic place with an inspired performance that’s somewhere in the middle of like, early Soundgarden and old Genesis…really interesting tune, no doubt.
The shortest track on the record at just under three-minutes is “Apartment 10” – another extremely strong song on Secret Doors Hidden Stairs: Season II. Sometimes you just need to warm-up to a certain style or sound…by this point in the record, your ears are likely well-adjusted to Herman’s vocals – and I think the benefits of that added familiarity will pay off for him as people start to ‘get it.’ His performance on “Apartment 10” is probably right up there with my favorites on the record once again – he’s just got a straight-up interesting approach to songwriting that really isn’t like many out there. If you can think of the song “Boot Camp” by Soundgarden or anything from Alice In Chains’ first EP Sap in your mind…there’s like, a similar atmosphere that hangs in the air, surrounding this material in layers of mystique. “Apartment 10” is like a complete trip unto itself…Herman’s done an insanely amazing job of the lyrics here once again and really delivered on the balance of emotion, expression and wonder that would come along with what he’s written. I really can’t stress enough just how interesting the music he’s made this time around is…I know I’ve overused the word to describe it already, but the facts are the facts, interesting is exactly what this is. Each time I played this record, I slipped further and further into Herman’s world and right out of my own – and isn’t that what a great album does – take you somewhere? The middle of this entire album is damn near bulletproof…Martinez is killin’ it!
“Secret Identity” made for a cool title. When you consider the fact that this might actually be one of Martinez’s most relatable tracks as he reflects on life, love, experiences and relationships…it’s almost as if by opening-up and letting us in on something perhaps a bit more personal, he’s saying that “Secret Identity” is actually the fact that he is in fact, human after all. That’s what I got out of this particular cut anyhow…it was like he dropped the veil for a moment here, stopped writing about alien spacecrafts and describing things in words we’ve never heard of to just be real with us in as straight-ahead method as he can. There’s lots to love about this track and the dreamy way it floats along – like, DIG those bass-lines here! Exceptional bass stands out all throughout “Secret Identity” and I’d even argue that the man in charge heads into some of that serene vocal-harmony-laden rock in the fog that bands like Foo Fighters end up immersed in through the smooth chorus that this track has. The additional piano plays a huge role here…if anything, Herman’s kept his role on guitar to a much more minimal one here – but the results again are highly effective in subtly transitioning the sound of the album into something new for us to hear. “Secret Identity” might not bubble and burst with enthusiasm or energy so much as it does chill and groove in its own charming & charismatic way…once again though, Martinez has put together an extremely strong song that’s bound to hold up over time and be sought out on repeat listens.
You can hear the spirit of Cornell wander through “The Gardener” – and you’ll certainly hear more of the incredible musicianship that tends to make these songs as captivating as they’ve been. Some of the most brilliant guitar tones and solos exist on this tune, without question. “The Gardener” is almost hauntingly too-easy to get right into – I think it’s one of the most inviting beginnings to a track on this album for sure and I think it just gets more interesting from there. There’s that word again. He sings this cut really well, transitions quickly and flawlessly with multiple highlights in the guitars and drums along the adventure. It’s probably one of the most accessible tracks on the record and I’d say a real highlight for the vocals of Martinez here, arguably songwriting as well. The intricate nature of his guitar parts is amazingly subtle…it DESERVES a spotlight on it at all times, but I think Martinez has made a great choice in dialing-back its dominance here and sinking it more into the mix for “The Gardener” – everything seems to really standout as a result of that. Of course, that being said, the switch around the 3:30 mark is KILLER…the guitars come flaring-up along with a severe rise in the atmosphere – “The Gardener” becomes seriously epic at its most full and full of melody at its most sparse moments. You see what I’m saying people? This guy thinks of it all and continues to add just the right amount of damn near everything at all times…no stone has been left unturned here in his search to create music with high-levels of imagination and innovation…songs not meant to burn out & fade away, but truly last.
I mean…DIG “John Travoltrons Theme” for the title alone! Just so happens, the song really kicks ass too. It’s a short interlude of sorts, but freakin gnarly like the instrumentals you’d find on The Fragile by Nine Inch Nails. Around the ninety-second mark, when those BEASTLY guitars come roaring in and the solos get unleashed into their wildest, most untamed moments on all of Secret Doors Hidden Stairs: Season II – shit, what else can be said – this is pure MAGIC. I’ve enjoyed myself immensely along the way as I’m sure you’ve picked up on by now – but perhaps never more-so than when “John Travoltrons Theme” comes on. At its most intense, this song just POUNDS and completely gets the adrenaline going; and in every other moment along the way, the guitar tones hang in the air with a mix of mischief and melody…the musical-insinuation of mayhem about to erupt…and when it does, you FEEL IT. The rumble of the bass and the searing & seething, crunchy guitar chords ringing out…GOOD LORD ALMIGHTY – the studio walls could come crumbling down around me at any moment from playing this one as loud as I do, but as long as the song keeps on going, it can collapse around me and I’ll be sitting right here in the midst of the smoke & chaos with a huge smile on my face. “John Travoltrons Theme” kicks ALL the ass.
In what’s probably the record’s biggest mix of theatrical and dramatics – “Season Finale” ends the album on pretty positive notes. Brightening-up the sound a bit here at the end, or at least comparatively to the boot-stomping grooves of “John Travoltrons Theme” – “Season Finale” is ambitious final track at over seven & a half-minutes long. There are varying degrees of success here…a few questionable vocal-tones in a sea of others that are completely nailed…some incredible instrumental parts and other spots that might meander a bit too far away to keep this last idea on the rails entirely. Thematically, if you listen to the words and have been throughout the record, you’ll likely agree that “Season Finale” concludes the album’s worth of ideas decisively…it all kind of comes full-circle within this album’s ending and I’ve always felt like people really appreciate this kind of defined conclusion. It’s satisfying, ain’t it? I think so…it’s like you got to the end of a book you’ve been reading or movie that you’ve been intensely watching…it works that same way – “Season Finale” sounds and audibly FEELS like the end of the record.
Secret Doors Hidden Stairs: Season II isn’t music for those out there looking for something easy to listen to – it’s thought-provoking art masked in a dusty grunge form that’s bound to snag the attention of those that like their tunes to reveal themselves like hidden treasure upon repeated listens. You’ll get more and more out of Secret Doors Hidden Stairs: Season II the more you listen to it…and from performance to production, ideas to execution, Herman Martinez has delivered something exceptional to experience that’ll sharpen the images in your mind with Dolby Sound and Technicolor visuals.
Find music from Herman Martinez at his official page at Bandcamp here: https://hermanmartinez.bandcamp.com/
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