There will never be another album like the debut by O.S.I., as its songs were formed out of an unknowing situation that, like a quark, if attempted to be recreated would collapse under its own self-knowledge. This 2002 album came about when guitarist Jim Matheos (Fate's Warning) and drummer Mike Portnoy (Dream Theatre) came up with a fairly standard 17-minute progressive song. Then Kevin Moore (Dream Theatre, Chroma Key) came in, weary of the whole "progressive epic" thing, and chopped the song into 10 standard length songs. Well, more than "chopped." He rearranged, overdubbed, pureed and added his luscious organic synth tones, laconic vocals and enough creative production touches to fill 15 albums. The result was a textured, layered collection of emotion-packed songs that schizophrenically jumped between light and dark, heavy and soft with astounding alacrity, making it the most original album of 2002.
With Free this "supergroup" heads back into the studio under a slightly different format. This time Matheos and Moore composed the songs with Portnoy being brought in later in the process. If there is a weakness in these songs it is that Portnoy was not utilized further. Like most people I used to view drums as a utilitarian timekeeper, more beat than music. On the first O.S.I. album Portnoy showed me just how musical and inventive drums can be, and I'm forever grateful. That said, everything else is just as top-notch as the first time out: dead-tight songwriting skills, astounding musicianship that rarely calls attention to itself, eerie melodies sitting alongside gut crunching rhythms, an immense palate of tone colors and imaginative production that elevates the studio to an equal instrument.
Space prevents me from gushing about each of the 11 songs as much as they deserve. "Bigger Wave" is currently playing on my headphones, and the defeated verse ("But now I‚m worried there's a bigger wave just behind this one") just kicked into a frothy 5/4 explosion of gritty guitars. The opening track, "Sure You Will," could be a Rob Zombie song, if he still wrote eerie melodies packed with beefy angsty rhythms. "All Gone Now" starts with a hypnotic finger-picked acoustic guitar backed by subdued techno drums and most unusual studio-stuttered vocals that peak in a musical passage highlighting a synth sound so textured you can feel it, like a 50s movie reel burned by acid. Portnoy gets his chance to shine on the cinematic post-apocalyptic "All Gone Now," superbly playing under a chilling tone in odd meter. The band somehow evokes music out of buzzing noise in "Better" as lyrics like "Things got better when you left / Your friends always say that" lead into a striking section of scalding bass, drums and vocals. Fuzzy static, a sonar "pling," fuzzed out bass, more killer drums (no fuzz) and an Adrien Belewish guitar part make "Simple Life" a study in the daily grind ("I can sleep, sleep, sleep / Or maybe I'll just sit in the car"), while "Once" is almost cheerful despite morose lyrics of "Once / You looked so happy together." The album ends with "Our Town," featuring a Gilmour-esque lead guitar, classic rock organ, acoustic guitar and banjo. Expect the unexpected.
Like many of my favorite albums Free grabbed me right from the start and then backed off, slowly reaffirming and rebuilding our relationship to new heights. Yeah, I know I need to get a life – but with music this good it's difficult to get out of the house. How often does one get to hear intelligent yet heavy rock music so original that outside influences are difficult to detect? There may never be an album like their first, but Free comes wonderfully close.
Originally published 2006 in WhatzUp.