The music of San Francisco Bay Area progressive rock band Fractal has been described as "music to tap your brain to", and as painful as that sounds, the reality is their music is a lot more pleasurable than that.
Don't get me wrong--I understand perfectly what the description is designed to convey, and I think it's fitting. Progressive rock has always been looked on (by those who don't just dismiss it as pretentious) as a sort of "thinking man's rock and roll", incorporating complex musical arrangements with often poetic and wordy lyrics. Brain-tapping fodder indeed. But the fact is the older I get, the less I give a damn about mind shattering profundities when it comes to song lyrics. I've come to understand that more often than not, the marriage of words and music is something that should be viewed in a new-world context; that is to say, no union should be forced. At its best, music and voice ought to come together seamlessly and without effort. Few artists accomplish this, and fewer yet have the capacity to strike a chord with their audience in the manner that Fractal has with their second studio album Sequitur.
A powerful successor to 2003's all-instrumental Continuum, Fractal's latest effort ups the ante both stylistically and substantively. What their debut album may have been lacking in vocals has more than adequately been made up for by the addition of Josh Friedman, a singer/guitarist whose vocal timbre is a bit reminiscent of Ed (Live) Kowalczyk, but whose delivery is much more subdued, and ultimately more mature. In no other song is this more evident than "Giving Tree", an ethereal ballad in which Friedman delivers a vocal performance that balances itself skillfully between the wicked worlds of cautious restraint and overwhelming emotion. Far too often it's the audience's burden to bear witness to an inexperienced vocalist biffing it on the issue of whether or not to let it all go and risk coming off like an adolescent drama queen, or hold back and come off stoic and unfeeling. Fortunately this isn't the case here; Friedman weaves his way expertly through a lush and atmospheric soundscape, firmly anchored by the exquisite bass and drum playing of James Mallonee and Paul Strong, respectively. Lead guitarist Nic Roozeboom is no slouch either, offering a guitar solo on a par with the early works of Robert Fripp, before Fripp forsook what he does best and opted instead for what he does today. And for those in the audience who long for those days of old, this is nothing less than a gift.
In fact it could be said that the whole of Sequitur is just that--a gift to progressive rock fans, the culmination of a wish list for the disillusioned ear. All too often the bands we love, for whatever purpose or excuse, simply stop giving us the very things that make us love them. It's an artistic tug of war between artist and appreciator, between those who want to spread their wings and those who want them to stay exactly as they are, and it's a struggle that's been known to kill more than a few great acts along the way. It makes you wonder if maybe the guys in Fractal are not only musically gifted, but perhaps also graced with a bit of marketing savvy, one that might be summed up in a few clever words: if your favorite prog band's quit doing what you love, give Fractal a try.
It's for this very reason that a band like Fractal, operating on their own and without a label to do all the hard work for them, continues to pick up the type of PR and favorable reviews a lot of signed acts would salivate over. The bottom line is, these guys have it where it counts. If they're not offering up challenging instrumental passages framed in odd time signatures on a track like the album opener "Ellipsis" (which sounds an awful lot like something King Crimson might have composed back in the Discipline era), they're tearing it up Frank Zappa-style on "The Monkey's Paw". The definitive statement of this band's instrumental prowess, however, arrives on the 13-minute epic "Churn", a track with enough musical movements to make Gabriel-era Genesis flush with envy.
This isn't meant to say that Fractal is a band that doesn't stray from the prog playbook. Even in the midst of this, the highest-profile point of their career, at a crucial juncture where one mislaid step could spell disaster, these guys don't wilt under the pressure. Instead, they step forward bravely. And never is a band (progressive or otherwise) more brave than when they un-self-consciously abandon all expectation and take a swing at an entirely different genre of music. Such is the case with the album's final track "Bellerophon", an unbelievably groovy instrumental that would almost sound more at home in a dance club than on the tracklist of a prog album. It's so effective that it made me wonder what else this talented band has up their collective sleeves, and provides the perfect cliffhanger that only a follow-up album will satisfy. No matter how long it may take to arrive, consider me sold.