Review Summary: An incomparable masterpiece, Eyes of the Oracle is unlike anything you have yet to hear. For prog fans, this is the absolute dream band - and non-prog fans will find plenty of broken ground to drool over.
The word "cult" is overused in today’s metal scene, such that the word will not likely be defined the same way by any two metal fans. San Antonio-based progressive tech-metal outfit Power of Omens meets the key criteria: taking their genre to its limits without regard for conventions, a rather difficult time discovering them (this CD is rare enough to pay over $100 for it), and a commitment to deliver a one-of-a-kind experience for the fan. 1998 saw the release of the first Power of Omens album, Eyes of the Oracle
, which remains a cult classic to this day in all respects.
The reason why Power of Omens is accurately classified as "progressive technical metal" is because their soundscapes can be insanely complex. The technical aspect was more fully explored on follow-up Rooms of Anguish
; at present, the compositions are far more reserved and focus far more on building a distinct whole, rather than defining individual parts for each instrument and/or the vocals. Think of the difference as that between set and through-composed opera, or Verdi and Wagner. Hence currently, the terms "progressive" and "technical" are not definite and were reinvented by Power of Omens across their (unfortunately) brief career.
David Gallegos defines the album's musical direction as "experimental ... we just followed our hearts and said what ever we wanted to say musically without any sort of restrictions." Aside from the vocals (to be covered), scarcely anything reminds a listener of any band in existence even today. According to David, surprisingly enough, Yanni
's classical/orchestral style had a strong impact on Power of Omens, but only in vision, as fresh ideas are scattered throughout any
Keyboardist changes that unfortunately afflicted the band throughout its history also added to their melting pot of sounds, which is extensive, exciting and always impresses: from flamenco guitar solos, choral background effects, Alex Arellano's cavalcade of tiny cymbals, frequent use of foreboding spoken word, classical percussion and woodwind instruments, lush and often ethereal keyboard work, and the underutilized bells, chimes and antique key sounds, nothing is to spare from Power of Omens' originality and commitment to standing out. The work of original keyboardist Sean Sonnet, as alluded to above, is a particular standout in this mélange, contributing the antique keys and much of the classical armory to the songs in their original development. Check out, in particular, the keyboard solo starting at 8:04 of Word on a Line.
Even the song structures often ignore typical conventions; the true experts can do without such conventions, depending instead on subtle changes of atmosphere and building from point to point. Epic keyboard atmospheres and melodically complex guitar, bass and drum work add layer upon layer to these songs, keeping them cohesive and matching their themes. The production style is also important to this goal: there is a general lack of bottom-end clarity that pays itself back by allowing for greater fluidity, as each instrument can be clearly distinguished from the other, including the vocals. The mix is also quite dry, letting everything sound alluringly antique, especially Matt Williamson's often high-tuned bass playing; this often shows up as quick bass solos, as during the pre-chorus of Alone I Stand.
The only drawback I could think of with the mix is that the guitar tone could probably have used a BIT
more definition without spoiling the effect - but this isn't intended to be guitar music.
Three small pieces are placed in between Eyes of the Oracle
's six main tracks, two of them solemn with spoken vocals which speak of difficult trials and prophecies. Vocalist Chris Salinas makes a strong impression even on these short interludes. He is a star, who knows he sounds quite like Geoff Tate - though slightly more aggressive and emotive - but doesn't care because such vocals fit the epic, wandering nature of Power of Omens' compositional style. Although he has Tate's range, he uses lower vocal ranges more extensively to darken the tone of the music and his equally dark lyrical work. All lyrics were written by Salinas, drawn from personal experiences and trials in his own life, sometimes related to faith - but the Christian tag applied on the metal-archives is inaccurate, even though it is thinly evident now and more lucid on Rooms of Anguish.
A series of lyrical imagery that is deeply metaphorical, beautiful, though often quite glum, is done justice by the highly flexible, emotive performance of Salinas and vividly painted by the complex instrumental work.
The ebb and flow of dynamics in The Fall
is almost thematic: forlorn, beautiful clean and acoustic guitar work contrasts with an equally beautiful, soaring vocal performance over the 12-minute duration, building things up only to make them fall. Alex starts playing midway through the tense intro (without even touching his snare!) as everything else continues on its course, but then stops as Chris Salinas quiets down his vocals: "But where's the sea...to catch me when I fall?"
Five minutes in, the soundscape empties out and Chris is again accompanied only by the guitar, this time plucked classical strings, again utilizing the metaphor of falling to great effect: "I can feel the drops that fall from high above..."
It is in these mellow, quiet, treasured moments that this band's true talent of building an atmosphere can be heard and felt.
The four-minute instrumental opening to Time
moves from softly tolling bells and mysterious acoustics, representing Time, the Fourth Dimension, and quickly moves into incredible snare rolls to literally march the clock forwards. What really catches a listener's interest is that Alex adds extra beats and ghost notes in the MIDDLE
of his rolls, almost simulating clockwork in itself while still maintaining the lead in this section. Meanwhile, David adds endless rhythmic variations to a simple chug, gradually gaining in complexity until the song moves into a mystical keyboard motif. The track’s lyrical theme is connected between several tracks: changing times as the world's youth deteriorates, which has long been held as a sign of the End Times. The transition out of this track is sudden and is rather upsetting: it brings back the acoustic theme from the beginning of the piece, winding it down to nothingness over the last 80 seconds, while Salinas softly emotes the final words of the song: "Pray for me son, I've run out of time..."
Thematic might be even better suited to the 20-minute epic Test of Wills
, appropriately divided into four movements, very ominously titled Awaiting Judgment
, A Struggle Within
, The Distant Light
and As the Candle Burns...
Within one minute of the brooding intro including all the bells, whistles and intricate cymbal work one could expect from this band by this point in the record, Chris Salinas lets loose a far more intense performance (even double-tracked at the right moments), proving he can also sing Geoff's highest notes as well as channel his vocal tone. Here is the climax of the running lyrical work, as Chris pours himself into the lyrics, hoping his message will be heeded and awaiting his hopeful reward for this brave deed.
Movement two is where Power of Omens collects everything epic known to man and shows their immense technical and tonal breadth for well over eight minutes, alternating tense, harried keyboard swings, quick minor scales and head-spinning, classically styled drum work (I've tried playing this and my wrists almost broke) with the occasional calmer moment, including one of David's famous flamenco solos. It feels as if the struggle will indeed never end as the instrumental chaos continues, repeating previous themes raised yet additional semitones, until a harp-like instrumental effect plays alongside the wind and Salinas finally sings again, after "thirty-six months have passed along..." At a moment like this, it feels as if the entirety of movement two has hit the listener once again as one realizes the staggering thematic impact of the previous eight minutes. Though the promise of a great reward is in the future, it seems far further away than it ever was, despite the passing of 36 months.
A passage of blistering guitar insanity (15:32), of the sort that would be more common on the follow-up, moves the song back towards a reprise of movement one; the narrator, searching for the exit from life's endless cycle of trials, diverts away from the reprise for one last reflection: "Please...show me the way...HOME!"
The remaining two minutes comprise movement four, which is left to drag its feet slightly as the candle burns, awaiting release. Tears of the Wind
immediately follows as a sort of postlude, focused on tear-jerking acoustic guitar work with well-placed whispered, foreign-sounding vocals, wind samples and a highly subtle drum polyrhythm: aside from Alex maintaining a steady beat, he is also playing some type of African/Latin percussion in a bouncy rhythm, which is faintly audible, almost like tapping on the table. Alex has masterful taste, regardless of how technical: this addition to the piece contributes to the mood and emotion, as if looking across a lonely Tibetan peak reflecting on the previous masterpiece.
It has been accurately stated that "trying to summarize a Power of Omens disc is like trying to climb a mountain." While writing this review did conform to that description, it also precisely describes the listening experience. Power of Omens is perhaps the ideal, most original band in the genre, and sits atop their own mountain: conquering Eyes of the Oracle
is the ultimate test of wills in its genre. It defines and succeeds at its own missions, setting itself apart from everything else that has existed in this genre.