Review Summary: Specs of Pictures Burnt Beyond sees Zero Hour taking progressive metal down less traveled roads, constructing an imperfect, but superb, effort at reconciling the seemingly contradictory states of dichotomy and unity.
Progressive music is my favorite genre, but using absolutely no keyboards tends to turn me off; keyboards are the most conspicuous difference between regular rock or metal and its prog variant. In between 2006’s Specs of Pictures Burnt Beyond
and its predecessor A Fragile Mind
, California progressive metal group Zero Hour changed vocalists for the second time, now featuring the spectacular pipes of Chris Salinas from Power of Omens
(a favorite band of mine), but also removed the keyboards completely. Stripping away this element requires careful attention elsewhere and intelligent use of every other instrument, and fortunately Zero Hour not only delivers the goods, but offers a consistently fantastic journey with classic moments; this happens because by stepping out of the traditional prog metal box, the band constructs a unique and purposeful
The music of Zero Hour lies solidly within the technical shade of the prog metal spectrum, sometimes pure tech-metal, but in a markedly different manner than Dream Theater
or even, despite the shared singer, Power of Omens. Sonically, the heavy parts number significantly higher than average, full of odd-metered chugging riffs, off-the-wall guitar and/or bass shredding by the band’s core duo Jasun and Troy Tipton, mechanical drumming by Mike Guy that mainly follows the riffing while establishing its own distinct groove, and aside from the energetic, diverse vocal style of Salinas, the occasional use of vocals as a true instrument (such as tracks 4 and 7). This sounds chaotic, but the music remains tight throughout, and the production is crystal-clear, warm and balanced between all four instruments. This is not to say the music is a wall of sound either, as it also contains an ambient ballad and extensive mellow sections in tracks 1 and 2; repetition as a musical device still remains in Jasun’s drifty arpeggios, usually backed by jazzy bass lines and Salinas’ vulnerable lower register. In many cases, the transitions between battering and calm are abrupt, but excellently orchestrated, and contribute to the purpose of Specs of Pictures Burnt Beyond.
Aside from his gigantic range of well over three octaves, composed of falsetto shrieking, confident low tenor ranges and baritone crooning, speaking or whispering, Salinas has a penchant for lyrical poetry that matches the dichotomy between two opposite states of mind and their self-contained unity. While not all the lyrics are his own in Zero Hour, his interpretative skills are top-notch, testifying to his ability and professionalism. The lyrical contrast between the violent surge of the title track, where Salinas does quite the “metal god” impression and barely coherently moans underneath the hammering main riff, and the ambient, haunting I Am Here
notes explanation; each of the five songs with lyrics has its own conflict and resolution, touching on topics like anxiety, perseverance, depression, and religious rebirth. This album reflects my own identical life journey, with tracks 4, 6 and 7 all representations of particular moments, and it appropriately inspires anybody that will care to pay attention.
Specs of Pictures Burnt Beyond
is also an inspiring musical odyssey, constructed with care and confidence despite its sonic bipolarity. Though highly respected in guitar or bass communities, the Tiptons rarely appear on lists of the best prog metal guitarists or bassists; the twins’ chemistry is impressive, winding impossibly technical scales or riffs around each other, and when they pull back slightly, one is still playing a complex melody while the other plays the main riff. The Falcon’s Cry
is an album highlight that displays all sides of Zero Hour and their interaction, creating one of the band’s most distinctive pieces; it deserves a full analysis. It opens with the guitar, drums and bass playing at about the same speed, but with their respective melodies and rhythms repelling each other, until all three instruments converge in a crushing, deceptively groovy stop-start riff pattern. As Salinas’ voice enters, Troy’s bass tapping continues along with the drums while the guitar reduces to a mere chug; the music builds atmosphere for another two minutes through intelligently layered, experimental vocal contrast that almost passes for keyboards. The heaviness stops at 2:38, leaving Jasun and Troy’s soothing, climbing arpeggios alone with reflective vocals to carry the music for another three minutes. Salinas shifts to a high wail and the music dramatically returns to sweeping, resolute chords, as the lyrics impact in full. The song is about an old man’s exhausting final climb up the mountain that was a memory of his early years; the beautiful landscape below is even more beautiful to the man paying the price of sweat (representing his life) to see the world through wiser eyes, knowing he will never see it this way again. The song structure is non-traditional, moving from aggressive to quiet, then intense but triumphant, a perfect reflection of the lyrics; T.S. Eliot would praise this masterpiece as the musical illustrative of his folk wisdom that “we shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Rarely are music, lyrics and composition so perfectly integrated.
Despite the strength of much of the songwriting, there are minor flaws in this album, and the biggest is ironically in one of the band’s strongest tricks: repetition. Throughout much of the Tiptons' discography, including their new project Cynthesis
featuring original Zero Hour singer Erik Rosvold and Enchant
drummer Sean Flanagan, a particular riff idea and a particular melodic idea are reused with only slight alterations in multiple locations. For example, the crushing riff that opens the title track is also heard in a quite similar form early in track 7 and translated onto bass and clean guitar in tracks 1 and 5, the latter of which also contains the heavy form of the riff. This isn’t intrinsically problematic, but it definitely reduces the value in the CD’s grand scheme of the short self-titled instrumental mostly based off this riff. At barely 43 minutes, Specs of Pictures Burnt Beyond
cannibalizes itself somewhat and simply feels too short as a result.
Overall, the material remains strong enough to sustain itself through repeated plays, as while the foundation for Zero Hour’s music remains simple, inspecting the relationship between its different parts allows a listener to map out and navigate a surprisingly dense sonic maze. As the churning closer Evidence of the Unseen
returns to its addictive, climactic 4-4-12 chugging pattern, relentlessly driving towards ultimate resolution, Chris Salinas begins whispering his closing epiphany into a willing listener’s brain. It is easy for the attentive listener to react like me: close your eyes and transcend the plane of matter to discover another world...
“Say the words that part the sky
and the stars will be your compass to eternity.
There is no barrier to withstand the love that drives...”