Review Summary: While staying true to his knack for technicality and shred guitar, Jeff Loomis chose to elevate Plains of Oblivion to superior heights with the use of vocals, guest soloists and better songwriting to make sure the songs stick in your head for days on end.
A band is as good as it's songwriter. A saying that might very well be the reason why American metal band Nevermore decided to disband after lead guitarist and main songwriter Jeff Loomis left the band in 2011. The exact reason for his departure will, probably, forever remain in the dark, whether it was singer Warrel Dane's chronic alcohol abuse or musical differences. What will not remain in the dark, however, is how driven Loomis is to stay musically active. Not even a year after his departure from Nevermore, he released another solo record onto the world, titled Plains of Oblivion.
Following up 2008's Zero Order Phase, Plains of Oblivion picks up where the former left off: guns blazing, full throttle technical madness, displaying that Loomis can play some mean guitar. What becomes apparent quite quickly, however, is that songwriting has not taken a back seat this time around, and arrangements are much more developed and 'sophisticated' if you will. Of course, this is still a shred guitar solo record, where Loomis takes center stage. Yet, this album has a few tricks up it's sleeves to make it possibly more memorable than it's predecessor. A feat not easily accomplished.
Firstly, and probably most obviously, there are vocals on this album. Three out of ten songs feature the majestic vocals of Christine Rhoades and Ihsahn, which might strike you as a minor indifference. 3/10 is nothing, right? These songs, however, stand out the most because the vocals aren't just any vocals. They're very well written, excruciatingly catchy and never do they feel misplaced. While the heavenly tones of Rhoades grace the songs "Tragedy and Harmony" and "Chosen Time", the demonic screams of Ihsahn (ex-Emperor) elevate "Surrender" to unprecedented heights. Even though the songs are tremendously different from the other material on the record, they never feel misplaced and the Loomis-vibe is omnipresent throughout all three of them.
Secondly, Loomis is not the only one handling the guitar on this album. Four out of ten songs feature a guest solo by both well-known and lesser-known fellow guitarists. Especially the guest solo by Tony Macalpine on "The Ultimatum", speaks to the imagination due to the intricate note voicings and tasteful use of vibrato. Aside from the bass solo in Cashmere Shiv on Zero Order Phase, performed by the illustrious Michael Manring, the solo debut didn't feature any notable guest solos. There are two credited, but to be honest, I wouldn't have known if I hadn't looked in the booklet. This time around, the guest solos are memorable and notably different from Loomis's technical display of prowess. And as if one ex-Megadeth soloist wasn't quite enough, Loomis managed to get both Chris Poland and Marty Friedman to feature on "Continuum Drift" and opener "Mercurial" respectively. Most notably the emotionally intense solos by Poland are ones to hit the books as stunning for their massive, majestic bends and spot on phrasing.
Lastly, this time around, drum duties are handled by Dirk Verbeuren of Soilwork fame. You might think of this as a minor thing, seeing as this record is about the blazing solos Loomis delivers. Well, judging by the fact that this record's drums sound like they were played by a furious madman on steroids, and still are tight as a tick, it's definitely noteworthy and Verbeuren deserves as much credit as possible for this amazing display of sheer skill and precision.
Zero Order Phase was amazing. Is Plains of Oblivion better? Wholeheartedly: Yes! The use (and not overuse) of vocals keep the record fresh, the guest solos are of sublime quality and offer a nice change of pace from Loomis's shredtastic exhibition and the improvements in overall songwriting make the songs more memorable and assure they get stuck in your head for days. However, to anybody that was expecting a Zero Order Phase II, the vocals and lack of "Jato Unit II" might come as an unpleasant surprise. Yet, I think that even the technical enthusiasts and tr00 shredders will find that this album still portrays the inspirational vision of one of the most influential guitarists of this generation.