Review Summary: A trailblazing showcase for one of the most underrated guitar heroes that ever lived.
It would be an easy and stupid mistake to simply dismiss Chris Poland as one of the many second guitarists whom had a chance to play with Dave Mustaine. But the New York-born six-stringer was always more than just a hired gun. A student of jazz fusion and rhythm, Poland’s dynamic yet highly melodic style not only complemented Mustaine’s bombastic, aggressive shredding but I dare to say that next to the equally talented Marty Friedman, he was the only one who had direct influence on Megadeth’s songwriting. 1986’s legendary "Peace Sells…but Who’s Buying" would have not sounded the same without him, and the complex musicianship of that album most certainly had it impact on the heavy metal scene.
However Poland did not had a chance to enjoy the rising popularity of Megadeth. By 1987 his drug addiction was so severe that it caused major tensions between him and the rest of the group (mainly Mustaine and David Ellefson who were trying to quit) and soon he was dismissed along with his friend, drummer Gar Samuelson. After this Poland decided to get clean and pull himself together. For a while he went underground paying for other bands, but in 1990 he finally got the chance to record his first solo album. And Return to Metalopolis is a worthy exhibition of Poland’s skills, a tight, energetic, and awe-inspiring record that deserves more of being just an interesting footnote in music history.
Cutting an instrumental record doesn’t seem that big of a deal, considering that’s what most guitar virtuosos were doing at the time. However making an instrumental record that offers more than just mindless and endless solos, and actually has a distinguishable style, individuality and a constant element of surprise requires major skills in songwriting. Thankfully Poland has these. The main structure of Return to Metalopolis are most defiantly metal-based. The fast paced and technical main riffs for songs like “Club Ded” and the title track still carry those speed/thrash metal vibes, but Poland’s more melodic sensibilities are clearly shining through with cleaner breakdowns.
Even by the second track you can sense Poland’s unique tone, and sense for harmony as the mellow, jazzy moments constantly sneak into the thrashy, power-chord riffing. Or we can mention songs like “Heinous Interruptus” where we get a semi-blues like mid-paced backdrop to Chris’s mind-blowing leads, the melancholic and chilly atmosphere of “The Fall of Babylon”, the agression of “Theatre of the Damned”. Or “Khazad Dûm” where the combination of long-drown notes and grander instrumentalization perfectly hits that feel of epicness Poland’s was aiming for. The production is also excellent, with perfectly balanced instruments, crisp, clear sound and volume which is more than crucial for a guitarist whose main strength lies not in speed but feel.
Which leads us to the main question: How are the guitar solos on this record? Well if you were impressed by Poland’s distinctive work on Peace Sells imagine that but possibly even better for 36 minutes. Without any restraint Poland unleashes one beautiful, exciting and complex solo after another. His phrasing, note-bending, scales, legatos and sense of timing is nothing short of impressive, and even with the classic, “shred” type leads they sound crystal-clear and focused. A style clearly reminiscent to jazz titans like Allan Holdsworth and John McLaughlin but dropped right into metal. One has to listen to the blistering notes of the title track or “Theatre of the Damned” and it’s not impossible to imagine the burning intensity of an old Megadeth jam session. To top it all up Poland’s own brother, Mark provides equally big firepower behind the drum set, with a powerful performance that not only keep up but locks in perfectly with Chris’s wizardry.
Sadly Poland’s career never recovered the same heights what he achieved in the 80’s but that doesn’t mean anything when it comes to the quality of his music. Return to Metalopolis is a fantastic blend of jazz and metal, one that you don’t hear often. Highly recommended for fans of instrumental music and just fans of good music in general.