Solo albums from Bryan Beller don’t come along too frequently, more’s the pity. Presumably, he’s too busy with The Aristocrats, Mike Keneally’s Band, or Joe Satriani’s world tours to spend much time on his own muse, but though it’s taken several years to put this opus together, it has most assuredly been worth waiting for.
His previous two solo efforts were both fine and interesting excursions into familiar rock territory, flavoured with some jazzy leanings here and there. The second album, Thanks in Advance, in particular seemed to mark something of a coming of age for Beller the composer, and so expectations were pretty high for the follow-up.
So to Scenes from the Flood, which is a significant change of tack, in that it is billed as a progressive rock double concept album! That’s probably enough to have many readers running for the hills, fearing the worst. Well fear not, it’s not a concept album in the traditional sense, with a lyrical narrative, as the album is about 85% instrumental, so it’s mostly the music which paints the picture and so tells the story. In a nutshell, it asks the question ‘what happens when the flood comes, the big one, the one which is life-changing in its consequences? What do you save from your previous life, and what do you let go?’ An intriguing starting point, and one which Beller illustrates vividly with his compositions. The song titles sort of tell the story, and the music gives it life. It leaves a lot to the imagination, but that’s a good thing, and makes this listenable over and over again, each pass bringing new discoveries and nuances. Of course, the concept can be taken on many levels, and the themes explored are open-ended, and could cover perceptions of reality, one’s self-awareness, and awareness of the world around us, but always with an over-arching sense of hope.
The music is diverse and almost impossible to categorise. There’s heavy rock, metal, world music, ambient, even danceable rhythms; a smorgasbord of styles really, and yet held together in a unified symphonic style which is simply brilliant. It evokes such rich imagery, sounding like an inspired film soundtrack for something cataclysmic. The cast of players is, as you can see below, enormous, and, as you’d expect, musicianship exemplary. But that fact is secondary to the realisation that Bryan Beller is a first-rate composer of serious music. We all knew he could pen a tune for the Aristocrats to play around with like a game of cat’s cradle, and we all knew he could play bass as well as anyone in rock, but he is a serious composer! What had been hinted at before is now patently obvious to anyone with ears and the inclination to give this a listen.
So let’s have a run through some highlights. The opening and scene-setting The Scouring of Three and Seventeen (don’t ask me) begins with beautifully fragile piano and gradually builds into something more robust, forming a nice introduction for what’s to come. This quickly gives way to Volunteer State, presumably a reference to Beller’s home in Tennessee. This has Satch written all over with its large slabs of guitar, and could easily have been one of the better tracks on his last album. I get the impression that Bryan sent him the basic skeleton and he’s fleshed it out as only Joe can. It conjures images of a sunny and happy place to be, and perhaps alludes to the complacency we might all feel in our everyday home lives. The next song is the first with any words, which are spoken, almost like Zappa’s Central Scrutinizer! Everything and Nothing suggests that our lives, which we take for granted, are illusory, and questions not just what is important and what we can live without, but what is real. Part one concludes with the hard and fast and very heavy Steiner in Ellipses, with crazy wah-wah bass, crushing drums and massive guitar, and ends with a nod to the coming Storm.
Part two deals with the Storm and subsequent flood. Lookout Mountain is so atmospheric, conjuring images in my mind of a Himalayan retreat with prayer flags and Tibetan bells. So to The Storm which is savage in its destructive power, aided by some crushing drums courtesy of Gene Hoglan and Haken’s Ray Hearne. Part-way through the ordeal there’s a lull, a moment of respite, but you just know the storm isn’t done yet, and it returns for one more lash of its tail. Then the calm serenity of The Flood, a landscape transformed by water, a scene of devastation, but also of a terrible beauty. The theme is wonderfully written, and the piano refrain haunts the memory long after the album is over.
Part three deals with the immediate aftermath I’m guessing, but you have to make up your own mind what is going on. There are some clues in the angular riffing of Army of Black Rectangles (smartphones?), the next vocal track, but it’s only a minute or so long, so pay attention! Another memorable melody ushers in The Outer Boundary, sounding a little like Umphrey’s McGee, which leads us to another standout piece, and the one song not penned by Beller, this one written by Janet Feder, a Colorado-based guitarist/composer. Angles and Exits is a wonderful track, vocals sounding almost Nick Drake-like with its deadpan delivery, but it builds to a swirling crescendo before plodding off into the distance, a melancholy anthem ringing in the ears.
Part four brings the whole concept to a series of stunning false endings. The brief Inner Boundary, repeating the theme of its outer brother, brings us to World Class, and never was a title more apt. This Indian flavoured whirling dervish of a song, all flying sitars and percussive precision, wailing guitars a la Petrucci and Nili Brosh, and tricksy rhythms just screams world class! It’s an absolute tour de force, the Taj Mahal sat on a Marshall stack and a cast of thousands for this cinematic masterpiece. How do you follow that? With a melody and guitar playing to die for, that’s how. Guthrie Govan plays his heart out on Sweet Water, it’s just wonderful, epic and impossible. It’s all too beautiful, right? So how do you follow that? Beller and his bass take on the responsibility for closing out the album on Let Go of Everything. Well letting go of everything is easier said than done, but there’s something liberating about the idea of not being dependent on anything, and I guess that’s the point of the story. You can’t take it with you so to speak, so letting go is something we will all have to do ultimately. Themes are pulled out of the story and tied together in this quite short piece, climaxing in a short bass solo ending in a massive bass chord which drones and echoes into the distance. After all that’s gone before, it fair brings a tear to the eye, it’s so moving.
I’m pretty sure there’s plenty more to come from Bryan Beller, but if this turned out to be his defining work, it’s something he can be justly proud of. A definite contender for album of the year, and there’s plenty of competition out there; I can’t recommend this album highly enough.
– Part one
01. The Scouring Of Three & Seventeen (2:21)
02. Volunteer State (5:36)
03. Everything And Nothing (5:48)
04. A Quickening (2:14)
05. Steiner In Ellipses (2:23)
– Part two
06. Always Worth It (6:36)
07. Lookout Mountain (4:12)
08. The Storm (7:26)
09. The Flood (5:42)
– Part three
10. Bunkistan (5:15)
11. As Advertised (3:54)
12. Army Of The Black Rectangles (1:20)
13. The Outer Boundary (1:30)
14. Angles & Exits (9:39)
– Part four
15. The Inner Boundary (3:02)
16. World Class (9:25)
17. Sweet Water (7:13)
18. Let Go Of Everything (3:35)
Total Time – 87:11
Bryan Beller – Bass, Guitar, Keyboards, Lead Vocals
~ with Guitarists
Jake Howsam Lowe
~ with Drums & Percussion
~ with Other Instruments
Paul Cartwright – Violin, Viola
Julian Coryell – Background Vocals
Fred Kron – Keyboards
Evan Mazunik – Accordion
Jake Rohde – Keyboards
Joe Satriani – Banjo
Rishabh Seen – Sitar
Record Label: Independent
Formats: CD | Digital | Vinyl
Date Of Release: 13th September 2019