I apparently distinguish myself in the metal scene by not having been a fan of Nevermore. Frankly, I could never deal with Warrel Dane, who while he doesn’t belong in Ripper Owens Hall of Shame kind of territory, definitely rubbed me the wrong way. That’s a shame, however, ’cause this Jeff Loomis dude is a fucking beast of a guitar player. And as a ‘sconnie from the Fox Valley area, I have to say that he was also a bit of a local legend since he went and did something with himself in professional music (and almost joined Megadeth—not once, but twice). But I can say that I did check out Zero Order Phase after it came out in 2008 and while I dug it, I never really came back to it.
Shred records are sort of a touchy subject. On the one hand, I really think that metal musicians put way too much focus on vocalists and vocals, particularly when the lyrics are redundant, stupid or the vocalists are just stupid. On the other hand, I’ve long associated shred with a particular form of flamboyant jackassary and therefore have attempted to avoid it. But, as a reviewer, one is sometimes forced to stumble onto the Plains of Oblivion for the sake of the metal community. And, actually, Loomis should be commended for not having a cross necklace and poofy shirt. Not even sunglasses! No sir, this humble, downhome Wisconsin boy just shows up with his guitar, wicked riffs, a grimace and some extraordinarily honed fine motor skills and shreds your fucking face off.
If one were to typify the tracks, most of them are built around a solid groove riff, the likes of which most Nevermore fans are familiar with, and that make the backbone of any good metal song. And then the finger gymnastics follow: tapping, sweeping, and a million notes a second. These tracks can be sort of melancholic, like parts of “Requiem for the Living” (which features ex-Nevermore and current Warrel Dane guitarist Attila Vörös), or classically influenced a la Malmsteen or (in this specific case I am strongly reminded of) Symphony X on “The Ultimatum,” which features amazing neo-classical arpeggios contra crushing riffs that wander towards the more brutal sides of things at times. And, as you can probably tell, the neo-classical really appeals to me personally, so the acoustic track “Rapture” moved me greatly and is one of the highlights of the album.
But part of what kept me interested here was the use of Christine Rhoades and Ihsahn for vocals. These vocal tracks break up the feel enough to make coming back to shred tracks perfect. “Tragedy and Harmony” sounds lyrically like a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde theme and Rhoades’ voice is well suited to the style. While I’m less of a fan of “Chosen Time,” which is a ballad, I’m a fan of her voice and I’m glad to hear her involved in this project. For me, though, the real shining moment comes on “Surrender,” which is easily the heaviest track on the record and which Ihsahn graces. Needless to say, both his screams and clean vocals are immense and perfect for the track, but the riffs hit the listener like a ton of bricks and Loomis is at his best. For Loomis’ style, I think working with a black metal vocalist is actually a tremendous boon. It allows him to do the interesting and melodic stuff on his guitar and then trade that off to a vocalist when things simplify, leading to the best possible blend as opposed to the often amelodic Nevermore outcome. Whether or not you agree with me (I suspect most of you don’t), this song may well be the record’s high point.
But don’t let my fawning over “Surrender” imply that the rest of the album isn’t up to this standard. The tracks are fun to listen to, and guitar envy inducing, and the guest guitarists add a dynamic that I think Zero Order Phase didn’t possess. Having the neo-classical influences of Vörös and Tony MacAlpine (not to imply that Marty Friedman and Chris Poland’s contributions aren’t as good), definitely locked me into these songs a little tighter. So if you’re at all a fan of shred records, Nevermore or good thrashy and borderline extreme music, you should check this out. It’s well worth your time.