It’s not often that so-called super-groups stick around for more than one or two albums. Invariably, the novelty of working together wears off, and competing priorities pull members in other directions. That hasn’t been the case with multinational prog rockers O.R.k., though: Ramagehead is the band’s third album, appearing like clockwork almost two years to the day after their superb Soul of an Octopus record. The quartet remains unchanged as well: the big names are Pat Mastelotto (King Crimson) on drums and Colin Edwin (Porcupine Tree) on bass, but guitarist Carmelo Pipitone and singer/composer LEF are not to be ignored. In fact, after spending a few weeks with Ramagehead, I can say unequivocally that Pipitone and LEF are the stars of the show here.
A slight change in direction here is evident simply by looking at the album cover. While O.R.k.’s first two albums featured odd, hand-drawn artistry, on Ramagehead we get a crazy, computer-generated humanoid courtesy of Tool’s Adam Jones. It’s a dark and sinister piece of art, and that’s very much what the band bestows upon us on this rather short (nine songs, 39 minutes) prog rock record. “Kneel to Nothing” starts things off in ominous fashion, and is the heaviest song on the album. There is plenty of weirdness within, as a writhing guitar line anchors verses, the chorus is furiously sung, and the whole song has murky keyboard patches underpinning it. Ominous and weird are two adjectives that frequently come to mind throughout Ramagehead. “Down the Road” is also in this vein, with its mellow, atmospheric build and plenty of Mastelotto’s trademark electronic percussion.
Offsetting the uneasiness found in many of the tracks is also a sense of whimsy. “Strangled Words” begins life as an acoustic number reminiscent of similar Porcupine Tree cuts, although it does develop its own sense of weirdness as it progresses, and “Time Corroded” is an airy, mellow song that, again, moves into darkness through the arrangement, due in no small part to LEF’s emotional vocals and moody keyboard patches. A sense of cool pervades a couple of tracks as well, as in past offerings, when LEF channels his inner David Bowie, particularly on “Beyond Sight,” which would fit in nicely with Bowie’s Heathen album. An odd highlight, though, is the duet with System of a Down’s Serj Tankian, “Black Blooms.” It runs the gamut of moody, emotional, atmospheric, and apocalyptic, all within its four-minute run time, and is the most dramatic piece presented.
There’s a lot going on within all these arrangements, from Mastelotto’s electronic dabbling to layered guitars, to intricate vocal harmonies and layers of keyboards augmenting most of the tracks. The mix is up to the task of giving everything its time to shine. Even Colin Edwin’s bass, which rarely comes to the fore, is easily picked out, rumbling and churning through the songs and keeping each track firmly on earth. And although only a couple of tracks (“Kneel to Nothing” and the Crimson-esque “Signals Erased,” where Piptone channels his inner Adrian Belew) are immediately gratifying, there is no filler on Ramagehead—rather, some songs unveil their highlights at a slower pace. The theme of bewilderment brought on by information overload in real life is aptly conveyed here.
Ramagehead is a different beast compared to Soul of an Octopus or the band’s first record, Inflamed Rides. This is a dark, pensive, and moody foray into progressive rock. The lack of immediacy may throw casual fans off, while those of us who have followed the band (or its related acts) for some time will relish the slight change in direction. O.R.k. have infused each song with elements that only come to light after a number of dedicated listens–and isn’t that really what fans of progressive rock look for?