It’s hard to go wrong when you pluck fruit off the King Crimson tree. The band’s branches extend far and wide throughout not only progressive rock, but metal as well (they go way further than that, but for the purposes of this site we’ll truncate things there). Those branches have influenced generations of musicians, some of whom have been lucky enough to collaborate with the band itself, or at least with various members. How does that relate to the oddly named O.R.k.? First, you’ve got longtime Crim drummer Pat Mastelotto, and then you’ve also got Porcupine Tree bassist extraordinaire Colin Edwin. Porcupine Tree, of course, dangles off the King Crimson tree by way of a guest appearance by Adrian Belew on Deadwing twelve years ago. The circle of life is never ending.
O.R.k.’s first album, the horribly named Inflamed Rides (no, it wasn’t a concept album about taking Uber home after a Taco Bell binge), was a sneaky-good piece of prog that wormed its way into my brain back in 2015, so I was hoping the collaboration would spawn another album, and here it is, the much better named Soul of an Octopus. Like the first album, Mastelotto and Edwin combine their transcendent rhythmic skills with a couple of Italians: Carmelo Pipitone on the guitars, and Lorenzo Esposito Fornasari (LEF for short) on vocals and keys. Edwin and LEF also collaborate on the Obake albums. The styles of these four musicians seem too disparate to work, but they do, with a weird eclectic groove anchoring jagged yet at times slinky guitar work, all capped with LEF’s Perry Como meets Mike Patton singing style.
“Too Numb” is the opening track, and a fine example of the album’s style, with a super laid back groove, winding, loopy guitar melodies, and LEF’s lounge vocal style interspersed with wailing refrains. The best way to describe this languid yet off-kilter style is to say it’s like leaning back relaxing in your chair, only to almost pitch over backwards but catch yourself just in time. O.R.k. tread that fine balance throughout the album, giving us plenty of unexpected shifts in arrangements while also providing ample catchy rhythmic patterns. Prog fans everywhere will focus on the rhythm section on Soul of an Octopus, and with good reason of course, as two of the best strut their stuff, Edwin with his usual understated and flowy lines, Mastelotto with his jazzy feel and electronic dabbling.
We can’t ignore the Italians, though. Pipitone brings a diverse plethora of sounds to the equation, from bendy acoustic lines and blasts of wah-pedaled distortion such as we find on “Collapsing Hopes,” to subdued picking that accentuates the song’s rhythm on “Searching for the Code.” And while LEF showed his range on the Obake records, he drops the gritty voicings here and focuses on his cleaner vocals, both the crooning and the more rock-oriented. “Collapsing Hopes” again, as well as “Dirty Rain,” have him switching back and forth throughout, while on “Heaven Proof House” he plays it straight and mellow, and on album closer “Till the Sunrise Comes” he channels his inner David Bowie to wonderful effect.
It is honestly hard to find fault with Soul of an Octopus. Out of all the P-Tree/Crim offshoots, O.R.k. prove themselves to be the most compelling, with effortless chemistry, a finely defined style, and top-notch songwriting. They are also the least “metal” of the collaborations. LEF produced the album, and basically stayed out of the way of the music. Everything sounds great, clean, and well balanced. Soul of an Octopus is an outstanding entry into 2017’s prog rock catalog, and fans of all the bands name-dropped here need to have this one.