If I had a nickel for every fret-banging guitar virtuoso that released a CD filled with "monster RAWK chops" and warp speed arpeggios, I'd be a very rich man. Speed is certainly the most "showy" of guitar disciplines, but guitarists often forget that speed alone does not make an interesting piece of music. When every accelerated axe man that can sign their name on a contract is releasing guitar albums, you've really got to show something that sets you apart from the rest of the crowd in order to have a truly successful record. This is exactly what Tom Hess and his buddies drummer Chris Dowgun and guitarist Mike Walsh (collectively known as "Hess") accomplished with their latest release, Opus 1. With chops to die for and song writing skills not normally seen in the realm of wankery, Tom and the boys really show themselves to be a cut above the competition.
No doubt about it... guitar prowess is the centerpiece of Opus 1 - a fact that Hess makes no bones about. The six-string pyrotechnics explode throughout the CD at a blistering pace, and are quite reminiscent of Dream Theater's John Petrucci or Jim Matheos from Fates Warning. Chris Dowgun's does an excellent job of keeping up the pace with the twin guitarists, but his thrashing away on the drumkit is just there to create the foundation for Hess and Walsh's guitar antics. In addition to the standard guitar, bass, and drums, Tom Hess also uses subtle keyboards to add a tasteful richness to the backdrop of his six-string assaults. As a matter of fact, it is Hess' use of such ambience in his compositions that really makes him stand out - he'll sacrifice a minute or so of guitar worship for the good of the song if need be. That restraint truly makes songs such as "Phoenix Rising" transcend above the "see how fast I am" genre of guitar rock and into the realm of emotional and spine tingling music.
However, Hess does on occasion manage to get a little carried away - the track "Empire" consists of exactly the pointless noodling that the rest of the CD seems to rail against. That being said, "Empire" seems to be the only slip up on the CD, and wonderfully composed tracks such as the opener "Exploration" and "Queen of Me" more than make up for the excesses of "Empire". On Opus 1, Tom Hess shows his versatility by performing the guitar, bass, and keyboard duties, writing all the tracks, and producing the entire CD as well. Hess is an amazing talent, and his Opus 1 succeeds pretty much on all counts, and should be enjoyed by all fans of progressive guitar music.
1. Exploration (5:44), 2. Homage (4:40), 3. Phoenix Rising (6:12), 4. Empire (3:39), 5. Modes of Expression (5:42), 6. Lydian Speaks (6:28), 7. Imperial (4:08), 8. Through Space and Time (4:20), 9. Golden Colloseum (2:55), 10. On the Brink (8:48), 11. Queen of Me (6:25), 12. Palette of Shades (7:58)
Chris Dowgun: Drums; Tom Hess: Guitars, Bass & Keyboard Sequences; Mike Walsh: Guitars
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