- Released: June 26, 2007
- Tracks: 13
- Format: Audio CD
- Label: Mars Hill Records
- Available via iTunes, Rhapsody, or direct mail order at tormanmaxt.com
- Modest Opinions Rating: 3.75 / 5
Indie prog rock. If there's one type of music that's completely hit-or-miss, it's got to be independent progressive rock. The musicians are often untested, moderately trained, or over-produced. Everyone seems to want to be the next Dream Theater, for better or for worse.
Torman Maxt is somewhat of an exception. While a certain similarity to DT is unmistakeable, there is more to the band and to their latest offering than that single attribute. The production is not over-the-top. Layering is well-used, but special effects are almost non-existent. Keyboards seem almost like an afterthought; the guitar takes center stage on nearly every track. This is a band that has studied the harder edge of progressive rock: early and late-period Rush, Queensrÿche, and Dream Theater. I would like to see a bit more Yes, Pink Floyd and early-period Genesis thrown into the mix. The extended guitar solos could stand to be tempered just a bit by some thick underlying melodies. A little more from the keyboards would be great.
Torman Maxt was founded by three brothers from Costa Mesa, California. Tony Massaro is the band's vocalist and guitarist. Vincent Massaro is on drums, and Dominic Massaro handles bass and keyboard duty. The Problem of Pain, Part I was independently produced and engineered; Tony is listed as the album's Producer and Engineer. Mars Hill Records, the band's label, is owned by the Massaros.
Thematically, The Problem of Pain, Part 1, is so typically prog rock that it borders on parody. That's not to say that it's not good! This is a rock opera, insprired by (according to tormanmaxt.com) Rush's 2112 and Queensrÿche's Operation: Mindcrime. While I can certainly vouch for the effort toward the musicianship in that regard, the storyline of the album has very little in common with either of those seminal works. The story is on a scale that only a prog rock band would attempt to cover: biblical. Not just biblical, Old Testament biblical – the kind of material that even Christian bands generally shy away from. It's real ‘wrath of God' time, folks, so grab some popcorn because Job's about to get his butt kicked.
The story of Job (pronounced to rhyme with "strobe" or "lobe") is one of the more well known bible stories. The short version is that Job has a really fantastic life, and Satan goes to God and basically taunts God into letting him ruin Job's life. God wants simply to prove that Job will be ever faithful and will never curse God's name. I won't spoil the story for those that are not well versed in bible lore, and Torman Maxt does a good job (no pun intended) with the retelling.
Chapter One: Prologue
- Overture (3:53) : All rock operas of note must start with an overture or prologue, and this album is no exception. After a promising synth intro, I was a little disappointed with the first minute-thirty or so. The build up of each instrument would have been fine, but the drums, bass and keyboards take such a backseat to the many guitar lines that they are quickly overwhelmed. Without that background, the guitars mainly sound like layers of seperate solos piled on top of one another. They all fit together, but without a strong framework underneath, it comes across more disjointed than it should. From the minute-thirty mark (or so) through the rest of the track, things get better. The bass is up in the mix a little, the drums are doing a little more than just keeping time, and the number of guitars is reduced – resulting in a better second half.
- Job's Song (3:36) : Now we're talkin'. This track should have been the album opener; musically, at least. Add about 4 minutes to the beginning, extend the music in that direction, and call it Overture/Job's Song. Would have been perfect. The production is tight and crunchy with soaring vocals and sensible solos. The drums work really well. My only small complaint is that I think the bass could be doing more – it never really pokes it's head up and says hello.
Chapter Two: Job's First Test
- The Angel's First Song (3:42) : Tony's accoustic guitar skills are showcased here for the first time, after a few tastes in the previous two tracks. Musically, the track is quite good. Lyrically, it's pretty weak – even in the larger context of the album. It serves a purpose; to seperate the introduction of Job from the introduction of Satan, but it only accomplishes that task by existing. I really think the song would have benefited from the omission of the lyrics. Having said that, the delivery of the lyrics fit the music really well.
- Satan's First Song (4:17) : Frantic, fast, dark… perfect for a tune called "Satan's First Song". About halfway through we're treated to what sounds like a trip through the devil's mind, which is an interesting form for a bridge. Following that, for the final minute-fifteen or so, we're back to the straight-ahead tune leading to an abrupt end. Good stuff.
Chapter Three: Job's First Response
- Job's Initial Shock (1:56) :
This is a good track, but the vocals might take away a bit from the overall feel of it to some. They're thin and almost metallic, and the song might have been better served with a style of delivery that we were treated to in Job's Song. On the other hand – it would not be out of bounds to say that the vocals are mirroring the stress that Job is feeling from being put under such pressure. That's the point of view I'm taking.
- Job's Resolve (3:49) : Job seems to steel himself here and really makes a strong statement of faith. Lyrically and musically, Job comes across as a strong character. Very well done. The vocals are presented in the same style as Job's Initial Shock, but with more body, making for an interesting dynamic.
- Job's Commitment (2:25) : But wait, is Job really that strong? The vocals in Commitment don't seem to suggest so, falling back to the delivery that we heard in Initial Shock. Musically, this and Job's Resolve are very similar, and probably could have been combined into one six-minute track.
Chapter Four: Job's Second Test
- The Angel's Second Song (3:03) : A fantastic intro – very atmospheric. The music throughout is great, but likeThe Angel's First Song, the lyrics are weak. This is another example of a track that would be better off without the lyrics. The tone of the song conveys the message of the lyrics (basically "holy, holy, holy lord" repeated over and over) really well, making the lyrics pretty much optional.
- Satan's Second Song (2:04) : Very similar to Satan's First Song, this track is more metal than most of the other tracks on the album, which is fitting for a song written from the point of view of the devil. Solid track.
Chapter Five: Job's Second Response
- Job's Contemplation (1:18) : This is a major highlight of the album. The accoustic guitar work is near-perfect, setting the tone wonderfully. A great example of leaving lyrics out and letting the music tell the story.
- Job's Second Response (2:56) : Job's first response to the devil, as told in chapter three, was not nearly as powerful as his second. The vocals are strong, depsite the sense of loss being conveyed. Tony's accoustic guitar in the second half isn't as solid as in Contemplation, but it works really well.
- Job's Wife (4:09) : Musically, this is a very strong piece. It's not very flashy, but it's tight and I'm quite happy that the bass is up in the mix, especially toward the end. Very solid track in the tradition of good progressive rock.
- A Great Silence (4:47) : Normally, I like albums to have a closing track with real punch. I like them to go out with a bang. Given that this is the end of the first part of a two-part project though, I'm a little more open to other directions for the closer. The intro here is pretty good (perhaps a little reminiscent of Dark Side of the Moon), but it really gets punched up around the one-minute mark. Great, I think – a good closer. What comes at around two and a half though, I was not prepared for. The song appears to end at 2:34 or so. There's a nice fade to silence, and the ending point makes sense. A couple of seconds later though, a strange keyboard line begins. This keyboard line continues to the end of the track at 4:47, and it defies description. It doesn't really fit the rest of the album, though if it's a herald of some of the themes coming with Part II, I'll be happy that they keys are going to be more prominent on that album.
Here's an album that I didn't buy digitally, but the majority of purchasers probably will. This is both a boon and a bane for indie musicians. It's easier and cheaper to get your album listed in iTunes than to get it into physical record stores. For an artist-owned label like Mars Hill Records, that means the majority of your fans will probably never hold one of your CD's in their hands.
I love the cover imagery; it has an almost spiritual, Old Testament kind of feel to it, and it fits the theme of the album perfectly. The Torman Maxt name in blue works really well, but the album's title is almost impossible to read. The script is simply too intricate, and it's in a medium gray with nothing to pop it off the background. Unfortunately, that script is used on the spine, where it's even smaller and less readable, and on the back, for the section titles. Since I knew the album title going in, I found the script easier to read for that particular phrase. Not being familiar with the section titles, I almost needed to go online and look them up to understand what they said. The back imagery is great, simply a portion of the front cover image. I really like the quote from C.S. Lewis; very appropriate. The booklet is fine. It offers lyrics and a band photo, which I do think could have been better. The photo is a little underexposed. Dominic stands out fine, Tony is little more than a face and arms, and poor Vincent is so underexposed in the back that we can only make out his face. Fortunately, the Torman Maxt website has some much better shots of the band – including the properly exposed photo from the booklet, making me think that the booklet might have been simply printed with the wrong color profile.
In The End
This is a band with a ton of potential, some of which has already been realized. I do think that there are areas that need improvement and that bringing in an outside producer and engineer would go a long way in that regard. Having a production team would allow the trio to really concentrate on their songwriting and playing, while getting feedback from someone who isn't part of that creative process. In a recent interview, the members of Rush commented on their decision to – yet again – abandon their ideas of self-production and bring in an outside producer. They maintain that their albums are stronger because of it. Torman Maxt is a young band, as such things are measured, and I think they would really do well by bringing in an objective ear.
I wrote in my review of Fear of a Blank Planet that having virtuoso abilities seems to be a prerequisite for inclusion in the progressive rock club. The members of Torman Maxt aren't quite there yet, but they're getting close. They throw in more than a few tricks, but that's prog rock, and they do it well. There is a fine balance though, between overplaying and sticking to the needs of the song, and Torman Maxt does pretty well on this album with that balance. The guitars could be scaled back from the extended solos just a bit.
In the end? I think that Torman Maxt has a long career ahead of them if they stick to the hallmarks of progressive rock bands – education, evolution, and progression. I'm looking forward to The Problem of Pain, Part II, due out in 2008.
How the Reviews Work
There's a reason I don't usually do album reviews on the day of release. My process works like this: I listen to the whole album all the way through while doing other things, be it driving a car, doing dishes, or working on a blog post. I make notes about what catches my attention and makes me pause what I'm doing. Those, to me, usually turn out to be the real standout moments of the album. After that, I'll listen to the album critically, with no distractions. I'm looking for technical standouts and listening to the lyrics more closely. Finally, I'll put the album into iTunes and let it play on a loop while I'm doing other things, usually playing poker or working online. This is where I determine which songs are the best by which ones I gravitate toward as I skip around. Some albums don't get past that first stage, some don't survive the more critical listen. Those that get through the whole process are the ones that take the longest to write about!