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Maelstrom - Of Gods and Men Award winner

Of Gods and Men
by Kira Schlechter at 20 July 2020, 4:45 AM

It’s nearly impossible to believe that a band would release a full-length debut album three decades after they got together and then split up. In fact, it’s absolutely mad. But the core of Long Island’s MAELSTROM – singer Gary and guitarist/bassist songwriter Joey – could not let the idea of “Of Gods And Men” die, and it’s at last seeing the light of day. Described as a mix of “neoclassical, thrash, death, (and) prog,” the band did an eponymous demo in 1989 and then another, “This Battle To Make History, Yet History Never Comes,” in 1991. Their 2008 EP, “It Was Predestined,” led them to be named by Terrorizer magazine as among the best unsigned bands around. They broke up in 1994.

“Of Gods And Men” was resurrected from the source material of the two demos. If we had to wait 32 years for this, it was eminently worth the wait. This is an absolutely outstanding concept album, a joyous, unbridled purging of years of pent-up creativity. “Arise” starts with classical acoustic playing, a vaguely Latin melody, and then when the thrashy guitars spark under it, it’s really striking. Ed’s keyboards (a new addition to the band) create a brass section sound, and the whole mixture lays claim to the neoclassical part of their influences. The pauses in the chorus create such emphasis and emotional play; in the last run through, though, they don’t do it, in that relentless quest to create aural surprises. Another acoustic break precedes an electric solo backed by choral singing and Daniel’s extraordinarily precise, metronomic drumming. The solo section itself is supremely impressive – it’s long but things like the octave jumps and the harmony and the punctuation of the drumming make the time pass quickly. Gary’s voice is solidly a thrash one, spitting out the words, but he also employs touches of vibrato and the occasional death growl.

This is an environmental holocaust or post-apocalyptic scenario, a call to arms in which the world is looking for a savior to heal it, one that is being called forth by perhaps some higher power or divinity. The next step in the story is the grittier “Army From Ash,” which is begun by the word “Arise,” referencing the first song, of course, and creating continuity in the process of the story. The chorus is basically sung in contrast to the sharply-snapped verses. Later, Joey’s ridiculously deft playing see-saws between acoustic and heavier, darker parts and an incredible wah solo that’s delicately played alongside the acoustic. The drum part behind it goes off on all sorts of tangents (and I mean all sorts – you could listen to it a million times and not catch everything Daniel is doing) and it works beautifully. Their knack with rhythm is insane; they just mold it effortlessly to their needs. It describes creating “an army from the ash of man” to repair this destruction. Two songs in and we realize this is a concept album with clear direction and deliberate, careful pacing.

“The Mirror Calls” opens with a single kick on the bass drum, exactly like a heartbeat, that gets ever faster, the cymbal sizzling along on top as the guitar fades in ever so slowly. The chorus is stellar and it changes both times they do it (the lead-in is the same, but the guitar within is completely different). The bridge gets all Middle-Eastern-y, with sitar guitar and a really stately rhythm and the vocals all jagged atop it, then the guitar takes over on variations of that melody. Joey’s guitar work is indescribable, the things he does, the sounds he creates, things that are often beyond words to explain. The second solo part is breathtaking – it might be long, but my God, you can’t help but listen. It’s not showing off because it’s presenting so many sounds you've likely never heard before, some classical, some bordering on blues, lovely elastic melodies.

This is the formation of the army (and I love the lyrical continuity – the line very late in the song, “And arose armies from ash,” which of course references the two previous songs) by means of a mirror. It’s a dialogue between our hero and his maker, Greadon, asking how he is to achieve this task in such a short time (“How am I to show/So many fallen souls/What would take a lifetime to learn”) – the maker responds, “Your words will be reflections/Of things once said by me.” So they are formed and instructed and the last verse sends them on their way.

“A Futile Crusade” introduces the foe, Deamous, in lyrics that are alternately chanted angelically and roared out brutally. A fanfare complete with horns begins the battle; an exultant gallop leads to a guitar section that plays off pauses really well and changes keys ever so slightly. There’s a section of drumming that’s punctuated by the bass that displays Daniel’s typewriter-like precision – the guitar even hangs back in the mix to allow this part to be heard. But the solo section two-thirds through is all Joey’s brilliance, with finger-style acoustic picking just casually dropped in alongside his equally impressive bass work. It gets sinister and chilling as it comes to a hypnotic close. We see here how the army is manipulated by these two beings (“Each man blind that all his time/Was puppeteered by two gods’ hands”) and the lyrics are delivered from both perspectives, which is clever. It’s a futile conflict (“The clash would last eternity/Yet never would be won/This battle to make history/Yet history never comes,” how poignant), and then a twist comes at the mention of a mysterious “sacred son.” Stay tuned…

“Lament Of The Fallen” makes it clear our hero has lost, and this is truly a lament, tragic and meditative. The opening line, “Father, I stare into a sackcloth sky,” is such a beautiful image and his shame is apparent. The lyrics punctuate the suspenseful plodding tempo as our hero explains his failing. This is a transition in the story, the next chapter – he has died but is being resurrected with new knowledge (“These deities’ deception/Has caused this world to die”) and for good reason, as we are told (“Are you so narrow-minded/That you cannot foresee the truth/That these pains of war/Shall be lessened/By your enemy’s/Unborn youth” – this unknown child is the future, not you). Singer Dawn Marie Macaluso acts as the “ageless goddess that is my soul” (and that line is such effective foreshadowing to her actual appearance).

“Th13teen Within A Circle” is the unveiling of this offspring, “our bastard son,” and boy, is it evil – evil bass, equally evil riff – so you know what you’re getting from the start. The lyrics are chanted and snarled and follow that pattern through each verse until a break, where it goes into a solo section of Joey’s jazzy picked guitar and his leaping octave jumps. This seems to serve as an interlude while this transformation period goes on, rather than describing it any further with words, which is quite sophisticated. Once it’s complete, the evil maker talks of his creation, then we end with a prediction of what he will do (“he rapes the light that is your soul”). There are obvious Christ references, but this is instead turning innocent to evil (“upon his body we shall feed”), and the imagery is horrific (“Hear his whimpers pierce the night scape” and “Terror grips his tiny heart”).

Staccato guitar blasts set the stage for the action of “Thief Of Light,” and that’s exactly what our hero has done – after his resurrection, he saves the child. Somehow he is there as the sacrifice is happening (“Encircled in thirteen of kin”) and then he decides, “A choice that is now mine/To thieve this life/From death and make him mine.” This is him making amends for his earlier failure. The sound of the guitar part after the first verse is indescribable – it’s literally biting and snapping, almost spanning two octaves simultaneously. The pace of the music echoes his decision and eventual flight and the staccato part repeats at the end to cement his choice (“from death and make him mine,” Gary repeats).

Bass sets the popping groove that the drums pick up in “An Ancient Art” and a truncated, syncopated guitar riff follows suit. The track tells of the rescued child being raised and groomed toward positive ends, “in hope and faith, craft and art,” ones that include destroying both deities, not just the bad one, an interesting twist. The sheer variety of guitar is just ridiculous, how it so imperceptibly brightens toward each chorus as it levels and smooths into it; Gary’s vocal is also more optimistic here. It plods to a slower portion that’s unexpected but quite regal, perhaps a hint at events to come or perhaps remembering past ones. The organ and keyboard in the solo bridge section definitely bear classical hallmarks, and a meander into more guitar fireworks leads back to that anew. By the end, we’re back to the bass and the initial groove – the continuity of the songwriting happens so naturally.

“Predestined” is our plot twist. This was supposed to happen – the child would be born to destroy both gods, even though it was created by the malevolent one (“seal these gods within a mirrored tomb”), and neither of them knew it (“Oh but little did they know/Of their fate which to unfold/Would leave them dead/And their souls be left to burn”). Gary almost speaks the first verse, rapidly bringing us up to speed, in a track that likely serves as a lead-in to the final one. Daniel’s drumming in the solo is beyond belief in speed, the guitar lazing and lounging atop it, then the pace eases into a two-part solo before it goes back to the tempo of the first verse to close.

“SonRise,” all 12 minutes of it, is our finale. The ambition of this thing is off the charts thematically and musically. Sonically, it’s like the last part of a movie, with the acoustic backed by keyboard, a treatment which honestly you kind of saw coming in some ways. The solid groove kicks in, then vocals that are like a hymn of thanks. Gary’s voice gets a little campy in the “SonRise” parts, if there’s any criticism – it was likely unintentional but you certainly appreciate his enthusiasm and sincerity.

After the hymn-like beginning, the child gets his marching orders (“And now hold fast/To your strength, your heart/Your soul, your mind” and “Reveal to all mankind/Unveil what’s kept them blind”). Gary points out, “In truth these gods/Were always one/Their lie now clear/To you our son,” and our “ageless goddess” simultaneously tells the child what to do (“Return to one the two he made/Show them both their time has passed/Entrap them in this mirrored glass”). Prior to the solo shows him arriving to where he will complete his task and tells him what he will do, accompanied again by the hymn of praise. The heartwrenching solo is a contemplation, a break in the action. The gods are ultimately trapped and destroyed and “Mankind is free at last/For these gods’ time has passed,” as acoustic and electric intertwine. The end is pure classical in terms of the resolution of the action lyrically, thematically, and musically as it naturally goes back to the acoustic portion.

What is the lesson in this parable of an album? “A balance now restored/A billion souls set free/The truth that's now beheld/God is within we.” OK, it might be grammatically awkward, but the point is really valid – “Gods and men now see/God is within we.” Simple as that. So much of my listening here was spent in breathless anticipation of what would happen next. It took two listens to many songs, one to comprehend the musical complexities, another to digest the story and varying perspectives. All worth it. A lovingly crafted, amazing achievement.

Songwriting: 10
Musicianship: 10
Memorability: 10
Production: 10

5 Star Rating

1. Arise
2. Army From Ash
3. The Mirror Calls
4. A Futile Crusade
5. Lament Of The Fallen
6. Th13teen Within A Circle
7. Thief of Light
8. An Ancient Art
9. Predestined
10. SonRise
Gary Vosganian - Vocals
Joey Lodes - Guitar, Bass
Ed Marks - Keyboards
Daniel Kleffmann - Drums
Record Label: Independent


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