Less prog, and more song orientation makes for perfection
Ty Tabor is one busy musician. When he’s not playing with his regular outfit King’s X, the vocalist/guitarist keeps himself busy as an in-demand producer, or busying himself with an ever growing catalogue of impressive solo efforts (his last being 2010’s Something’s Coming). With King’s X taking a break (to allow drummer Jerry Gaskill to recover from recent heart surgery brought on by a heart attack), Tabor has turned his attention to solo endeavours – prompting a return of his long neglected collaborative project The Jelly Jam.
The last time we heard anything from The Jelly Jam was way back in 2004, when the all-star project released their highly acclaimed sophomore effort The Jelly Jam 2 (through Inside Out Music). But after a lengthy seven years away, the trio (comprising of Dream Theater bassist John Myung and Dixie Dregs/Winger drummer Rod Morgenstein) have managed to synchronise their busy schedules and put together a long awaited (and long overdue) third full-length effort Shall We Descend.
Seven years is a long time between releases, and within that time, all three members have made quite a lot of music with their respective bands. So it comes as no revelation to find that Shall We Descend has a very different sound from the band’s first two studio efforts. But it’s the direction the band has taken that will take many long time followers by surprise.
The opening track, Who’s Comin’ Now (which is the first single lifted from the album), is quick to reveal some of the changes The Jelly Jam have made to their sound this time around, with the guitars given a bit more bite than what we’re usually accustomed to from Tabor, while the overall darker tone and subtle aggression displayed throughout the song showcases a power and tension never before heard within the group. But the biggest change is the band’s song writing. In the past, the progressive and technical aspects of the musician’s capabilities stood out above anything else. On Who’s Comin’ Now, The Jelly Jam seem to focus on playing more to what the song needs, and its resulted in a sound that has the band gelling in a way that’s never been heard previously.
The stripped back approach to their progressive leanings really works wonders on the infectious pop/rockers Stay Together and Come Alive, while traces of the band’s past can be heard on the lengthy Halos In Hell with its quiet/heavy passages, but with a newfound confidence that makes the song sound thought out and well constructed rather than hastily jammed prior to hitting record in the studio.
Much like the former track, Same Way Down mixes gentle passages with some tasteful mid-paced rocker moments, but within a familiar (if trademark) Tabor-like melancholy tempo. The other significant factor that makes this song great (aside from its beautiful melodies of course) is Tabor’s lyrics. Although it’s impossible to penetrate the real meaning behind anything Tabor writes, the picture he paints on this track lyrically is without question some of his best work in years.
Barometric Reign is again another great example of where the band plays primarily to the song’s strengths. From its gentle and slow building introduction, the song, and its instrumental and far darker sounding second half March of the Trolls, eventually takes on a huge sound that is equally shared amongst all three members, and choruses that bring to the fore Tabor’s classic multi-layered harmonised vocals that channel The Beatles at their best.
In stark contrast to the two previous tracks is Questions, which initially starts out with an acoustic/bass foundation before Tabor’s guitar and keyboard contributions add a strings element to the song. Personally, this track is a real stand out, and shows a side of Tabor that’s rarely heard (the closest is That’s All from 1997’s Naomi's Solar Pumpkin, and even then it’s has a completely different feel), and definitely not the sort of thing you would expect from The Jelly Jam.
Another personal favourite is the title track Shall We Descend, which is another classic Tabor track with its continual build and breakdown of instrumental passages and overall melancholy mood, while the eight minute plus instrumental closer Ten is the one track where the band let loose (especially Tabor on guitar and Morgenstein on drums) and allow their progressive nature dictate the song’s direction a little more – albeit while sticking to the band’s unwritten rule of a pre-determined song structure.
Despite always being a big fan of The Jelly Jam, I can’t say that I held the band’s two previous releases in the same high regard as some of Tabor’s other work. But all that has now changed. Shall We Descend is not only the best effort The Jelly Jam have ever produced (and I include the two albums Platypus produced before keyboardist Derek Sherinian bowed out of the line-up and the band changed their name), but some of the best work Tabor himself has produced in a long time.
We had to wait seven years for a new album, but if their next album is anything as phenomenal as this, I’d say another seven years for a new one would be well and truly worth it.