Secret Sphere - The Nature Of Time - (9/10)
Published on December 24, 2017
It goes without saying that even among the most stalwart of traditionalists that some degree of stylistic evolution is bound to occur, particularly when one has been crafting metal for the better part of 20 years. But the road of the progressive band in this capacity involves a few more twists and turns than most, and it is with a great degree of poise and precision that Italy’s Secret Sphere has navigated the maze that began in the late 1990s while still keeping a recognizable musical foundation in place. Then again, one of the things that separates the likes of Dream Theater from the more stylized power progressive band that followed their lead is a greater degree of predictability, and even upon the exodus of longtime vocalist Roberto Messina, the formula had seen only a few left-turns culminating in 2012’s Portrait Of A Dying Heart and the subsequent re-imagining of their seminal sophomore LP A Time Never Come. However, with the release of their eight studio opus The Nature Of Time, the winds have seen a fairly jarring shift in direction, though a very welcome one.
Even in their earliest incarnation when Helloween was the most obvious comparison, Secret Sphere was a band with the spirit of the likes of Threshold and Dream Theater dwelling in the back of its mind, but this album sees this peripheral influence becoming the primary one. As if the rather unsubtle commonality that this album’s cover art shares with the exaggerated scenery that adorned the covers of Images And Words and Awake, the music has taken on a greater degree of stylistic versatility and depth that matches said albums in a far more overt way than anything in this band’s back catalog, or that of similarly styled outfits from their scene like Vision Divine and Labyrinth. It is a fitting shift in direction given that Michele Luppi’s more piercing tenor is a tad similar to the vocals of James LaBrie and now lone guitarist and co-founder Aldo Lonobile has always exhibited some tendencies in line with a slightly more reserved version of John Petrucci. To be clear, nothing found on this album goes quite to the technical depths of a “Metropolis Pt. 1” or an “Erotomania”, but things definitely get a bit more shred happy than usual.
Perhaps the most enticing aspect of this album is where it diverges with the older Dream Theater model a bit, and that is the structuring of the album into a progressing conceptual story. Naturally said band did explore this medium on their 1999 effort Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory, but the message here is a bit less of an abstract mind trip and more of a philosophical yet sentimental tale of growth that is fairly reminiscent of Ayreon’s The Human Equation. Along side the shifting time-lines and stories within stories is an architecture to the musical contents that is highly methodical. The obligatory opening prelude “Intermission” sets the mood in a serene yet somber place with orchestral and piano drones like the opening credits to a tragic film, which then melds perfectly into a gradual build up of tension at the onset of “The Calling”, a song that listens like a more concise answer to “Pull Me Under”, lead by Luppi’s nimble mixture of blaring harmonies and crooning transitions and followed close behind by a tight and intent arrangement.
In a sense, this album can be treated as a 55 minute long epic song unto itself, divided into four sections with half of those being further sub-divided. The aforementioned songs act as a rather impressive overture and fanfare number to warm up the onlooker, while the bulk of what follows comes in the form of seven musical tales, each outlining a particular virtue that defines the moral message contained within the broader album. Each of these songs has a radically different character, despite each one fitting fairly neatly into the same inspiration of 90s Dream Theater. Of particular note is the driving fury and excellence of “Courage” and the somewhat more complex and shifting yet still power metal oriented “Reliance”, both of which are the closest to the older Secret Sphere sound. On the opposite end of the spectrum stands the likes of “Honesty” and the shred-happy, jazzed up instrumental “Commitment”, which dive head first into the deep end of progressive quirkiness and come fairly close to the technical flair of “Metropolis Pt. 1”.
The story closes with two songs that each stand as their own respective chapters. The coup de grace of majestic power and nimble scale-runs sees Secret Sphere putting together their own longer winded answer to the Dream Theater epic in “The Awakening”, though it is immediately followed by a shorter and more concise effort in “The New Beginning” that sees some elements of “The Calling” returning and brings things full circle, much like time itself tends to run in circles despite its linear trajectory. That’s the ultimate charm of an album like this, the logical consistency that rests beneath the human sentiments and confessions, representing the dual nature of mankind as seeking progress yet always coming back to the beginning of things. It’s an approach that results in an album that is more of a grower, yet some of it makes an impact that is instantly splendid. About the only thing that tends to detract from the perfect visual being conveyed is a vocal mix that’s a tad too prominent, though it goes without saying that Michele Luppi has a voice that steals the show at any volume. This is a different Secret Sphere than the one that most longtime fans will recognize, but one equally as worthy and arguably one with a broader appeal.