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Released March 6, 2001
Progressive rock bands seem to go through creative life cycles unparalleled outside of this inventive genre. And Ice Age are no exception to the rule, caught in a whirlwind of advancement towards that hallowed zone where craft and wizardry become honed and restrained, an astonishing leap in confidence woven into Liberation.
The title of the record is, as always with this band, drenched with meaning, allusion and identification, but it is a word that floats throughout these songs. Vocalist and keyboardist Josh Pincus explains. "Liberation refers to a couple of themes that run through the album. Obviously the first tune 'The Lhasa Road' deals pretty directly with the situation in Tibet, kind of a 'cause celebre' these days, and a very important one. It's a very sad situation that's going on there in terms of what the Chinese have done over the last 50 years, killing a million people and taking the country by force. I use that as an example of what militarily strong, imperialist nations have been doing to weak ones since time immemorial, which is march in, take it by force, plunder the natural resources and make the people live their lives according to a certain doctrine or political philosophy. The word liberation is often used in these situations. The oppressor's attitude towards the indigenous population is, 'They should be grateful - we're liberating them,' while in reality, their identity as a culture is being systematically destroyed. So certainly the first song deals with that. And the other theme throughout is personal liberation. It's almost a Buddhist idea. It appeals to the opposite of that part of our nature that seeks to take over the next guy and pound him on the head with your political and religious philosophies. Ultimately, liberation refers to the idea of liberating yourself from all of these ideologies, and simply being true to yourself and having a passion and a respect for the rights of other people."
Musically, Ice Age has been practicing their own form of liberation, breaking free of the prog rock tendency to practice "part for part's sake", as Josh calls it. Liberation, although stacked with long compositions takes a left turn from the norm, stressing an equal balance between all instruments, over which dramatic, passionate vocals state cases that are both mature and poetic. "Hopefully we've carved out more of a unique identifiable band style as opposed to fitting in that all-encompassing prog metal thing," offers Josh. "I think the songs are a little more cohesive and the album works a little better. I just think melodically and structurally this album seems to flow better than the first album ('99's Ice Age debut The Great Divide). And generally speaking it's not quite as heavy. We did the first album in our own studio, which was pretty much built right before the recording of that record. We're a lot more familiar with it now; we have better gear and we're very careful and meticulous about how each drum is recorded and how each sound goes down to tape and how much compression we use and all that technical stuff. In particular, the drum sound is a lot better this time."
And not only is Hal Aponte's drum sound more prominent, his performance is absolutely thrilling, Aponte finding fills and tones and rhythmic densities that sound, not like Neil Peart on 2112, but Neil Peart IN 2112. Think Virgil Donati, Mike Portnoy and Rod Morgenstein all wrapped up in a ball of percussion wonder. Josh reveals that Hal also helped out with lyrics. "He's the drum guru. I really think his playing shines on this album and I'm really happy that all his playing is really audible this time. But yes, Hal did most of the lyrics on 'The Guardian Of Forever'. He writes really great lyrics and I feel bad because I'm so possessive when it comes to lyrics. He should have more input. There's a lot of cool imagery and almost a medieval feel, knights in battle and things like that. Musically it's a synthesis between the song that proceeds it, which is an acoustic guitar intro and also a piece of music we have reworked from our first demo we did in 1992. Fans who knew us before we were Ice Age and were called Monolith (also the name of this track's intro piece!) will recognize that. That's also one of the heaviest songs. The heavy part is off time, proggy, with a nice, long, sweeping, stringy, mellow middle part and then a crescendo up to the heavy part again."
Guitarist Jimmy Pappas has also found new, more succinct ways to express himself. His chops are unarguable, and they can be heard within many showcase moments of the album. But it is the man's sense of melody, in conjunction with Josh's cohesive keyboard and vocal lines, that take the Ice Age to, er, warmer climates. "Well my favorite guitar section, and it might not be the favorite of prog fans, is the solo in 'When You're Ready', the longest track," offers Pincus enthusiastically. "It's very, very melodic. Jimmy's playing in general really took a step forward, if that's possible. I mean, he was really going fast and furious for the most part on the first album. His technique is impeccable as far as his mastery of impressive, fast sweeping and picking; those showy kinds of things, and his incredible sense of feel really shines here as well. His solos are almost like songs in themselves, dynamically. Jimmy's guitar solo on 'Musical Cages' is just phenomenal. There's a middle section where he does a really ripping fast solo and at the end it's a bit more melodic. He really shines on that song. In general, on this record he's really found a perfect mix between very melodic playing and really good note choice. And of course the technique is always there."
'When You're Ready' just might be the album's crowning moment amongst many. The melody is soaring and heaven-sent, complex and at the same time, instantly memorable. It is a hallmark of Ice Age's maturity and a beacon of creative majesty to come in future years. "That one goes from the big pretentious philosophical political themes before it into more personal things," offers Pincus with a laugh. "And again it ties into the idea of liberation. It's more about personal liberation, leaving the past behind and finding the courage to search out what you really want to do with your life and going ahead with it with no fear. Musically, that song almost has a Yes/Kansas feel to it. It's pretty much in major keys throughout so it has an upbeat feel to it, especially some of the middle parts which are up-tempo. There are a lot of interesting changes in tone.
Other lyrics on the album that pour into the complex well of liberation vignettes include 'The Blood Of Ages' which Josh calls "one of the heavier songs on the record, with bits that are almost thrashy." Lyrically it deals with the idea of warfare as opposed to non-violent means of resolving conflicts. Josh describes 'A Thousand Years' as revolving around the idea of "living an informed life - observing and really keeping an eye out for what's going on around the world, as well as for what has gone before, to see how different people have contributed in both positive and very negative, destructive ways." Elsewhere, 'The Wolf' deals with "the dark side of people, their motivations and how motivations get acted out."
One very interesting link to the first Ice Age album, The Great Divide, is a full-on prog showcase elaborately named 'To Say Goodbye, Part II: Still Here', an excellent idea, given the classic Marillion-like melody enclosed. "That one is a continuation. On the first record part one is instrumental, part two is the last song on the record, and musically we wanted to do something that had a few signatures from that song. There is definitely a similarity in the riff, but it's in a major key so it has a different feel. And again the lyrics deal with loss and the loss of friends. Unfortunately we've had a number of deaths in the last few years of some our family members and friends."
Josh offers a final word which sets the stage for an exploration of the Ice Age experience. "Obviously we are a prog rock/metal band. That's a fair enough categorization. But I think as the years go on, our focus, especially now with the new material, is becoming song structure and songwriting and strong vocal melody writing. You know, a lot of the time in this prog thing, you get lost in the technicality of the music and the vocals come second. We're trying to get away from that and approach things from more of a vocal perspective. Certainly with the second record we've found more of a unique identifiable style. You can't say it sounds too much like this band or that band anymore. Hopefully it's not just in my own mind, but I think we're starting to find a unique sound."
Rest assured that sentiment is more than valid, Ice Age, with Liberation, vaulting to the forefront of progressive metal acts finding intuitively pleasurable songs which use top-flight musicianship more as vocabulary working seamlessly and invisibly in the background, rather than an endstop to, or a reflection upon, itself. The future of prog is most definitely in the hands of Ice Age and other buzz bands who are comprising the new wave of this exploding genre.
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