Album Review: OSI, Blood

[from MadeLoud, June 5, 2009]

Going back to the opening notes of the first song of their first album, OSI has always been defined by the healthy creative tension between guitarist Jim Matheos’ monstrous riffs and keyboardist/vocalist Kevin Moore’s textured spaciness. The two have taken turns dominating each other, but the duo’s finest moments have always emerged where Matheos and Moore’s sensibilities not only met halfway but ran off together in a strange, third direction, fully mastering the techno-informed brand of progressive metal so many others have pursued to no avail; where their previous efforts stood almost as see-saws of highs and lows, with Blood the two have finally found the stylistic fusion their first two discs hinted at.

As with 2003’s Office of Strategic Influence and 2006’s Free, Blood is fueled by Matheos’ pull-off metal and the detachment of Moore’s near-monotone vocals, all over a wild string of odd time signatures held down by phenomenal drumming (this time courtesy of Gavin Harrison of Porcupine Tree). Kicking off with the clean intro section of the wild low-end metal of “The Escape Artist,” Blood very quickly and very loudly declares its intent: intrigue while brutalizing and never choose the obvious next step.

Not content to merely rock, the two waste no time peeling back the layers into the synthesized guitars and warbled pads of “Terminal,” but no sooner has OSI lulled the listener into a false sense of comfort than the furious steel of “False Start” kicks things back into high gear. This kind of manic-depressive approach continues through the loops and feedback of “We Come Undone” before the tension of “Radiologue” explodes into the high-octane “Be the Hero,” easily the heaviest song on the album, which in turn feeds into the avant mid-tempo of “Microburst Alert,” its sampled dialogue recalling the technique that defined much of the sound of Moore’s solo work.

Fittingly, Blood reaches its high point in the pair of tracks that close the album. The tripped-out vocals of Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt on “Stockholm” dump layer upon layer of harmony over an ever-increasing number of pads, synths and processed percussion before Matheos’ epic guitar tracks wash it all away with a fit of perfectly-placed sludge riffing, finally fading into the drone-with-a-dash-of-ambient of the closing title track, Moore delivering the love-and-life-as-war metaphor to end them all: “The heart,” he posits, “it beats for blood.”

More than anything else, Blood could best be described as an extremely menacing 45 minutes, not just in its gloomy instrumentation but also in its bare-knuckled vocal element. Moore’s lyrics here are less obvious than the satirical propaganda of Office of Strategic Influence and vague war narrative of Free, but in many ways hearken back to the subtle hostility that informed his mid-90s work as a member of Dream Theater and later his early Chroma Key recordings. Like some kind of sinister Adam Duritz, Moore turns conventional phrases (“no harm, no foul”) into thinly-veiled warnings to some unknown subject (“the wind’s at our back when we’ll attack / ’cause God is our man, he understands”). OSI has long been Moore’s avenue for exploring the political as the personal, but here those two subjects fully cannibalize each other which, given this group’s past efforts and considerable talents, would not at all be an impossible intention or unforeseen consequence.

Other individual songs in OSI’s back catalog are certainly stronger than what’s presented here but with Blood, Moore and Matheos have finally managed to advance the sound they first forged six years ago. The former has shown more poetic lyrical turns and the latter has inarguably crafted mightier riffs but taken as a whole, this latest work reveals itself as their strongest piece yet.