1. Look! It’s Coming 7:45
2. Old World News 8:22
3. Truth Seeker 9:48
4. Belteshazzar’s Dream 8:10
5. Plowshares Into Swords 10:15
6. Locust Swarm 4:31
J.R. Fernandez – keyboards, acoustic and electric guitars, bass guitar, lead vocals (2, 3, 5)
Anthony Davis – lead vocals (1, 5 – second verse), voice (4)
A.I. Fernandez – bass guitar (3)
Scott Rockenfield – drums
Novus Rex is a project formed by the father/son duo J.R. and A.I. Fernandez. Now based in Denver, Colorado (USA), J.R. Fernandez was raised in the New York City metropolitan area during the Seventies, and his interest in keyboards began at an early age. Later, he brought to bear his formal education in electronics engineering and computer science in his musical activity, especially as regards the use of Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) technology.
The title of Novus Rex’s debut album, as well as the idea behind it, was inspired by the Bible, in particular the books of the prophets Daniel, Isaiah and Joel (the album title is actually taken from the latter) – as well as by history and current events. As concept albums go, Plowshares Into Swords is quite a rare occurrence, since, for the most part, it lets the music – rather than the words – do the talking. Though elaborate concepts do have a loyal following, other people (including myself) often find themselves put off by the excessive wordiness (when not outright preachy nature) of many of those efforts – where the music often seems to be pushed in the background in favour of the verbal message. Luckily, J.R. Fernandez’ priorities for his project’s debut release are very clear: indeed, while four out of the six tracks that comprise Plowshares Into Swords have lyrics, these are short and to the point, and in no way detract from what is really the focus of the album – the musical content.
Rooted in vintage progressive rock, with touches of jazz-rock and electronica, Plowshares Into Swords revolves around Fernandez’s skill as a keyboardist. With both digital and analog keyboards thrown into the mix, the album sounds lush and warm, with an easy, natural flow that is often hard to achieve properly. The synthesizers never sound wheezing or piercing as it frequently happens in modern recordings, and the passages in which Fernandez lets rip on the Hammond organ can be positively stunning. The album’s organic feel is further enhanced by the contribution of Queensryche drummer Scott Rockenfield, which prevents the dreaded artificial effect caused by the all too common use of programmed drums.
The album’s press release mentions such influences as Pink Floyd, Vangelis and ELP – and, for once, this is not just throwing names around for the sake of it, since these three acts are clearly referenced in Novus Rex’s music. However, it would be unfair to label the album as overtly derivative, because Plowshares Into Swords reveals a genuinely personal imprint, even if steeped in the glorious tradition of the Seventies. Fernandez has listened to a lot of different music in his lifetime, which obviously informs his compositional approach. While his handling of keyboard duties does bring Keith Emerson to mind, he is definitely more restrained, and never indulges in over-the-top soloing. The rich layers of keyboards that feature so prominently on the album are at the service of the compositions rather than the other way around.
“Look! It’s Coming” opens the album in a dramatic, cinematic way, with spacey, multilayered keyboards and eerie sound effects, bringing to mind Vangelis, Mike Oldfield and Pink Floyd – the latter comparison reinforced by the Gilmourian echoes in the guitar solo. However, the distinctive vocal contribution of the late Anthony Davis (an experienced musician and good friend of Fernandez, who also wrote the song’s lyrics) adds a touch of its own. Emerson’s influence surfaces most clearly in the following tracks, such as the intense “Old World News”, the imperious, almost martially-paced “Beltheshazzar’s Dream” (in my view the most successful number on the album), and the somewhat more low-key title-track. On the other hand, the heavy riffing and guitar-keyboard interplay in “Truth Seeker” brings to mind vintage hard rock acts such as Blue Oyster Cult. The disc is closed by the relatively short, atmospheric instrumental “Locust Swarm”, where layers of keyboards weave a dance-like tune.
Running below 50 minutes, Plowshares Into Swords is a compact, well-rounded album that is both accessible and suitably complex. J.R. Fernandez proves that he can fuse disparate influences with his own inspiration, and come up with an album that, while not wildly innovative, manages to hit the progressive spot. Lovers of classic, keyboard-oriented prog will find a lot to interest them in this solid debut by a gifted musician and composer. This a disc that makes good use of both tradition and technological innovation, and is also a very pleasing, rewarding listen for everyone but the most snobbish of progressive rock fans.