1. Geistly Suite (7:51)
2. Importance (7:34)
3. Fallen Tiger (6:53)
4. Things Unsaid (5:14)
5. Odessa (5:44)
6. Angelus Novusaum (7:26)
7. When the Fog Clears (6:01)
8. Midnight (6:43)
Gregg Johns – guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals
Ceci Whitehurst – lead vocals
Clay Pell – bass
Todd Sears – drums, percussion, keyboards, vocals
Jeff Hamel – guitar, keyboards (1)
Bones Theriot – guitar (4)
Michael Fortenberry – trumpet (6)
Bridget Shield – lead vocals (8)
Two years ago I received Slychosis’ second album, Slychedelia, to review, and was immediately impressed by the CD’s striking artwork. Visuals have always been essential in progressive rock, and the Mississippi-based outfit had pulled out all the stops by enlisting the services of Surrealist Ukrainian artist Vladimir Moldavsky. Such a strong visual appeal boded well for the album – which, while not as downright quirky as Moldavsky’s imagery, nonetheless presented an intriguing blend of skilfully used electronics and more traditional instrumentation firmly rooted in a prog framework, with a nice balance between vocal and instrumental parts. My main criticism towards Slychedelia was that it was basically a solo album by mainman Gregg Johns with some guest musicians rather than a band effort, and in some of the tracks the presence of programmed drums (that reliable staple of many a ‘solo-pilot’ project) was often hard to ignore.
For Slychosis’ third album, Gregg Johns seemingly followed my advice by putting together a real band, with vocalist Ceci Whitehurst and drummer/vocalist Todd Sears (both of whom had appeared on Slychedelia), and brand-new bassist Clay Pell. While on Slychedelia a number of tracks had been recorded by Johns without any outside help, Mental Hygiene (a title that hints at Johns’ day job as a psychologist), is very much a group effort, and can also count on the contribution of some guest musicians. With a remarkably restrained running time of under 54 minutes (almost 10 minutes shorter than the previous effort), and tracks averaging 6 minutes, the album sounds like a definite step forward for Slychosis – in the same way as putting together a steady line-up was a step forward for Majestic, the band led by Jeff Hamel, Johns’ collaborator in the Proximal Distance project (guesting here on one track).
However, while I am sure that Slychosis’ evolution will be appreciated by a lot of listeners, my view is (perhaps perversely so) somewhat different. Though the album was obviously put together with a lot of care and dedication, I cannot help seeing it as a step backward if compared with Slychedelia, an album I had found genuinely enjoyable in spite of its flaws. My first listen of Mental Hygiene, on the other hand, left me somewhat puzzled, and – while subsequent listens helped me warm to the album somehow – I still do not find it as convincing as I was expecting it to be. Though there are undoubtedly a number of good ideas there, they are not fully brought to fruition. It feels almost as if the album had two souls – a progressive one, with frequent excursions into prog-metal territory, and a more listener-friendly one, expressed by catchy choruses and engaging melodies. This is the kind of formula perfected by Porcupine Tree (a clear influence on this album) in their more recent releases, and nowadays employed by quite a few outfits – with varying degrees of success
Mental Hygiene makes use of both a female and a male vocalist, one of the hottest trends on the current prog scene Now, though Ceci Whitehurst’s low-pitched, well-modulated voice is undoubtedly pleasing, it does not seem completely suited to the material on offer here. The Slychedelia song on which she guested, the wry “Cosmic Irony”, made good use of her somewhat androgynous tone. Here, instead, she is occasionally swamped by the heavy riffing, and I often found myself wishing for a higher-pitched voice– such as Majestic’s Jessica Rasche, who also contributed her impressive pipes to Proximal Distance’s debut. Moreover, when Todd Sears steps behind the microphone, he sounds oddly similar to Whitehurst – while the definite metallic bent of some of the compositions would call for more assertive voices.
Opener “Geistly Suite” is a prime example of some of the album’s shortcomings. In less than 8 minutes, three or four main sections can be identified, each of them somewhat at odds with the other. While the first part veers towards prog-metal, with hints of Queensryche’s more symphonic-oriented pieces, the second part features some funky electric piano and synth work, and is then followed by a sedate, vocal-led section vaguely reminiscent of Genesis. While all the instrumental performances are quite worthy of note, the composition as a whole sounds a bit patchy. The same problem surfaces in closing track “Midnight” (featuring guest singer Bridget Shield’s soulful vocals), where a catchy chorus, heavy riffing and distorted guitar coexist without really harmonizing.
Most of the tracks are in a similar mould, with really good bits let down by some less successful ones. The lone instrumental “Odessa”, probably the album’s highlight, provides a showcase for Johns’ considerable skill as a guitarist, ranging from a beautiful, melodic solo with echoes of David Gilmour to wild, unleashed wailing. On the other hand, the melodic ballad “Fallen Tiger” borders dangerously on cheesiness, and might have been omitted without any detriment to the album. The Celtic-tinged “Things Unsaid” (whose melody reminds me in some odd way of Mike Oldfield’s “Moonlight Shadow”) features an aggressive guitar solo by Bones Theriot of Louisiana-based band Abigail’s Ghost; while the short trumpet solo in the slow, almost plodding “Angelus Novusaum” seems somewhat misplaced in the fabric of the song.
Though this review may come across as a tad harsh, Mental Hygiene – while not as intriguing as Slychosis’ previous release – is nevertheless a perfectly competent album, and points to a band that is gradually coming of age, so to speak. It is to be hoped, however, that their next effort will see them concentrate more on the compositional aspect, as well as not leaning too heavily on the Porcupine Tree/symphonic prog metal influences. The members of Slychosis are obviously talented musicians with a lot to offer, but – in my opinion – they need to find a more distinctive voice of their own, or they will risk going unnoticed on the oversaturated progressive rock scene.