NEXT TO NONE
USA prog upstarts, Next To None, are back with album number two. So, what's changed for their sophomore record? Well, 'A Light in the Dark' was produced by drummer Max Portnoy's dad, Mike; whereas the band themselves were responsible for the production on this one... and, dare I say, it sounds much better. This is no doubt helped along by a masterful mix by Periphery's Adam "Nolly" Getgood, but kudos to Next To None for their production skills in the first instance. However, whereas it was the guitars that suffered on the band's debut, these now sound ten times better, although the drums could have benefitted from a more incisive, tighter sound and a little more polish. It's always nice to hear a kit that sounds organic in how it's been captured, but this sways a little too far towards the organic, and Portnoy's more frantic drumming loses a little impact through the production (particularly his snare).
Derrick Schneider has replaced Ryland Holland on guitar, as the band's former axeman has opted to pursue his education at the Berklee College Of Music. So, a circumstantial departure it seems, rather than any great drama but, based on 'Phases', Schneider sounds like a much better fit, and has most definitely helped the band progress into a more exciting prospect since their debut. His fretboard work is fantastic throughout. And there are no guests on this new one. 'A Light in the Dark' featured Bumblefoot and Neal Morse in guest spots, whereas 'Phases' is purely Next To None.
The general feeling of the music has also shifted into darker and heavier territory. There are still plenty of light/dark and mellow/heavy contrasts, but this latest effort is noticeably darker in its general tone, with a greater number of heavier passages than their debut. And when Next To None heavy it up, they're crushingly heavy... something that was lacking on 'A Light in the Dark'. This is aided, partly, by way better death growls, which have improved significantly and are more rampant throughout. They just weren't particularly convincing previously, but they're a lot more biting in their delivery than before. Keys guy and vocalist, Thomas Cuce, has evidently worked on his voice.... and it can be heard here. His cleans have improved, too.
There are a lot of grooves in the songs, a few djent-styled passages, some cacophonised random heaviness, keyboard-centric moments of sonic beauty, and a ton of musical virtuosity. A few eccentric divergences are also thrown into the compositional pot, where they do sound like a band being different for the sake of... rather than adding to the overall feel of the songs... but these parts are way less frequent than on 'A Light in the Dark'. At times, in feels as if Next To None have seemingly pitched their sonic architecture somewhere between Periphery and Between the Buried and Me in style, arrangement, composition and execution... but without the finesse and maturity of either. That said, 'Phases' does stand on its own two feet and offers up an intriguing listen on its own terms.
The skill level on each of their instruments is undeniably high but, based on the songs on 'Phases', they've still yet to strike a perfect balance between technical abilities and great songwriting. However, they've certainly moved a step closer. Songs are punctuated by too many moments of mindless virtuosity (which is technically great but, sometimes, hideously stilted within songs' structures... a little too showy and "for the sake of"). I have to assert, though, this is merely my personal opinion. Some people thrive on listening to mindless virtuosity and technical abilities, whether it's for the better of a song or not.
Some tracks do sound a little cluttered, with too many ideas thrown together and, seemingly, not a great deal of thought behind how one transitions into the next. Whereas a band like BTBAM would be hitting a 10/10 for how astutely they combine stylistically disparate elements into an organically natural flow, Next To None are only hitting a 6. However, it's a distinct improvement from the first album. There's less clutter, although it is still there. Likewise, the transitions are better, but still compositionally lacking in places.
Overall, 'Phases' is undeniably better than 'A Light in the Dark', and a great listen, but there's still some work to be done here. There remains a need for them to refine and hone their songcraft, to try and maintain a more natural flow throughout all their music... and to structure their music that's best for the song, rather than adhering to any sense of "let's try and be different". Musical innovation should be an aesthetically natural process, not forced. However, it must not be forgotten that these guys are still young and still learning. And, regardless, 'Phases' is still well worth checking out and a fine achievement for this point in their career.
Review by Mark Holmes
7th July 2017
2) Answer Me
3) The Apple
9) Mr Mime
11) Denial; 12) The Wanderer
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN:
"There are a lot of grooves in the songs, a few djent-styled passages, some cacophonised random heaviness, keyboard-centric moments of sonic beauty, and a ton of musical virtuosity."