If there's anyone working in the rock/metal genre who has a better understanding of melody than Jason Bieler, I have absolutely no idea who it might be. This is a double album of new material with fifteen songs on offer and they're so loaded with melodies and harmonies that we start to believe that everything is a hook. Sure, the choruses are hooks but the verses are also hooks and the riffs and often the beats too. He's so apparently effortless at this that it can be hard to believe that it's new material and we didn't just grow up with all these songs as cultural atmosphere.
Bombay is a particularly strong opener, a lively and bouncy alt rock piece with all those hooks and plenty of harmonies too. The bookends are as steampunk as the cover art suggests yet again and they set a scene that I was surprised not to see visited more during the album. However, the style in between that reminds us how much Bieler enjoys the Beatles is consistently explored across the other songs. The question often comes down to how much he wants to rock out at a point in time, as he does on Heathens or Sic Riff, and how much he doesn't, as on Mexico, which is layered hooks and strings, even though he adds a tasty guitar solo.
Well, I say he adds a tasty guitar solo but I'm not sure who does what here, beyond expecting that Bieler does most of it. There are guests, most obviously Andee Blacksugar and Edu Cominato, who are currently touring with KMFDM and Geoff Tate respectively. Both of them appear on a slew of tracks, the latter for drums and the former for "extra guitars, noises and solos". There are a whole lot of others, but I'm thinking the vast majority are Bieler under various wild and wonderful noms de plume, such as Wormsby Troutlick and Stralinksi Waka-waka. Quite a few of these names have a connection to food, like Baklava Jones and Stilton Shoebaggies, so I'm guessing Bieler was hungry when he conjured them up.
The actual other people lean towards multi-instrumentalists who perform with a broad variety of artists but only appear on one track, usually Beneath the Waves. That includes two bassists, Chris McLernon, formerly of Bieler's primary band, Saigon Kick, and Todd Kerns, currently working with Slash; as well as Ryo Okumoto of Spock's Beard on piano and keyboards. Elsewhere, there's Marco Minneman, a German drummer who's played with everyone from Nena to Necrophagist, and Ricky Sanders, also ex-Saigon Kick, who was on the previous Baron von Bielski Orchestra release, Songs for the Apocalypse.
It doesn't surprise me that Bieler should attract such a versatile set of musical partners, but they aren't here to do anything particularly flash. They're here to collaborate with him in ways that are reliant on having an open musical mind. That works gloriously on the first of the two records, with everyone making wonderful contributions across the board that always fit with Bieler's melodies. Bombay is only the first of a number of highlights, because Heathens bounces with edges, Birds of Prey is beautiful and elegant, Flying Monkeys is full of fascinating rhythms and Sic Riff grinds.
That's not to say that the second disc doesn't work because it does, just not quite so effortlessly as the first. Deep Blue is probably my favourite track there, with its prog pop rhythms and langurous drive, but I'd put that behind all five of the earlier highlights that I mentioned above. Other songs stand out in other ways too, often lighter ones. There are keyboard touches that elevate 9981 Dark and electronica is even more fundamental to Bear Sedatives, with its delightful vocalisations that serve as both rhythm and backing vocals. Human Head closes out in an uncharactistically folk vein, the most unique song here and my second highlight behind Deep Blue.
That uneven balance between discs doesn't help the album, but nothing really lets it down. Quite frankly, the worst songs here would seem good on someone else's album because everything that Bieler does is worth hearing. It goes without saying that everything here is instantly recognisable as his work because his style is not easily mimicked and nobody else does it quite like him. I think I would award the first disc a 9/10 but the second only a 7/10, so this averages out to a second highly recommended 8/10 album in a row for Bieler. Just buy everything he's ever done and absorb it.