With the increasing ease of global communication and widespread appeal of progressive rock, we have seen more and more international bands take to the world stage. Just like PFM and Shakti in the 1970s, these modern bands mix together progressive rock and their local ethnic influences to create a heady brew. Yossi Sassi and the Oriental Rock Orchestra follow this premise and Illusion of Choice offers up new sounds and flavors for us to savor.
A NEW TASTE
For the uninitiated, Yossi Sassi is one of the co-founders of Orphaned Land and a prolific solo artist in his own right. The Oriental Rock Orchestra gathers together some of the most talented musicians from around the globe to create something that’s heavily influenced by their respective countries of origin. The high-caliber musicians that Sassi has brought together are not usually associated with the traditional prog scene and collectively create something new, cultural and interesting.
The band wastes no time showing their hand. A short two-minute ‘introduction’ track pulls together interesting percussion, flutes and fuzz bass. It immediately evokes ‘world music’ feelings and leads into the first track proper; “Reveal”. Wait! Who’s that I hear on vocals? It’s Ross Jennings from Haken, that’s who! Jennings sounds effortless as he weaves through the Eastern scales atop of nice chunky riffs and grooves from the band. His classic tone mixes in really well and will likely give the track more widespread appeal to traditional prog fans.
Another key vocal showcase, “Choice”, features the award winning Ester Rada in a ballad-y acoustic number. It gives plenty of room for her powerful vocal to take center stage. It borders on on cheese at times, but it’s different from anything else on the album and is capped off with a killer guitar solo.
INSTRUMENTAL WORLD TOUR
The remainder of the album is mostly instrumental, showing off the amazing talents of the band. This includes some seriously tasty guitar playing from Sassi himself. This focus works well and the album is a great vehicle for Sassi’s compositional ability and multi-layered approach to music. “Maktoob” starts off in what feels like a quite traditionally Eastern acoustic style. Bouzouki, flutes and percussion blend well with distorted guitars. As with the rest of the album, Yossi never loses sight of a great melody and this is highlighted when the male choir comes into take the song to new heights.
“Orient Echoes” is another great mix of a heavy modern prog sound, Eastern scales and acoustic instruments. Sassi’s guitar playing comes to the fore on this one and his custom instrument, the bouzoukitara, shines from the mix with some great playing. He has an amazing ability to blend together his Satriani-style shredding with more traditional techniques to create something really unique.
“Monad” stands out as a large scale production affair with what sounds like every instrument in the studio being played at once. Careful layering, interesting arrangements and great melodies still take precedence. The male choir is back for this number and the whole thing feels like a family gathering. The guitar interludes and solos sound like an Eastern version of Carlos Santana in places, which you’ll either love or hate I suspect.
Just a couple of misses mar the overall experience for me. “Art of the Problem” starts off in a modern prog style. It kicks along with its fast grooves, percussion overdubs and curious mix of distorted and clean acoustic instruments, but the middle section feels tacked on and out of place – fun, but disjointed. The final track, “The Syncopating Heart”, was just too syrupy and a let down as the end of the album.
AROUND THE WORLD IN 37 MINUTES
The recording and production on this album is second to none. Given the huge numbers of instruments and layers on each song, this was critical to get right. Recorded at Black Rock Studios, every instrument is as clear as a bell and placed perfectly in the mix. You can distinguish the smallest piece of percussion to the loudest voice. The drums in particular sound live and vibrant throughout.
World music in general is ‘Marmite’ for some people. The Illusion of Choice gets a lot of things right; the focus on melody, interesting sounds and instrumentation, great guest vocalists and superb guitar playing. The album only clocks in at around 37 minutes, and that even feels right. If you like this sort of thing, this album is an essential listen.
Another cool thing about The Oriental Orchestra featuring so many musicians that you may have not heard of is that it’s a great chance to go and discover a whole new range of artists. There is plenty here to keep you interested and The Illusion of Choice once again cements Sassi as a central pioneer for this style of music, transcending borders and cultures.
Notable Tracks: “Reveal”; “Choice”; “Orient Echoes”; “Monad”
FFO: Orphand Land, The Gentle Storm, Haken