Review: Legoland Empire – Solar Particles

Legoland Empire, the self-declared Internet Supergroup, have released their second EP-format album Solar Particles. It follows up on their first Guard the Point, which I did already enjoy.

Legoland Empire is pianist/synthesist Neil Alexander (Nail etc.), guitarist Rob Michael (Atmos Trio,…), bassist Trip Wamsley and Allen Wentz as the project leader/musical spiritus rector, as well as additional synthesist and drum programmer.

The ensemble took the time to provide some info to fans in a Release Party Google Hangout on Air for the album’s release. It was also there where I learned about their mode d’emploi: typically, a structure for a track is defined by Allen. The other musicians are then asked to provide fitting parts (sometimes a lot of different versions), and the end result is accomplished by Allen at the editing/mixing stage.

Not an atypical approach for a 21st century internet-based project. Those projects, however, tend to have a special challenge, as the musicians can’t listen to each other and react to each other while performing their parts. There’s several ways to go about this: a) the tracks must be very through-composed, including specifying all subtle volume and tempo changes, b) a lot of iterations are required with the artists doing updates on their first submittals over and over until everything flows together, or c) live with the inherent property of “blinded flight” for the musicians, and accomplish a fitting whole at the editing stage. Legoland Empire had mostly opted for approach c). So did it work?

Starting with the opening title track, we’re immediately confronted with something reminiscent of tracks by later incarnations of the Mahavishnu Orchestra (mainly 3rd generation of McLaughlin/Eckart-Karpeh/Gurtu). On top of a pulsating synth pad, it’s mainly Alexander on acoustic grand and Wamsley on fretless trading phrases of variable length, before in the second half Michael comes in with a soft, distorted melodic guitar part, which gets accompanied by chords, arpeggios and short figures from Alexander and Wamsley. At this point, already the main issue with this creative approach appears – once it’s three players playing on top of each other, one tends to often overplay (in the sense of playing too much), simply because you don’t know while tracking which space in the musical whole to leave open because somebody else just starts to fill it.

This becomes even more apparent in the second track Clear Path. On top of a sparsely programmed drum groove (which fits the track just perfectly, and may very well be something that was provided to the artists before each one created his contribution), we have again a very lead-oriented fretless, pad synth, electric piano, square wave lead and electric guitar, which again play too much lead-oriented material, but finally get into an almost Miles-Davis-esque groove near the end, just before it suddenly ends with a (seemingly composed) ending, just when we’re looking for more.

S.E.Q.1, on the other hand, seems much more composed. There’s a theme, there’s turnaround/a short bridge happening, and it seems clearly indicated at each point who is leading and who isn’t: starting with a dissonant synth groove, synth percussion and a deceptively simple bassdrum/snaredrum groove, we have the catchy theme on synths coming in, before Alexander goes wild trading e-piano and synth lead. We also got powerchords, an added harmonisation with an organ (which gets very dense with the melodic content – which is ok, because it only happens for a short time before the bridge), then there’s a heavy guitar solo for perhaps the best section of the entire release, before atonal synth parts take us into the ending – nice!

The album ends with Present, again a softer, lighter track. This is definitely a track which has its moments (and lots of them), but there’s also moments which are not its moments. Again with a sound reminding me a lot of Mahavishnu Orchestra material (which has a lot to do with the choice of sounds for bass, synth and guitar), it’s mostly playing of grooves and intertwining licks, and this helps the musical concept a lot compared to tracks like Clear Path: It becomes really beautiful with a capturing groove around 4:40, which is sad because the tune ends some 30 seconds later.

A general statement about sound engineering and sound design: the members of this group have decided not to join the ugly loudness war – which is great, not only generally but also specifically for this kind of music with its lots of hidden intricacies interwoven into a huge bed of sound. Sound design, of course, is an issue, especially with lots of synthesizer sounds. Here, the picture is mixed: while e.g. in “Present” all the sounds work together really nicely, this is not so much the case with “Clear Path”, where at points it seems it might have been a good choice if the synth player had also submitted a MIDI recording, giving Allen the possibility to make changes to the sound choice at integration stage.

Summary

Like its predecessor, Solar Particles leaves a mixed image in my mind: on the one end there’s brilliant tracks like S.E.Q.1, which had me pressing “repeat” several times, and where the sometimes seemingly disorganized picture does not disturb, but actually support the track. On the other end, there’s Clear Path, where the path seems very unclear to me and which gives an impression of an unsuccesful performance of John Cage’s Musicircus concept with the musicians not being able to hear each other. The two remaining tracks are smewhere in between, great listening but with a few shortcomings along the way.

Of course, this also shows that the tracks are very different indeed, and it’s very well possible that another listener would rate the tracks just the other way ’round. And that would suggest that every listener who is “more or less into that sound” would pick one or two absolute favourites, not like another one and be ok (or, actually, very ok) with the remaining tracks.

It’s interesting from me how this group will evolve further. Until then, you can’t really go wrong with this release: it’s short enough, and it’s PWYWIF. Which means worst case you lose about 15 minutes. Best case – you have discovered an album that to a large degree works for you.

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