One listen to Liberation, the sophomore offering from the New York progressive rock outfit Ice Age, and one will clearly recognize who is setting the pace in the progressive rock/metal arena. While Dream Theater may have defined the genre in the early ‘90s, it’s Ice Age who are extending the boundaries of its possibilities.
Formed in 1993 as Monolith by vocalist/keyboardist Josh Pincus, guitarist Jimmy Pappas and drummer Hal Aponte and augmented by the addition of bassist Arron DiCesare, the band created a buzz with a batch of demos that eventually made their way to Magna Carta Records via Shrapnel Records boss Mike Varney. After inking a deal with Magna Carta in 1998, the band changed their name to Ice Age, released their 1999 debut album The Great Divide to tremendous critical praise in progressive rock circles and immediately drew comparisons to progressive contemporaries like Styx, Kansas, Rush and Dream Theater.
The release of Liberation demonstrates a departure from the metalized heaviness that typified The Great Divide, resulting in what could arguably be heralded as one of the best progressive rock records of the past decade. Liberation is a record without flaw, and the band who recorded it—without one chink in its musical armor. The songwriting is superb, Pincus’ lyrics are both emotional and thought-provoking, and the musicianship impeccable.
But make no mistake about it, Liberation is a progressive rock record, but in the same vein as Kansas’ Leftoverture where every aspect of that record was not only interesting, but enthralling; and every composition was very much song-oriented. Every musical excursion and every bit of technicality serves to compliment the song instead of showcasing the prowess of the individual musician; and that’s what separates Ice Age from the rest of the crowd. All of the music is written by Pappas and Pincus, who also co-produced the record. And what a platter they lay before us.
The album’s opening track, “Lhasa Road (No Surrender)” sets the tone of the album as it presents virtuosic keyboard flourishes courtesy of Pincus, whose powerful, emotive, Dennis DeYoung-tinged vocals soar throughout the record. In addition to Pincus’ thrilling keyboard exploits, you’re also introduced to one of the most amazing guitarists that you’ll ever hear, in Jimmy Pappas. Pappas’ lines are infused with equal parts of power and melodicism. Nowhere is that trait more evident than on “To Say Goodbye, Part III: Still Here”, which is a continuation of Pincus’ lyrical ode to personal loss on Parts I & II from The Great Divide.
Although the song’s clean opening riff may hint of Eric Johnson, that’s where the similarities end, as Pappas dives in with a stunning rock riff destined for the tab sites. But it’s his ridiculously melodic solo towards the end, that is most impressive—totally atmospheric and absolutely breathtaking. Then there is the beautiful ballad, “When You’re Ready”, that couples Pappas’ warm acoustic passages with Pincus’ lush orchestration and his gut-wrenching vocals. The song touches every musical continent—a journey not to be forgotten nine minutes later when you’re begging for more. Another signature trait of the band is that of the unexpected. It is absolutely impossible to envision the many directions each song will take. “The Blood of Ages” is the perfect example with its heavy, extremely prog intro that gives way to Pappas’ shimmering guitar arpeggio to begin the verse. But this trait prevails throughout the record and whatever territory they choose to explore is always interesting, if not engrossing. The rhythm section of Hal Aponte and Arron DiCesare is a most formidable force. Their work on this record rivals the best that the genre has to offer.
Liberation‘s 12 tracks clock in at 63 minutes and four of the tracks are vignettes under two minutes, including Pincus’ beautiful, album-ending, Kerry Livgren-esque piano composition “Tong-Len”. So in typical prog fashion the songs are long, but are so cleverly written, arranged and performed that even what they have done is not enough and will leave the listener wanting much more.
Liberation is a monumental release, one that should be coveted by any progressive rock fan, and its transcendent qualities are more than up to the task of winning over mainstream rock music fans as well. While most progressive bands are content to ride the coattails of those who define the genre, Ice Age refuse to do that! They’re much too busy redefining it!!