[30 May 2012]
Points North is an instrumental rock trio with an excellent guitarist, Eric Barrett, at its heart. Barrett is the leader of the band and his playing provides most of the melody and audio pyrotechnics on Road Less Traveled, their debut album. Barrett is also a savvy enough player to know that he sounds better with a strong rhythm section. Accordingly, drummer Kevin Aiello and bassist Uriah Duffy are both skilled players who can each follow what Barrett is doing. Aiello provides strong stick work throughout the album, knowing just when to throw in an ace fill. Dufffy competently holds down the low end on most of the tracks, but flashes of just how good he is come out when he doubles Barrett’s fast-moving guitar lines and even takes a solo or two himself.
Listening to Road Less Traveled is often akin to traveling back in time to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when instrumental guitar albums briefly attained mainstream popularity. The songs on this album are guitar-driven but also melodic. A handful of the tracks are built around riffs, but by and large Barrett is interested in creating guitar melodies and using those melodies as a jumping-off point to display his skills. The main touchstone Points North is working off of is clearly Joe Satriani. He was one of the biggest stars from that period, and Barrett’s songwriting approach is very reminiscent of Satriani.
“Vast Horizons” and second track “High Wire” set the template for the rest of album. The former is a bright, major key song anchored by a guitar melody that soars above a chunkier rhythm guitar and bass line while Aiello incorporates a lot of light, airy cymbal crashes into his beats. Barrett takes a couple of solos, one quiet and delicate, the next more rocking. The whole song wraps up in just over three-and-a-half minutes and it’s on to “High Wire”, which showcases the band’s more technical side. The song is one of the album’s few riff-based tracks, taking a relatively simple five-second idea and quickly ornamenting it with sixteenth-note scales and arpeggios. As much as Barrett gets to show off on this one, Duffy matches him note for note, complementing the guitar lines with equally quick bass playing that uses the whole fretboard.
Road Less Traveled doesn’t stray too far from these two basic ideas. Fortunately, Barrett has a knack for creating a good melody, which makes the album quite listenable even as it gets a bit sonically repetitive. Barrett isn’t shy about showing off his considerable playing ability, but it’s almost always in service to his songwriting ideas and not just flat-out musical masturbation, which is where these guitar hero-type albums often bog down. Only a couple of songs top the six-minute mark here, with most of the tracks lasting around four-and-a-half minutes. As far as standouts go, the jaunty “Maiden Voyage” effectively combines the band’s melodic sense with one of their most muscular riffs. The bouncy “Barney” injects a bit of playfulness into the band’s formula, mostly courtesy of Duffy’s slap-and-pop bass technique that gives the song a different feel from the rest of the album. “Grace Under Pressure” probably features the catchiest riff and melody on the album, and effectively builds the album’s longest song around it.
Points North isn’t trying to reinvent or update much of anything with their sound, so this album often sounds like it could easily have been released in 1992 instead of 2012. Progressive rock and heavy metal have branched off in dozens of directions in the past 20 years, but Barrett doesn’t seem interested in exploring any of those directions with Points North. His guitar playing is strong throughout the album, and his relentlessly melodic, upbeat style sometimes resembles Phish’s Trey Anastasio more than more traditional instrumental guitar heroes like Satriani or Steve Vai. It makes for an entertaining listening experience, but the lack of variety between the songs keeps Road Less Traveled from being something truly great.