Paper Monkeys, though nothing new for these prog standbys, is proof that they're still doing what they do best, even after 16 studio releases.
Prog has many niches that need to be filled. For each of these niches, there will always be a band that stands out amidst the many as the forebear of that niche. For those inclined towards highly technical, concept-heavy prog, Dream Theater is usually first on the playlist. Those with a taste for the symphonic usually go for a Spock's Beard or Neal Morse record. Opeth sates the death metal cravings of many prog fans. Like many broad genres, prog encompasses many sub-genres that seem to permutate often, sometimes more than once in a year.
Having built their reputation over 20 years (though going through many lineup changes in the process) with almost that many studio releases, the Ozric Tentacles stand at the forefront of their prog sub-genre: psychedelic instrumental prog. Now, the word "psychedelic," as well as the general sound of the Ozrics, is naturally bound to bring forth a certain accusation. Let it be pre-empted here with this quotation from a famous prog musician who began his most famous prog venture in the psychedelic realm:
The theory that proper psychedelic music can only be made by drug users - I've always disputed that. I've always believed that true psychedelic music simply comes when the power of the imagination is unleashed. Some musicians use drugs to do that, some do not - Frank Zappa chose not to, for instance.
-- Steven Wilson
No doubt words like "druggy" or "drug-laden" or "probably involved the use of drugs" will be words that come to the minds of many who listen to this record. On the one hand, it's hard not to use that sort of description. The record does harken back to early psychedelia, which no doubt involved much consumption of various substances. That said, I don't know if the Ozric Tentacles use drugs or not. I'd like to think that they don't, but if they do, it would certainly explain their ever-increasing musical output. Either their psychedelic drug consumption allows them to keep putting out consistently good records, or the imaginations of the various band members is still active after all of these years. I'm inclined to believe the latter.
Paper Monkeys continues in the same direction the band has gone all of their career. The album is better listened to as a big whole instead of the nine different tracks that it is. These songs, usually somewhere between six and eight minutes, are likely to expand into much longer jams live, so these songs are better seen as blueprints for what will become impressive live songs. This is the sound that the band has stuck to over the course of its almost 30-year existence, and they do it well.
This record, while not a bad one, is more or less another addition to their oeuvre, much in the same way their past albums have been. All of these albums are occupied with similar psychedelic jams, full of shredding guitar lines, hazy synthesizer textures and some highly danceable rhythms. The Ozrics have always been good at incorporating club-ready rhythms into their music, and Paper Monkeys is no different. "Plowm" and "Attack of the Vapours" (gotta love prog song titles) are two standout dance-like tracks, though both are still dominated by the band's signature psychedelia. In tandem with the impressive rhythm section is the guitar work by Ed Wynne, who does very well here. He, while sticking to the band's signature sound, also incorporates some work reminiscent of the great guitar shredders: "Flying Machines" sounds like Steve Vai through a tripped-out phaser, and "Paper Monkeys" recalls Joe Satriani.
In short, the band is doing what they've always been doing. For fans of the band, this means another solid release full of jams that will fill the air of many music festivals to come. For those less inclined to prog or to psychedelia, Paper Monkeys will sound much like a homogenous set of trippy jams. This is the typical scenario when a band has built up a specific fanbase who loves their sound. It's hard to recall when Ayreon won over any new fans. Nevertheless, Wilson's point about drug consumption and psychedelia leaves one thing clear about the Ozrics. Whether or not they do ingest the varied psychedelic music boosters, one thing is clear: their longevity and dedication is quite impressive. That's something both prog lovers and those less inclined to prog can appreciate.