VESTAL is the creative vehicle of US-based multi-instrumentalist and composer Thomas Vestal. "Symbiosis" is his debut effort and seems to have been in development since 1998, planned and created "in the dungeon" according to the brief liner notes. The album was self-released early in 2009.
1. State of Flux 7:31
2. Crystal Phase 5:07
3. The Catalyst 5:15
4. Symbiosis 6:38
5. Resistance 5:14
6. Metamorphosis 14:12
Thomas Vestal – all instruments
One-man bands come in a variety of guises. In this case it seems that we're dealing with the venture of a musician with the keyboards as his specialty, and with a desire to create his own variety of symphonic progressive. In many ways an artist similar to Germany's Alfred Mueller and his long-lasting project Soniq Theater. Vestal's take on the genre seems to follow an approach similar to Mueller's. The bombastic symphonic progressive of ELP comes across as a direct influence in this case as well, and like Alfred he's also using that as a foundation to reach out into other musical territories. In the case of "Symbiosis" this means the inclusion of new age-inspired flavors to the proceedings. Ambient, mellow passages are few and far between though, but the utilization of new age-y textures as additional features to the symphonic sequences is frequently encountered throughout this disc, and often brings Austrian keyboard wizard Gandalf to mind. Folk-tinged percussions with new age leanings strengthen that association considerably, the latter arguably the strongest aspect of this production besides the various forms of keyboards utilized. Vestal also wants to add some additional punch to his works and the guitar is an essential instrument to accomplish just that. Heavy riff segments are utilized at select intervals throughout this effort, and while they do add a heavy flavor to these excursions they more often than not sound slightly out of place in my opinion. I can't really pinpoint where the flaw is, but anyhow, those instances tend to sound just slightly awkward. The atmospheric guitar soloing is much better, often enhancing the moods and themes produced by the keyboards in a neat manner. Drums and bass set up a solid foundation for the other instruments, but these also produce the odd awkward sounding passage now and then. Nothing major or dramatic, but a few odd occasions that come across as slightly underdeveloped or unplanned.
Besides a few odd moments of less refined performance, "Symbiosis" is a fairly nice album. Those who generally enjoy atmospheric instrumental art rock of the symphonic variety will find quite a few good themes and intriguing concepts explored on this disc. Innovative and challenging features are few and far between, but if the concept of an artist residing somewhere in between Gandalf and ELP sounds interesting, Vestal is an artist you should check out. And as indicated earlier: those who enjoy the artistic pursuits of Germany's Soniq Theater might also want to find out more about this US artist, as there are quite a few similarities to be found between these two artists.
Analysis.“Symbiosis” is somewhat of a mysterious product, since there is very little information to be found on the web (or elsewhere) about its author, the undoubtedly gifted Thomas VESTAL. The liner notes are quite sparse, though a picture of the artist shows him as a rather personable man, surrounded by his instruments. One thing is for sure: mysterious or not, Thomas Vestal clearly loves making music, and “Symbiosis” – instead of sounding like the half-baked vanity projects that progressive rock seems to produce with alarming regularity – sounds like a labour of love. This does not mean it is perfect, one of those astonishing, one-of-a-kind debut albums: “Symbiosis” does possess its share of shortcomings, but nonetheless it shows a lot of promise. “Symbiosis” is a completely instrumental album, which is definitely a plus factor if compared to all those solo projects marred by inadequate vocals. Though this is an impressively keyboards-based effort, what strikes the listener’s ear most are the drums, which are (at least in part) programmed. Though they sound remarkably more organic than on other similar recordings, they also tend to be so assertive as to often overwhelm the other instruments, or be at least very hard to ignore. On the other hand, the drumming never gets out of bounds in the way it often does in more metal-oriented efforts. Music-wise, Vestal’s debut could be compared to albums such as Jordan Rudess’ solo output, or his albums with Dixie Dregs drummer Rod Morgenstein – where the symphonic prog tradition is blended with harder-edged modes, as well as the occasional jazzy suggestion. Some echoes of Dream Theater can also be heard on “Symbiosis”, though in a far more restrained, nuanced mood than anything the New Yorkers have ever recorded. As accomplished a musician as Thomas Vestal clearly is, he privileges the compositional aspect over showing off his skills, which is one of the most positive aspects of this album. There is an appealing warmth to “Symbiosis”, something sadly lacking in many comparable efforts, which privilege technical prowess over genuine emotion. Though all six tracks are all at a solidly good level of quality, I was particularly impressed by State of Flux, which kicks off the album in style with suitable complexity, though never descending into over-ambitiousness. One of the most striking features of this album is that all the compositions are paced in the same way, with plenty of time signature changes, yet without an excessive sense of urgency. On the other hand, as odd as it may sound, the music also possesses a natural flow which is not at odds with the frequent pauses. Even the harder-edged moments, like the guitar riffing, are never abrasive, and support the leading role of the keyboards – together with some admirably discreet, yet definitely present bass lines. All in all, it provides a stylish, tasteful introduction to the album and the artist himself. A couple of minutes shorter, Crystal Phase leans more toward the symphonic side of things, opening with rippling piano and then developing into a rich feast of sweeping, orchestral keyboards and melodic guitar with some Genesis reminiscences. Things get somewhat heavier once again in The Catalyst, characterized by an almost military drumming pattern (occasionally a bit obtrusive); the guitar solo by guest musician Chris Holmes has a distinct Gilmourian flavour. The problem here, as in the title-track that follows (bordering on the more melodic instances of prog-metal), is the excessively upfront role played by the drums, which often distract the listener’s attention from the other instruments. The complex, multilayered Resistance, with its intriguing use of counterpoint and electronic strings beefing up the sound, brings to mind shades of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and leads nicely the way to the album’s centrepiece, the 14-minute Metamorphosis. This is a track that, unlike perhaps the others, makes very effective use of the peculiar drum sound, oddly suited to the composition’s strongly cinematic bent, and further enhanced by the use of choral effects and fanfare-like keyboards. While its first half is somewhat samey, though in a vaguely hypnotic manner, it then develops into driving, almost exhilarating ride, and proceeds to a majestic climax – the ideal soundtrack to an old-fashioned blockbuster movie. As debut albums go, “Symbiosis” can definitely be placed at the positive end of the scale. Thomas Vestal is undoubtedly a talented artist, though I believe he would be more successful as part of a band than as a solo pilot.
In spite of some flaws, which have inevitably brought down the rating, “Symbiosis” is a very promising album which will surely appeal to fans of symphonic prog, especially of its more modern incarnations. It is, however, to be hoped that, for his next recording efforts, Thomas Vestal will tone down the drums, or perhaps enlist the services of a real drummer whose sound will blend more effectively with the other instruments.