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23 June, 2007

Review: Free (OSI, 2006)

Soon after the release of OSI's second album, 'Free', I drafted a review, but somehow I prevaricated about filling-out and rewriting my rough notes, and a year has passed.  I think I'd better accept the inevitable and publish it almost as-is.

The first album, 'Office of Strategic Influence', was sufficiently complex and non-standard to sustain interest – it's not mindless pop rock. However, there were beautifully catchy moments throughout. 'Free' doesn't achieve that balance so well, and fewer songs grabbed me from the very first time I heard them.

Some of the sampled material and the title of 'Office of Strategic Influence' (it refers to a post-9/11 propaganda agency established by the Pentagon to manage foreign perceptions of US policies) meant that the first album had a strong thematic feel; almost a consistent statement. 'Free' doesn't, and initially seems to be 'merely' a bunch of unrelated songs. That's not necessarily a problem, as the songs are rather good!

There's nothing as obviously dark as the debut album's 'ShutDOWN'.

The presence of Jim Matheos (of Fate's Warning) and, to a lesser extent Mike Portnoy (of Dream Theater), might over-emphasise the prog metal aspect of the project – it's there, in some sections of some songs, but on the whole this sounds a lot like Chroma Key with extra guitars. That's probably the main thing to emphasise to those who have heard the debut album: 'Office of Strategic Influence' could be considered to be an equal mix of Matheos' guitar-led prog metal and Moore's atmospheric keyboards-and-textures music, but 'Free' has greater emphasis on the latter.

This time, it's a little clearer that OSI is a two-man project: Kevin Moore and Jim Matheos are credited as composers, producers and lead musicians, with guest appearences (performance only) by others including Mike Portnoy and Joey Vera, who presumably weren't involved in the writing sessions and overall direction of the project.

Some songs seem a little repetitive, but on repeated listening, that seems to be for deliberate effect, and works well, particularly on 'Sure You Will'.

It may be a coincidence, but the second song, the title track, is one of the heaviest and comes across as an almost anthemic 'statement of intent', just as 'OSI', the title track of the first album, was sequenced second, and is one of that album's heaviest tracks.
Overall, the album isn't so full-on 'heavy' as its predecessor. Parts of 'Better' (the eighth song; I'm mentioning it here out of sequence) approach the same intensity, but it's not so in-yer-face, seeming a secondary accompaniment to the song rather than the dominant, driving element.

I may be imagining another structural similarity: The rhythm guitar accompaniment to 'Standby (Looks Like Rain)', the last track on 'Office...' sounds remarkably like that of 'Our Town', the last track on 'Free'. Listening to both albums together on shuffle, I misidentified one as the other for a moment.

Though I like them, the first two songs didn't immediately strike me as extraordinary, but 'Go' has it; within 20-30 seconds I thought it was great, and I like the way it developed. The syncopated vocals really grabbed me, as a very Chroma Key element.
There's a strange vocal rhythm, but it really works.

All Gone Now: another 'heavier' one, using the same 'almost repetitive' style as 'Sure You Will'. It's okay, but I'm afraid it doesn't hold my attention.

Somehow, I don't associate OSI or Chroma Key with wistfulness or sentiment, so 'Home Was Good' is a little different. Otherwise, it could be a Chroma Key song – voice, keyboards, ambient textures and some semi-acoustic guitar. Though one of my immediate favourites, it hasn't grown as much as others.

'Bigger Wave' is very OSI, consistent with the first album.

I particularly like the simmering, almost menacing rhythm of 'Kicking'; there are a couple of particularly nice chord changes, too. The first few times I heard it, I thought it slightly over-long, but somehow that feeling has diminished. It could almost be a good single. Imagine that.

'Simple Life': Er. Nothing to say about this one!

The intro to 'Once' could be the Ozric Tentacles, though with a little too mechanistic a feel for those hippies. The track proceeds in the same style, reminiscent of industrial processes or the operation of monolithic bureaucracy – apt for an Office of Strategic Influence (or a Ministry of Information...). I also the overlapping vocals.

'Our Town': just acoustic guitar and voice, with a little electric guitar and a very nice banjo section.

So: I like it, and that has only increased with repeated listening. It's certainly one of my musical highlights of 2006. However, fewer 'Free' tracks have stuck in my mind than those from 'Office...', and I choose to play the latter far more frequently.

As with 'Office...' I bought the 'Special Edition' of 'Free', which included a further 20 minutes (okay, 19:25) of music on a bonus disc. As with 'Office...', it's okay, and if you happen to see the Limited Edition available for about the same price as the standard one, go for it, but don't make a special effort to find it or pay a premium price.

The bonus tracks make greater use of samples, especially sampled speech, than the main album. Except for 'Set It On Fire' and part of 'OSIdea 9', all percussion sounds programmed.

'OSIdea 9' is a heavy guitar instrumental, accompanied by programmed percussion and the sampled voice of someone claiming he's about to be extradited to the USA to be executed.

'Set It On Fire' is the only bonus track to sound like a completed OSI song. Moore is credited as writer, but there's quite a lot of heavy guitar accompaniment.

'Communicant' sounds like a completed instrumental, featuring keyboards, samples and percussion, with guitars only introduced in the final 30 seconds. It's slightly surprising, therefore, that it's a Matheos composition, not by Moore. It's good, but I agree with the decision to leave it off the album, as the sampled speech wouldn't have fitted the album's overall sound, if not theme.

'When You're Ready' is one of my favourite tracks on 'Office of Strategic Influence', but the inclusion of the demo (and why on this album?) is redundant. Apart from the lack of 'real' drums, it's near-identical to the finished version.

'Remain Calm' seems a self-indulgent opportunity for Moore (alone) to play with odd drum rhythms, directionless keyboard sustains and fragments of sampled speech. Experimentation is fine, but this is one Moore could have kept to himself. It's marginally better in distinct stereo e.g. via earphones, as the overlapping rhythms are a little more comprehensible.

The final track is an odd inclusion: 'Old War' is a 66-second song by Bige Akdeniz, who also contributed guitar and vocals; the only OSI contribution is a few seconds of percussion, presumably programmed by Moore.

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