Anyone who knows me probably knows that Billy Sherwood, both as a solo artist and with his band, Circa, has made some of my favorite music of the last few years. But for this review I want to take a look back at a slightly earlier Sherwood project...
Released in 2003, "The Unknown" was the 2nd collaboration of CONSPIRACY, a part-time band of sorts built around the talents Yes-founder/bassist/vocalist Chris Squire, and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist/producer Sherwood (Circa, Yes, Yoso, World Trade) And although he was featured on a few tracks of the band's debut (as one of many guest players), this time drummer Jay Schellen (Circa, World Trade, Asia featuring John Payne) joins the band as a full-fledged member.
This disc is, in my opinion, far, far superior to the band's first release (2000's self-titled "Conspiracy") While the first album had some great individual tracks, it sometimes had the incomplete feel of a demo recording (in fact, it reportedly began life as a Squire solo album and included a few songs that had been previously released by Yes and World Trade, albeit in slightly different versions.) "The Unknown" has far more of unified feel, as if the songs were really intended as a complete package. And attentive listeners will also notice that the overall sound is far less 'sunny' this time around, displaying some of the darkest, moodiest material, both musically and lyrically, that Squire & Sherwood have produced in their careers.
To my ears, Conspiracy creates what I would define as a mix of modern progressive rock and AOR, with the emphasis on the 'modern' part. The keyboards & guitars all have an underlying electronic/metallic edge (no Hammond organs or "retro" guitar sounds here!), and Sherwood's distinctive production-style makes the most of current technology; with electronic effects, synthesized vocal treatments, and stereo panning all used in clever ways. In fact, this whole album sounds particularly good through headphones. The vocals are also pretty impressive in my opinion. I've always liked Sherwood's high, breathy voice (which to my ears often has the airy quality of a reed instrument); and he uses his pipes to good effect on many of the songs. It's also great to hear Squire given more lead-vocal time here, while also blending nicely with Sherwood on some multi-tracked harmonies. Actually, this is probably the best vocal showcase that Squire has had on any album since his solo album "Fish Out of Water" in the mid-70's. Although Squire & Sherwood are certainly the stars on this show, Schellen also makes a great showing for himself with some thunderous, powerhouse drumming.
As for the individual songs, the standouts include "New World" (an upbeat tune which boasts both a catchy chorus and Squire's flashiest bass parts on the album) "Half a World Away" (which fluctuates between pretty, mellow sections sung by Squire, and harder-hitting sections sung by Sherwood), "There Is No End" (featuring a quirky/jerky rhythm mixed with spiritual lyrics), "The Wheel" (a meloncholic slow-burner with a vibe similar to World Trade's "Evolution Song") and the epic title track, "The Unknown" (an 11-minute prog epic with many musical twists, and unsual lyrics inspired by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.)
All in all, if you are a fan of Chris Squire, Billy Sherwood, or Jay Schellen, or just a general fan of modern prog, then don't hesitate to buy this one.
Reviewed by Jeff Matheus on May 11th, 2011