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Merge - 2005 - "Separate Worlds"

(60 min, 'Merge')

TRACK LIST:                             

1.  Fire Eyes 4:39
2.  Road to Hana 5:53
3.  Moon Struck 4:47
4.  Driven 9:21
5.  Once Loved 3:14
6.  Never More 4:39
7.  Kurdish Dance 7:28
8.  Masaek 0:31
9.  Reng-II 8:42
10. Ittf 3:16
11. Movement 1 2:34
12. Movement 2 1:04
13. Movement 3 2:12
14. Movement 4 2:09


Nima Rezai - Stick; Stick-synth
Dan Hetlin - saxophones
Brad Ranola - drums, percussion
Randy Graves - guitars; didgeridoo
Jesus Florida - 7-string violin (2, 6, 9, 13)
Masaru Koga - flutes (2, 5, 9)
Ali Shayesteh - Saz & Bouzouki (11, 14)

Prolusion. MERGE was formed some a decade ago and is the brainchild of Nima Rezai, a Persian musician and composer living in the USA. The band's discography is comprised of three releases to date: "Merge" (1998), "Live in London" (2004) and "Separate Worlds" (2005, coming as Nima & Merge), the second studio album to be viewed here.

Analysis. "Separate Worlds" is a mind-blowing album, an absolute monster. I was listening to it with bated breath, trying not to miss anything running down from this progressive cornucopia, and yet, I fear I won't be able to embrace all the magnificence of this music and to put all its beauties into the cold framework of typed words. Tracks 4 to 10 form the Separate World Suite, and those from 11 to 14 come under the common title of To Be Free, but I think it would be better to take the album in its panto-musical appearance, without dividing it into parts according to its makers' scheme, because there are more similarities than differences between the sections. Not counting the very short Masaek, a kind of an airy sound-lock between its neighbors, and an acoustic guitar sketch entitled Movement II (which is good, though), the second Merge effort is an ultimately unique and unimaginably impressive music, most of the tracks being Masterworks with a capital letter. Ittf, the dynamic interplay between either acoustic or electric guitar and Stick, and Fire Eyes, which is a full-fledged quasi Jazz-Fusion with lots of symphonic patterns, are the two of the so far unnamed tracks, on which Oriental colorings exist only in latent form. The other ten compositions each is a bright example of what makes this material unique above all. There is the strong presence of Persian and related tunes, this time around being so well interlaced with, say, Western musical textures, that the whole picture appears like it always were a single, fully cohesive whole. Due to the extensive arrangements with the active use of acoustic guitar, violin, flute and saxophone, Road to Hana and Reng-II have a strong acoustic sense throughout, although the music is for the most part intense and rapid, with lots of eclectic jams and the ever-changing overall picture. The violin-driven themes may remind you of the names of Lakshminarayana Subramaniam and Stefan Grapelli in the context of their famous collaboration "Conversations", though the successful formula "East meets West", which is a trademark of that project, runs all through each of the ten compositions uniting the separate worlds implied in the album's title, each being a true feast for progressive ears. Although relatively short, Movements 1, 3 & 4, rushing almost non-stop, are also intense throughout, the East's messengers being this time around Saz (a kind of guitar with somewhat Sitar-like overtones) and Bouzouki. Kurdish Dance is loaded with many genre components, Hard Rock included, and is too complex in general to quickly recognize its oriental origin. Moon Struck, and especially Driven are profound multi-sectional compositions, whose massive brass maneuvers evoke distant associations with Weather Report, though Driven is more intriguing and compelling to me than anything I've heard from the US Jazz Rock legend's repertoire. Once Loved and Never More appear as one monolithic, logically developing composition rather than two separate tracks. Flute, sax, real violin and synthetic strings, elicited by Nima Rezai via his Stick-synthesizer, interact with each other, sliding between European classicism and Persian music, later on being joined by drums, Didgeridoo and percussion. The coda is just a powerful solo on drums. Being a follower of the enlargement of analogous forms, and not vice versa, I would have not become separating Once Loved and Never More, as well as the Movements, but well, it's just a matter of taste.

Conclusion. The music on this album is normally genuinely intricate, but being so fruitfully arranged and possessing what I would call a divine spark, it's so highly (and immediately!) attractive that I think no one Prog lover will resist its spell, and even the untried one might love it for its splendor and beauty. "Separate Worlds" is an absolute killer, the best Jazz-Fusion album of the year and one of the most unique works of the genre I've heard in years. Top-20-2005

VM: November 21, 2005

Merge - 2005 - "Separate Worlds"


Analysis. Drum roll, please. The snare, set on tom, rolls out, beginning the album, as if a red carpet is being rolled out to invite the new and improved Merge. Nima Rezai and Dan Heflin remain at the core of Merge, but are joined by Brad Ranola on drums, replacing Murray Gusseck, and Randy Graves (adding guitar and didgeridoo to the mix), replacing Chip Webster. Fire Eyes starts as a duet between sax and stick, the signature Merge sound, at the midway point the already quick tempo speeding and gaining energy and a fuller sound than before, with the rich synthesizer work. Road to Hana is a whirling dervish of a piece, with a strong Mid-Eastern flavor. When I saw that the drummer was different from the first album, I wondered how that would affect the sound. Ranola's drumming is every bit as tight and yet, free, as was Gusseck's before him. The guest musicians are extremely well placed, flute and violin bringing much diversity to Road to Hana, played by Masaru Kogo and Jesus Florido respectively. Dan Heflin also turns in some fine improvisation here. Moon Struck is more laid back, in more of a jazz groove, with Heflin's sax figuring prominently. It reminds me of something that the Yellow Jackets might have done. Separate Worlds Suite is launched by Driven, which might have come from the Iberian Peninsula, though there is also still something of the Mid East about it. This track features some fine Stick Synth work by Rezai during the first half, then all the fervor passes and the mood changes, with the didgeridoo filling the air with the sort of eerie mystery unique to that aboriginal instrument. Heflin's sax and the drums begin slowly and ponderously to improvise over the didgeridoo, but slowly the tempo quickens to a frenzy of improvisation, building to the end. Once Loved allows the listener's heart to slow again, after the burst of audio adrenaline in Driven. The mood is quiet and contemplative, didgeridoo droning with synth sounds almost like a bass clarinet playing arpeggios behind the flutes. Very restful. Peaceful. The music swells with a symphonic richness as it segues into Never More, continuing the theme, but building in drama and intensity, with more prominent percussion, including tabla. Violin again appears here. The strong World Music sense reminds me some of pieces on Troy Donockley's "Unseen Stream," and makes me wonder what a collaboration between these eclectic artists might produce. Didgeridoo and percussion conclude this movement and propel the music into Kurdish Dance, which sounds very much like what the title suggests. It is full of life and enthusiasm. It is difficult to sit still when listening to such music. Guitar, sax and synth each take turns in the swirling dance. When the echoes of the last chord die away, Masek is just 30 seconds of cello-like low chording, with some finger picked guitar, but provides a brief respite again from the flurry of highly energetic music. Reng-II is a reprise of the same piece from Merge's eponymous first release, though this time flute takes the melody, in place of sax; a good choice for this variation. At times, the Stick sounds as if it might have been sequenced, as in Ittf, an extended guitar solo. To Be Free could easily have been one piece, but is separated into four movements. More exotic flavorings are brought used, in the form of Saz (a 6 stringed Turkish instrument) and Bouzouki, plus a reappearance of Florido's 7-string violin. The movements do span different moods, though the flow feels like one longer piece, rather like pearls strung on a necklace, the forth movement building in intensity to the album's conclusion.

Conclusion. "Separate Worlds" takes what Merge established as their sound in their 1998 debut album and takes it to new heights. All that I liked on "Merge" has been pumped up on "Separate Worlds." The additional instrumentation fills out the band very well, bringing a richer and fuller sound overall. The pacing of the album is excellent, the music building in intensity and often times in tempo through highly energetic "dances" and then giving the listener time to catch their breath during a slower track before taking off again. Highly recommended for lovers of progressive Jazz-Fusion.

KW: December 3, 2005

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