Wes Hlebichuk (vocals/guitar), Shawn Thompson (guitar/keys/bass/violin/cello/vocals), Phil Calvert (bass/guitar/keys/vocals) and Rick Sloot (drums/percussion) are Birch Riley. The band apparently formed in 2000 and recently released Fragments of Space-Time.
The band explains “Fragments of Space-Time is a concept album that depicts the personal accounts of a deep-space explorer who is helping to establish a colony upon a new world. He quickly discovers that this seemingly barren planet hides technological clues to a civilization long gone, and, most impressively, an intelligent computer that can take on the form of a human woman through advanced holograms…” As with every concept album I’ve ever listened to, the “story” feels nearly impossible to keep track of the narrative, especially if you are going with no knowledge there is a story to keep track of. I had a hard time making out the lyrics on occasion. Take for instance “Dog Lies' ' where the singer often sounds like he is going through an ayahuasca experience. That being said it might be beneficial to your experience to keep the concept in mind.
The album is fifty-seven minutes long and contains fourteen songs. There are a lot of different styles and approaches. I give the band kudos for attempting such grand and epic leaps on an album but I have to admit at times it felt overwhelming if you are listening from beginning to end. The vocalist is a bit of a chameleon but for the most part the affectation is very dramatic in some way throughout the songs. I really didn’t feel much levity from this sort of intensity that ran through the album although sometimes when they indulgde in prog the mood seemed to lighten up.
Musically, the band is primarily rock but they jump around multiple sub-genres and other styles as well. Take for instance “I Expect” which sounds somewhere between Tool and various bands from the grunge scene. The next song “One Life to Live” is more prog based and I would argue more ’80s sounding.
Then you get a song like “In Disguise” which is an epic ballad with orchestral strings. The band sounds like closer to a pop/country blend band on “Lone Gun” and even sounds similar to The Dave Matthews Band mixed with an alternative act on “Dead Wrong.”
My main critique as a producer for twenty years I would have told the band to scale things back a tad in terms of the styles, textures and tones. In my opinion less can be more and often more powerful. There are some occasional hard turns they do here such as the transition from “Dead Wrong” to “How Far Will You Go?” where it sounds like two different artists. After the very earthly sounding tune that sounded like I was at a rock concert they decide to explore space with a mysterious sounding soundscape. Both were cool individually. Generally speaking, I prefer it when albums have a seamless quality from track to track (which this album has during some transitions), where the differences are there but not too much that it makes me feel like I was listening to various artists.
Any way you slice this is an epic album and the band obviously put so much work into it. The recording quality is exceptional and the band's technical skills are also top notch. I enjoyed most of the songs which were all well written. I’d say since there are such differences in style it will come down to personal preference.
Overall, a very good record from a talented band. Recommended.
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