A great player reveals himself to also be a serious composer
If you’re an even casual guitar fan, you’ve heard Bryan Beller’s bass playing. He’s currently on tour with the Aristocrats in support of their latest release, You Know What…?, but past stints have included recordings and/or tours with Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Dweezil Zappa, Mike Keneally and dozens of other recordings he’s played on. As a rhythm section player, Bryan is in demand because he is an incredibly musical player with the chops to play whatever the chart has written on it and the experience and aesthetic to play what’s right for the song.
As a solo artist, Beller has released several records (2003’s View and 2008’s Thanks in Advance) which both featured great group playing and interplay with an emphasis on musical expression over chops. His newest recording, Scenes From The Flood puts the emphasis firmly on Bryan Beller the composer and it’s a role he handles with considerable aplomb. While previous solo releases like View were more band and fusion groove oriented, Scenes From The Flood is a double progressive rock concept album that explores an extensive sonic and conceptual landscape over its 88 minutes and 18 songs.
Beller has cited albums like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Yes’ Tales From Topographic Oceans and NIN’s The Fragile as double album inspirations. While fans of those albums will find much to like about Scenes, it feels like a different and ultimately more resonant experience.
In theme and scope, Scenes could be taken right out of a page of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces as it chronicles epic struggle through adversity and ultimate triumph. Scenes is an album of immense scope that took years to write, realize and record – and the result shows. The compositions here run a full gamut of styles but still unify to tell a singular story.
Beller’s skill as a composer is obvious in the craft of his music, but it’s even more striking (and nuanced) in his world building. It’s difficult to imagine another recording with, in just one of the many examples of the breadth of vision and voice here, both the contemplative sonorities of composer and prepared guitarist Janet Feder and the flurry of notes from Dream Theater’s John Petrucci on it.
Scenes has dozens of players on it and over 20 different people acting as recording engineers for the various tracks. In the wrong hands it would be a mess – but Beller’s vision is strong enough to allow multiple contributors to add their unique voices while still making the work sound like a unified whole. (It’s also a great sounding album. In addition to the multiple engineers that worked on the individual tracks my hat is off to the excellent mixing and mastering from Forrester Savell.)
The performances on the album are uniformly excellent. It almost goes without saying, that Beller’s playing is in full form here. Since this is a guitar-centric website, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the embarrassment of 6-string riches on this album. In this area especially, Beller appears to have called in a lot of favors on this recording.
While contributors like Joe Satriani, John Petrucci, Guthrie Govan, Nili Brosh, Mike Keneally and Mike Dawes are the names that might jump out at you as immediately familiar, the rest of the guitarists here (Darran Charles, Janet Feder, Jamie Kime, Teddy Kumpel, Jake Howsam Lowe, Rick Musallam, Mike Olekshy and Griff Peters) all sound great here and make vital contributions to the success of this recording. Hopefully it will inspire listeners to dig into these artist’s catalogs as well.
Given that this is a double album that is meant to be taken as a whole, talking about individual tracks seems to defeat the purpose of the album. Scenes works best as a singular experience and the individual tracks hit harder in that context. Adding to the dilemna of determining a stand out track is the difficulty in finding a standout track in an album of highlights.
With that in mind – if I DO have to pick a track, I’d say that while the sitar-fueled bombast of Nili Brosh and John Petrucci’s playing on the proggy “World Class”and the emotion of Guthrie Govan’s playing on “Sweet Water” will probably be the tracks guitarists will be talking a lot about after this recording is released, I’ll go with either the closing piece, “Let Go Of Everything” or the Janet Feder penned “Angles & Exits” as personal highlights.
“Let Go…” is not only the perfect ending to Scenes but it’s depth and raw and barely contained beauty makes it something one could easily imagine it as a closing moment in a film when played on it’s own.
With Beller’s solo bass introduction and vocal, “Angles & Exits” feels like the most vulnerable point of the recording and the ending (a substantial departure from the original recording) has a similar cinematic feel to “Let Go..”.
Where the world for many us can seem like an infinity of music, movies and talking heads perpetually competing for one’s attention, on paper a double album (much less a concept album) release like Scenes From The Flood might seem like an anachronism to some. But instead it’s a glorious, necessary and vital release that rewards deep attentive listening.
Scenes is an astonishing artistic statement from an artist setting a seemingly impossibly high bar and getting over it with eloquence, confidence and grace. Those who approach it as an immersive experience can take a journey with Beller and not only discover how deep the world he created is but also, potentially, inspire them to explore how deep their own worlds really are as well.