Album Review: Amalgam Effect – Sketches

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Band: Amalgam Effect | Album: Sketches | Year: 2019 | Genre: Progressive rock

From: Denver, USA | Distributor: DistroKid

For fans of: Jethro Tull, Phideaux

Buy: Bandcamp | Amazon | Apple Music

Long song cycles are nothing new to the field of progressive rock. Bands have been filling whole albums with pieces meant to be listened to as one extended piece since the early 1970s, and Amalgam Effect’s third album, Sketches, is a great new addition to this particular variety of progressive rock album.

Sketches tells the story  of Alan Quill, a clerk who writes in his free time. The story is about trying to balance the desires of an artist against the drives and demands of living and succeeding in a world where art rarely pays the bills. Calvin Merseal, Amalgam Effect’s drummer and lyricist, has written a book called Quill, which tells the story not just of Sketches but of the two preceding albums. (I’d highly recommend both of those, as well.)

Sketches is presented as one hour-long piece divided into twelve movements. Each track is titled “Sketches” I-XII, and they flow seamlessly into each other. Sonically, Amalgam Effect are reminiscent of early-‘70s Jethro Tull. The base sound is rooted in hard rock, but there are significant folk flourishes. Acoustic guitar is prominent throughout, and flute plays a major role.

The album opens up gently, gradually building in intensity in big, major-key choruses before shifting to Part II, a high-energy instrumental. Acting as an overture for the album, musical themes fly by at a breakneck pace. This restlessness is itself a great encapsulation of the ambition of this album.

Part III is a relatively terse hard-rocker. The lead riff is great, and it’s supported by growling organ and small dashes of flute. The flute’s prominence grows in Part IV, a quick instrumental that sounds like it could have come from the recording sessions of A Passion Play. Part V continues this energy but is noticeably grimmer than the preceding movements, with its chorus being especially dark. It’s powered along with snarling, distorted bass and haunting backing vocals.

It’s on the second half of the album where my one real gripe arises, and it’s a common problem with albums of this sort: the album starts to drag and meander. The fact that songs flow together both hurts and helps this at times. The continuous structure helps the succession of themes and ideas move smoothly, but at the same time it can make some of the duller moments feel interminable. A few of the songs could have been tightened up or trimmed down to increase impact.

Part VIII is another highlight. There’s a strange, almost-happy bounciness to the opening verses which segues into a passage of ascending guitar and flute over marching drums. The closing moments of the song feature twisting guitar and bass riffs which inject a new sense of urgency.

Sketches ends strong. Part X is probably my favorite on the album. It revisits a number of previous musical themes. The momentum is maintained, and the different ideas are integrated fantastically. It even ends on a killer bass solo. Part XI is also high-adrenaline, and Part XII closes the album out on a majestic reincorporation of the theme from Part I.

Sketches was my introduction to Amalgam Effect, and despite its daunting nature as one 60-minute piece, I’d also recommend it as a good introduction. The music is driving and engaging throughout, and it only rarely wallows.

Score: 83/100

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