Vanden Plas has never had any problem establishing their bona fides. They are excellent musicians that write excellent songs. The only obvious complaint about their approach (outside those about prog metal, in general) has been that they tend to adhere too closely to the Dream Theater blueprint. Fair or not (Vanden Plas’ timeline almost exactly matches DT’s), nothing about The Seraphic Clockwork is going to change the objective truth in that criticism. In fact, Vanden Plas sounds more like DT than ever on The Seraphic Clockwork. Subjectively, on the other hand, this eighth full-length from the German prog metal troupe renders that particular critique moot, as the songs here transcend the notes and tones that comprise them.
If done well and with a degree of autonomy, there’s nothing really wrong with sounding like another band, especially one as talented and creative as Dream Theater. But doing this threatens to pre-empt any claim to greatness, as assessments necessarily build from the inevitable comparisons and accolades are often qualified by the imitation idiom. Whether Vanden Plas is to be considered clone or like-minded contemporary is a matter of taste that essentially comes down to two critical aspects that ultimately distinguish these bands: lead vocals and songwriting.
There’s no need here to compose a tit-for-tat comparison of vocalists James LaBrie and Andy Kuntz. Each has his notable strengths and weaknesses, as those familiar with each are well aware. On this album, Kuntz’s strength lies in his love of performing. And his performance is heartfelt and quintessentially professional. Much of the band’s time over the years since Christ 0 has been dedicated to live theater where various members took on various roles, from acting to production, in musicals “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Hair,” among others. Kuntz has said these experiences had an inspirational effect on the songwriting on The Seraphic Clockwork, a statement clearly supported by the album’s seamless delivery of its conceptual premise.
A biblical allegory of spiritual destiny, The Seraphic Clockwork unfolds within a fairly standard prog metal structure – long songs, verse-chorus-verse-solos-bridge-solos-ascendant key change-etc. – that benefits greatly from songwriting that draws innovative dynamics from the interaction of otherwise mundane elements. Most notably, the record is rife with outstanding melody, particularly in the choruses where Kuntz airs his considerable frontman talents with a fine thespian balance of vigor and restraint. That balance is equally executed by the instruments, as the guitars achieve appropriate urgency via heavy riffs while alternately painting delicate strokes in the album’s more contemplative moments, and the keyboards are instrumental in building supreme bombast to contrast some truly beautiful atmospheric passages.
Perhaps the most notable upshot of The Seraphic Clockwork’s focus on balance is the interplay of the guitars and keyboards, wherein the genre’s apparently mandatory display of showmanship is forwarded with creatively purposeful solos and melodic leads. This really can’t be overstated: the display of musicianship on this record approaches stunning levels without ever feeling overwrought, which is something of a monumental achievement after nigh on forty years of prog rock’s ubiquitous overindulgent noodliness.
Underscoring the holistic quality of the album, The Seraphic Clockwork is one of those that will inspire wide-ranging responses to the best song question. This is less reflective of a lack of standout tracks than testament to consistent quality across an impressive variety of songs from the pointed urgency of opener, “Frequency” through the softly-spoken, poignant beauty of “Quicksilver” to the diverse and charismatic twelve-minute closing epic “On My Way to Jerusalem,” all of which flourish within a lush and robust production.
Vanden Plas has not delivered the record that will ultimately break them free of the unending Dream Theater comparisons. They most certainly have fashioned an album that makes the overlapping sound irrelevant. Frankly, The Seraphic Clockwork is just so good that it doesn’t matter. It seems the latter half of 2010 has the potential to bury us in a landslide of year-end-list candidates and, for prog metal fans, Vanden Plas is comfortably riding the crest of that wave.