OSI was born when Jim Matheos (Fates Warning, Arch/Matheos) sent Kevin Moore (ex-Dream Theater) some rough tracks he’d laid down as part of some idea-making for a prog-metal side project between Fates Warning albums. Matheos had asked for keyboard tracks, but what he got was a complete re-envisioning of the music that reflected the experimental electronica focus of Moore’s solo project, Chroma Key. Matheos liked what he heard and OSI’s debut, Office of Strategic Influence, followed.
Over three albums, OSI’s music has proven to be progressive in ways that run counter to the larger prog zeitgeist. The focus is on the blending of its disparate styles to create out-of-bounds sounds through the fusion of prog-rock design with the moody textures of a cinematic soundscape rather than leaning on standard structural crutches like impossible time signatures and 19 minute wankathons. Indeed, the band’s hallmark has been its ability to elaborate modest musical ideas in subtle ways to build a compelling simplicity. What may come off as a generic riff in isolation contributes great energy in its interaction with clever keyboard lines and electronic effects.
Much of this approach translates effectively on OSI’s fourth LP, Fire Make Thunder. “Guards” recalls the project’s early work and features some nifty, jazzy beats courtesy of Gavin Harrison (Porcupine Tree) that propel an urgent interplay between the bass line, primary riffs and keys. Moore’s vocals on Fire Make Thunder retain his narrowly defined, internal monologue style, but “Guards” is a great example of how well he can make them work, as they focus the song by drawing a straight line through the waves around them. “Wind Won’t Howl” is a beautifully rendered sample of Moore’s genuine melancholy, underscored by Matheos’ best example on this record of how to make understated riffs with the strength to carry a song. And “Invisible Men,” the album’s closer, is an effective blending of the album’s predominant styles stretched out over nearly ten minutes. By and large, these tracks exemplify the band’s forte of crafting a dynamic body of song from rudimentary pieces.
One problem, though, with “simple” as a creative sphere is that it overlaps with “boring,” and Fire Make Thunder contains several instances of featureless musical ideas and aimless repetition that reveal that intersection. The album’s opening track, “Cold Call,” is text-book OSI, except that it relies on riffs so simple and detached from their setting that they feel a bit insulting. The aforementioned, “Guards,” despite its strengths, contains a break so underdeveloped that any argument for its inclusion is surely hard-pressed. And although Moore is typically adept at writing around it, “Big Chief II” lays bare the inherent weakness in his vocal approach. It’s a mere eight bars, but for these, his nursery-rhymey monotone is grating. The song’s following verses repeat the simple cadence while stepping them down the scale at each line, adding just a touch of flavor and exposing the blandness of the opening iteration. It’s a truly tiny change that makes such a huge difference. And it’s an example of how delicate the balance is here between creative simplicity and inelegance.
Simple can deliver great reward when it opens the door to something interesting in the abstract. On the other hand, simplicity that fails to reach beyond itself can be an affront to the senses. As an album, Fire Make Thunder floats unassumingly in the space between these extremes. Which is to say it’s a middling record and, as such, it falls well below OSI’s simple standards.