Even as they exalt The List themselves, music nerds have long and rightfully decried the injustice of the annual list season, as it celebrates the best of the year way before that year is even over. That means, of course, that lots and lots of wonderful music is snubbed for this year’s list and has no chance at next year’s list either because next year’s list is for next year’s music. Just like American religion and politics, though, it’s really all just stuff and nonsense with no real rules at all, so when a super swell new album comes down the pike too late for list season and then January runs a little lean and light, the opportunity arises to focus some of that laudatory shine where it might not have otherwise. In that spirit, Last Rites celebrates Octavision, whose 2020 album, Coexist, dropped on December damn 29 and so did not, to our knowledge, make any of those year-end lists.
“Three Lives” was the first Coexist song released, way back in 2016, and it’s a great introduction to the album. You’ll notice all the players involved are busy and focused and appear to be having a wonderful time, which is probably the most important active ingredient of the Octavision admixture. Hovak was very particular in selecting his cohort for Coexist, picking them not just for their raw talent and ability to play challenging music, but their willingness to be an active part of the music-making process. The results are as impressive to the ears as the list of names is to the eyes.
In the “Three Lives” video up there, that’s Victor Wooten playing the bass. Victor is a renowned bassist, but he’s known as a jazz / fusion virtuoso and for his work with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, a band that fuses jazz and bluegrass, for Pete’s sake. But just look at him up there. Listen to him! It doesn’t matter that he’s playing prog or metal or whatever, he’s found a groove, a good feeling in the music he’s making with Hovak and Octavision and that’s, in his own words, what it’s all about.
And Victor is just one of the bassists Hovak brought into the fold. Billy Sheehan handles the bottom end on four of the seven tracks and is just as effusive as Victor in his enthusiasm for the Octavision project. Sheehan’s involvement is probably a little more intuitive, given his tenure in rock bands like David Lee Roth’s and Mr. Big and, more recently, prog-rockers Sons of Apollo (along with solo albums and a hundred other projects). But even Billy says the Coexist music is as unique and challenging as anything he’s ever played. And, again, the smile on his face says more than the words.
One of Octavision’s most challenging aspects, as cited by the main players, was the incorporation of Armenian and Middle Eastern scales and modes. Hovak prioritized these regional traditional sounds and styles and brought in specialist musicians for their implementation, including Avo Margaryan on the blul (an open-ended shepherd’s flute), Anahit Artushyan on kanun (a kind of horizontal harp, similar to a zither or dulcimer), and Artyom Manukyan on cello.
Hovak’s ace-in-the-hole, though, is Murzo (né Ara Torosyan), renowned Armenian keyboardist, cinematic music arranger, and folk music maker. Murzo’s influence on Coexist is so pervasive and complete that it can be difficult to parse from a distance. A closer look reveals his nimble fingers to be just about everywhere, in the atmosphere and feel of the musical air, in the accents coloring so much of what the other instruments emit, and in the vibrant lyricism of his keys when he steps to the fore. Murzo’s sounds are like the myriad blues and silvers of a nighttime tempest.
Of course, the heart of this record is heavy metal and so its beats are generated by a rock-and-roll drummer in Czechian Roman Lomtadze. His style gels well with those around him and particularly with Hovak’s, whose guitar navigates the various layers of style and genre with the grace and intermittent flash of a shark stalking the crashing surf.
Like “Three Lives,” five of seven tracks on Coexist are instrumentals, written in varying combinations and degrees of all the wonderful pieces described above. The other two songs were written to be sung and feature vocals by heavy metal journeyman Jeff Scott Soto (Yngie Malmsteen’s Rising Force, Axel Rudi Pell, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Sons of Apollo, solo albums and a hundred other projects). He’s a great fit for the Octavision sound in terms of tone and style, and his lyrics are a great reflection of the spirit of the band.
You can see in the video for the title track that a lot has changed since “Three Lives” dropped four years ago. One thing that clearly never wavered was the dedication of Hovak and his crew to seeing this vision through. To a person, the artists involved describe an engrossing experience, both challenging and deeply rewarding, perhaps as a function of that challenge and the connection with each other it fostered. Which brings us around to the spirit of the album and its underlying theme: coexistence. It’s a noble idea and a fine cause to champion. It’s also so much less than we are capable of. One of the top criteria Hovak mentioned for selecting his companions for this journey was, to paraphrase, quality of character; he wanted good people, much more than talented hired hands. What he got, in the end, as a consequence of the integrity inherent in that decision, was an orchestrated effort that yielded a fantastic album, the product of the interdependent association of like-minded partners who gained so much by giving up selfish notions in the concerted pursuit of a higher calling. Amazing how that works.