Having scored a deal with Gemany’s prestigious Limb Music label for the release of their debut album, Floridian natives Skyliner are being feted by fans of melodic metal as rookies of the year for 2014. On the face of it, the near-75 minute Outsiders (including among its expansive track list a multi-part, 21-minute composition that seems like a challenge to the Symphony Xs and Fates Warnings of the world) seems headily ambitious for a debut record, let alone one recorded by a three-piece ensemble. Of course, it actually represents the culmination of 14 years of labour, during which time founding members Jake Becker and Ben Brenner have accumulated a substantial body of work throughout various demos and EPs, much of which is collated here. The confidence begotten by endless rehearsal and refinement is confirmed by the band members’ tight performances, negotiating elaborate, progressive song structures with surgical precision and dexterity. Skyliner are one of those bands who give the impression of being better than they finally are; their dauntless procession of six-, seven- and eight-minute tracks leave one with the uneasy impression that one should be more bowled over by their epic stature and virtuosic musicianship. It takes longer to sink in that Skyliner’s reach exceeds their grasp, the songs’ structures frequently proving sparse and over-extended – the incendiary, prodigious masterpiece that Outsiders first appears as falls away to reveal a simply capable and worthy prog-power metal album.
The sterling first impression that Outsiders makes is bolstered somewhat by the fact that it doesn’t sound obviously similar to its contemporaries on either side of the Atlantic. Becker’s guitar work is rather earthier, more classically rockfish than the glistening, sleek dual harmonies beloved of Blind Guardian, Angra, et al. The glassy smoothness of Euro-power or Dream Theater derived prog metal is not enforced, Becker allowing coarser textures into his lead sections; some chords scrape and rasp, assisted by the arid production job. The arcing sine waves of 32nd notes running through the verses of “Symphony in Black” and “Forever Young” flirt with thrash metal in tempo and rhythm, sounding like Vektor if you extracted the sense of cosmic fragmentation and replaced it with euphoric uplift. Neither do Skyliner fit into the modern USPM scene, their songs far more expansive and polished than those of Twisted Tower Dire and their brethren. The closest direct comparison I could make would be to an overclocked version of up-tempo Rainbow classics like “A Light in the Black”, in so much as Skyliner similarly combine down-to-earth, unvarnished production and musicianship with prolonged, almost jam-session-esque instrumental passages.
All that’s to say, Outsiders doesn’t want for vitality and exuberance, staying consistently lively even at an hour and a quarter. It also benefits from Becker’s commanding vocal presence – an obvious standout being the haunting “Aria of the Waters”, an airy, mellow track that gives prominence to the frontman’s clear and resonant baritone. For all that the band get right though, I finished the album with a sense of frustration that was hard to put my finger on – a sense of having come close to something awesome and had it withdrawn at the last second. For all of the ravishing riffs and solos Skyliner offer up, in the album’s totality there’s a sense of samey-ness, of “all-much-of-a-muchness” that the elongated song lengths exacerbate. The verses and bridges of songs like “Undying Wings” and “The Human Residue” slip into excessive repetition and restatement, too much buildup without adequate payoff in the form of juicy hooks. The frustration was compounded by the ending epic, “Worlds of Conflict”. I don’t know about you, readers, but when I see a song that occupies almost a third of an album’s running time sitting at the end of the track list, I look on that as a sort of contract between the band and their audience; a promise of a roller-coaster of a grand finale that will blow the qualities of the preceding songs out to even more extravagant proportions. For about fifteen minutes, that’s what “Worlds of Conflict” delivers, and it’s glorious. Then Skyliner decide, for some inexplicable reason, to spend the last six minutes in a prolonged deceleration towards a fade-out ending. It’s an exquisitely infuriating anti-climax.
There are moments on Outsiders, such as the incredible solo sections in “Symphony in Black” and “The Alchemist”, or the plaintive vocals in “Aria of the Waters” that are legitimately as exciting as anything I’ve yet heard in a metal album in 2014. It’s just unfortunate that the band spread themselves so thin, repeating themselves when they should be forging ahead, allowing songs to get stuck in ruts while they should be shaking things up. Skyliner have the chops and the drive to create an authentically extraordinary piece of metal, and in intermittent spots, have done so. They just need to increase the ratio of these moments to those of anticipation.
02) Symphony in Black
03) Undying Wings
04) Forever Young
05) Aria of the Waters
06) The Human Residue
07) Dawn of the Dead
08) The Alchemist
09) Worlds of Conflict