HESS - Tom Hess - Instrumental guitar rock - riffage a'plenty - "Eclectic Earwig Reviews Music and More for You!"
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Hess: Opus 1 (CD, 64:31)
Hess Productions
PO Box 113
Cary, IL 60013
E-mail: hess@mc.net

If I had a nickel for every fret-banging guitar virtuoso that released a CD
filled with "monster RAWK chops" and warp speed arpeggios, I'd be a very
rich man.  Speed is certainly the most "showy" of guitar disciplines, but
guitarists often forget that speed alone does not make an interesting piece
of music.  When every accelerated axe man that can sign their name on a
contract is releasing guitar albums, you've really got to show something
that sets you apart from the rest of the crowd in order to have a truly
successful record.  This is exactly what Tom Hess and his buddies drummer
Chris Dowgun and guitarist Mike Walsh (collectively known as "Hess")
accomplished with their latest release, Opus 1.  With chops to die
for and song writing skills not normally seen in the realm of wankery, Tom
and the boys really show themselves to be a cut above the competition.

No doubt about it. guitar prowess is the centerpiece of Opus 1 - a
fact that Hess makes no bones about.  The six-string pyrotechnics explode
throughout the CD at a blistering pace, and are quite reminiscent of Dream
Theater's John Petrucci or Jim Matheos from Fates Warning.  Chris Dowgun's
does an excellent job of keeping up the pace with the twin guitarists, but
his thrashing away on the drumkit is just there to create the foundation for
Hess and Walsh's guitar antics.  In addition to the standard guitar, bass,
and drums, Tom Hess also uses subtle keyboards to add a tasteful richness to
the backdrop of his six-string assaults.  As a matter of fact, it is Hess'
use of such ambience in his compositions that really makes him stand out -
he'll sacrifice a minute or so of guitar worship for the good of the song if
need be.  That restraint truly makes songs such as "Phoenix Rising"
transcend above the "see how fast I am" genre of guitar rock and into the
realm of emotional and spine tingling music.

However, Hess does on occasion manage to get a little carried away - the
track "Empire" consists of exactly the pointless noodling that the rest of
the CD seems to rail against.  That being said, "Empire" seems to be the
only slip up on the CD, and wonderfully composed tracks such as the opener
"Exploration" and "Queen of Me" more than make up for the excesses of
"Empire".  On Opus 1, Tom Hess shows his versatility by performing
the guitar, bass, and keyboard duties, writing all the tracks, and producing
the entire CD as well.  Hess is an amazing talent, and his Opus 1
succeeds pretty much on all counts, and should be enjoyed by all fans of
progressive guitar music.

- Michael Askounes (michael@gscyclone.com)

Hess: Opus 1
1999, Queen Of Krakow Music
CyberHome: http://www.Hess.4T.com

When I first listened to Hess' Opus I, a strictly instrumental effort aimed at neoclassical purists, I had to pull it out of the player and make sure the manufacturers didn't accidentally put a new George Bellas CD in the wrong case. I was not surprised later when I was reading the reviews for his mentor, George Bellas, on the Guitar Nine web site, that Tom Hess gave Turn Of The Millenium a 10. The compositional styles are very similar, as are the techniques they both deploy. But, it is pretty clear (to me anyway!) that Bellas is the master and Hess is the student, though a very talented and promising one that is challenging his master.

The compositional landscape of Opus I by Hess is epic. There are many diverse themes organized in the complex arrangements that have a good fluidity in their transitions. The compositional style and sound is reminiscent to me of Bellas, Rush, and Malmsteen. The depth and breadth covered in the composition definitely covers a broad scope and is pretty seamless in its integration. Though the composition seems almost nostalgic at times, the soundscape is constantly changing. There are moments of aggression, heart-felt emotion, and exasperation.

From a technical viewpoint, Tom Hess' guitar playing is nothing less than amazing. Hess has accuracy, timing, and proficiency that rivals the greatest neoclassical guitarists to date. However, similar maybe to Vinnie Moore in the 80's, Hess' playing seems to me to be very mechanical and lacks a certain degree of feeling and emotional content in places that Vinnie Moore's latest releases have acquired. This is a tough one to call, and maybe I am being a little over-critical on this point, because the technique deployed by Hess is definitely very advanced and involved, as well as it is constantly changing throughout the album demonstrating a wide scope. But, in addition to this, some of the progressions are somewhat stale, slow moving, and uninspired due to a lack of attention to the underlying rhythms. And although technically impressive, the arpeggios and other guitar sequencing can tend to be a little monotonous in spots, as the same pattern is simply repeated for different chords or relative scales where somebody like MacAlpine would work together different but related patterns or just use contrapuntal phrasing for each phrasing to avoid the monotony. (But, I realize that this is what makes MacAlpine so amazing!) Some of the playing comes across as having a tendency to showcase technical proficiency and the music suffers a little for it, but I didn't mind it too much the way that is done. However, the speed, precision, and cleanliness in the sweep picking are unbelievable. Some of the melodies tend to come across as mechanical and lack the presence, drive, and feeling of Tony MacAlpine, George Bellas, or Uli Jon Roth. If Hess could consistently pull in a little more Kuprij drive and Uli Jon Roth feeling, I would be thrilled to death with this stuff. The feel and emotional content in Opus I are just a little too tidy, across much of the album but not everywhere, and I personally would like to see a little more raw emotion like Uli Jon Roth possesses in his playing. (So, my advice would be for Hess to take a listen to "Sky Overture" and assimilate a little of that feel and emotion in his playing.) But, we may be getting into an area of personal preference here and if you are a neoclassical connoiseur, you will just have to take a listen yourself and see what you think. So, to summarize this aspect of the effort, the technical proficiency is astounding, but though it exists to some degree, I would like to hear more emotional content. And, it should be pointed out here that I am making comparisons from Hess to the true world class players that he is challenging. Tom Hess is clearly in that league.

The rhythm section does not help the album either. The drums sound like they were added after the guitar sections and there is a lack of synergy between the guitar and rhythm section, as you might find with Bellas and MacAlpine. I suspect that this is the main source of the problem I am having with Opus I. Maybe if a great neoclassical drummer like Mike Terrana or Jon Doman had been thrown into the mix, the end results may have been better. It should not be underestimated what a great drummer will do for the music to liven it up and create synergy with the tonal instruments.

The epic journey of Opus 1 begins with "Exploration" that lays down the format, sound, and style that the remainder of the album will follow. The varying soundscape comprised of different themes, transitions, and tones is made apparent in "Exploration", so this makes it a good sampler to get a feel for the CD. The redeeming theme in "Homage", that follows second in the lineup, marks a large contrast to the blazing fast, sweeping arpeggios that also adorn this track making the listener first aware of Hess' technical capabilities. "Phoenix Rising", the third track, seems to lack a drive and direction to me. It rambles on too much without a destination. But, "Empire", that ensues, then redeems Hess with some very aggressive playing, direction, feeling, and presence, not to mention the superb guitar chops that are the premise. Now that's what I like to hear... speedy neoclassical drive played with a maniacal vengeance! So the album proceeds with each track possessing a different character by being woven together by the common thread that is Hess' constantly changing compositional style and outrageous guitar slinging. Two other tracks that are notable in my view are "Golden Colloseum" that has a good, raw, Rhandy Rhoads aggressive feel to it, highlighted by some raucous guitar work that is happily reminiscent of the late guitar hero, making it my favorite on the album; and "Queen Of Me", a more tender track that builds upon some heart-felt acoustic themes which blossom into some beautiful, inspiring melodies played on the electric guitar to contrast the acoustic themes. Overall, the album is consistent in quality from cover to cover.

Well, I hope I have not bashed Opus 1 too much, there is a lot of great music here. How well you will like it will depend on your preferences for Hess' compositional style and the balance between guitar technicianry and musical appeal you are looking for. Both aspects exist in the music, but there is a certain balance that is evident in the manner the composition is integrated. And, please keep in mind, again, that some of my commentary is done in reference to the world class players that Hess has established himself among in Opus I. Overall, I like it!

1) Exploration
2) Homage
3) Phoenix Rising
4) Empire
5) Modes Of Expression
6) Lydian Speaks
7) Imperial
8) Through Space And Time
9) Golden Colloseum
10) On The Brink
11) Queen Of Me
12) Palette Of Shades

~ Christopher Ruel ~ www.ChrisRuel.com ~ Chris@ChrisRuel.com




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