New Horizons (USA)
by Simon 1/9/2004
Hailing from Chicago USA, Tom Hess and brother Scott originally founded a band called 'Gothic Empire' in 1995, with Joe LeBanco (guitar) and Chuck Hamilton (bass) completing the lineup. The following year both Joe and Chuck left to pursue other projects, but the gaps were filled by the addition of Mike Walsh and Dan Massa.
Further changes were not far away however as Scott was also soon to leave in order to attend university. New drummer, Chris Dowgun, was finally found as a replacement but then, in September 1997, a move to Florida forced bass player Dan Massa to leave the band.
1998 saw the change in name from 'Gothic Empire' to 'Hess' and the band, still without a bass player, who now comprised of Tom Hess (guitars, bass, keyboards), Mike Walsh (guitars) and Chris Dowgun (drums) recorded this, their first album in 1999.
'Opus 1' consists of twelve tracks of guitar based instrumental music, which draws influences from progressive, melodic and classical sources. The playing style is very rich in detail and all the musicians carry off solid performances without having to resort to an over the top approach. On top of this the album has been well produced by Tom Hess, who also composed all the music, offering the listener a very clear, crisp sound throughout.
The opening track 'Exploration' goes a long way towards capturing the spirit of the work as a whole. The track utilizes fast and slow tempos to create different moods, and the dynamic rhythms and emotionally charged guitar work really hits the spot. This depth of feeling behind the guitar play is characteristic of the album as a whole, but one of the best examples is perhaps the superb 'Lydian Speaks'.
The contrasting moods and styles which the band are capable of delivering are brought to light in 'Phoenix Rising' which, after a hard hitting opening, melts away into a lighter piano section where a hazy relaxed guitar sound comes across perfectly. For those who enjoy the harder and more raucous approach, 'Through Space and Time' is bound to please.
Less pleasing for my own personal taste were 'Golden Colloseum' and 'Empire' which are a little more self indulgent and provide a platform for some virtuoso playing with lots of fast arpeggios. Nevertheless, they are still strong tracks and I was certainly impressed by the powerful performance.
Yet another facet of the band's style can be found in 'Queen of Me'. This piece uses an unforced approach with some beautifully laid back acoustic guitar work creating a very charged mood. The keyboard backdrops are particularly appealing, if understated, and the supporting bass and percussion work comes over well without being too obtrusive.
As stated earlier, this is a guitar based album - but even so, if any criticism have to be made, it would be in terms of the lack of diversity in the instrumentation. By extending some of the keyboard sections a little more I wonder if it might not have been possible to provide a rounder and more balanced sound, but this is a minor point and Hess are certainly a band who I will look forward to hearing more of in the future.
Fans of artists like Yngwie Malmsteen and Vinnie Moore will certainly appreciate the skillful compositions and playing that make this album such an enjoyable product, but ultimately all lovers of guitar based instrumental rock music should consider getting hold of this one.