By Joel Barrios, Rock At Night Miami Correspondent
Album review: ERIC GILLETTE- “The Great Unknown” -Release date June 2, 2016
Things have changed a lot for Eric Gillette since he released his first (and self-produced) solo album Afterthought around three years go. At that time he was not a familiar face for many music fans, even when he had made quite a splash as a member of Neal Morse’s touring back for the Momentum tour. Afterthought was a very instrumental-dominated album, with many virtuoso performances by Eric (especially if you take into account he played all the instruments) and I considered an extraordinary achievement for a young musician like him. Three years later, now a full time member of the Neal Morse Band and highly regarded as a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and rising guitar star, Eric Gillette is back in the fold with his second solo album entitled “The Great Unknown”.
This time around Eric has surrounded himself by some of the finest musicians in the current progressive metal scene: Diego Tejeida (Haken) handles the keyboards duties, while his Haken’s bandmate Conner Green plays the bass and drummer extraordinaire Thomas Lang sits behind the drum-kit. The Great Unknown is a considerably shorter album than its predecessor and showcases Eric’s innate abilities as music and composer, leaving no doubt about something: Eric has enough chops to be a guitar-hero but he can wear many hats and shine in many ways. I’ve been listening to the final mix of the album for the last couple of days, and since this could turn into one of the first reviews online I decided to do a track-by-track unbiased assessment of what Eric’s sophomore effort has to offer. So if you are up for a ride, read on!
“The Great Unknown” is an excellent in-your-face rocker tune and perfect beginner for the album, it takes the listener attention immediately to the front of the stage with its powerful and crunchier opening guitar riff and the slamming drumming courtesy of Thomas Lang. The guitars evolve from the initial passage to match the sudden and frenetic drums fills in a combination that exudes intensity, quickly giving entrance to Eric’s melodic vocals “No need to run, I just begun, I finally feel alive. Nothing to say, out of my way, I know who I am inside”. The track flows nicely until reaching the 2:21 minutes mark, when it morphs into a prog-tastic interlude, with Eric’ guitar fighting the complex drums signatures and the powerful bass lines in a compelling duel, followed by a soaring (and surprisingly short) solo, setting the mood of what’s coming next. My only gripe with the song is it ends way too soon.
Driven by Diego Tejeida’s atmospheric keyboards and paired with some sick initial drumming “The Aftermath” creeps into your ears slowly with memorable and infectious verses (boy, this guy can sing!) for around 3 minutes, when the Prog-Gods make their appearance: an excellent and retro-sounding keyboard passage serves as the landscape for the arrival of some remarkable drum gymnastics sporting crazy rhythm and tempo changes and accompanied by the guitar riff in the background; reaching a climax topped with a lethal combination of an intense and once again melodic-driven guitar solo followed by an inspired keyboard solo. All of a sudden the initial chorus returns it all its groovier glory and takes your hand until the end. One of my favorite songs of the album it will be a feast for the eyes if played live.
“Escape” is the album’s monster. An eighteen minutes long epic prog-journey with something for every taste which easily succeeds with its ‘songs within a song’ approach in logically flowing from one part to the next to form a complementary whole. It begins with a synth melody in the back giving way to a towering, heralding, anthem-like guitar work perfectly demonstrating Eric’s top-notch playing skills. He is not just another fancy guitar-slinger, he knows how to add a memorable and soulful feeling to his moving fingers in the right amount, a dose that oozes inspiration and virtuosity. After the crescendo comes a peaceful break with a sad melody acting as the backdrop for Eric’s voice, with guitars climbing slowly pairing the lyrics. The song is lyrically about searching for more in life…a reason for living: “Now you can see that there’s life beyond tomorrow” he sings. Describing the song becomes impossible after this, but I’ll try my best here. It goes through eight distinct sections, including 2 completely different instrumental passages, the mid-section of the first one diving into a true frenetic and heavy-laden outburst of drums and guitars with some synth orchestral keys thrown in, disembarking into a keyboard and guitar soloing madness, and then an epic vocal chorus where Eric’s voice channels the late Mac McDermott (Singer in several records of UK progressive metallers Threshold). The second segment is led by a blistering and striking guitar solo and then a cool electric piano section over a jazzy scenery, flowing into a powerful minute-long precise drum exercise over mesmerizing bass line courtesy of Conner Green, leading effortlessly into a calming chorus, with the piano aligning warmly with the undercurrent melody; before climaxing into another almighty guitar soloing and ending with a dying piano. An extremely well-accomplished song, it proves Eric’s songwriting skills are second to none.
Following such larger-than-life tune comes another completely different. “Damage” bears the imprint of a more retro sound, with catchy, atmospheric and power-chord rhythm guitar lines wrapped by a down-tuning 80’s synth sound. Eric’s voice is also different in this one, stripping away the epic tone of “Escape” and adding and uplifting effect in the chorus. Half way through there’s a great instrumental section where Diego displays his versatility before a fast guitar solo steals the spotlight (Once again too short, it leaves me wanting for me). A symphonic transition takes the song back to the bridge, with an arpeggio-dominated instrumental segment closing it.
“Empty” is a beautiful song and the ballad of the album. It starts softly with strings and an acoustic piano, Eric wonderfully singing, weaving the air with a saddened and impressive melody. Drums and bass come into the picture around midway, marking a slow rhythm with a smoothly flowing effect, while a marvelous guitar solo adds the perfect amount of sentiment over Eric’s impassionate vocal delivery “It doesn’t matter who you were before. So leave the darkness and walk right through the door”. The melody dies slowly leaving only the piano and a languid viola in the end. A magnificent composition where Eric shines with his crystalline vocal abilities.
A majestic synth introduction (makes me think for a second, the beginning of a yet to be written Neal Morse’s song) commences “Runaway”, the second longest running track in the album. The opening blends seamlessly with a slow and solid bass/drums soundscape, the keys linger around, keeping just the perfect measure of drama to go with the lyrics; while some guitar phrasing comes and goes in the background. Once again I am impressed by Eric’s voice, it anchors the mellow melody flawlessly: “You’ve been running from the things you love, it’s time to move on”. After the second verse, there’s a sudden change in tempo and a delirious synth noodling, then energetic-driven drums take over the song into an ever-changing section adorned by orchestral backgrounds, dropping it back into the slow melody of the beginning. Reaching the end (its duration is 9:02 and you will have the sensation the song just started) a vibrant guitar solo paints the latest brush strokes in a truly harmonious grand finale.
As all good things come to an end “All I Am” is the last song. It begins with an ascending choral opening leading to a grandiose passage with a guitar riff enfolded in orchestrated keys and dropping swiftly into a brief acoustic piano and voice verse, picking up again where it left off and climbing further up the keyboards adding a resplendent touch while Eric sings about his convictions: “I’ll give you all that I am. I’m with you until the end. I’ll never hide who I am. I live with not one regret.” The imposing background continues and now Eric entrenches the listener with a long and spending guitar solo which spirals up imposing an immersing upsurge. The choruses return and Thomas Lang’s drums go wild in an unrelenting drum solo and double-bass performance, whereas the tune fades away leaving you breathless.
I can’t help myself but remembering Mike Portnoy’s well-known statement about Eric when he became the Neal Morse’s Band guitarist: “…Brace yourselves for a new guitar hero in Eric Gillette! He is the new king of shred and feel! He reminds me a lot of my old partner in crime if you know who I mean! Mike, I thought I knew what you meant, but the reality is I couldn’t see it clearly enough. Not only has Eric Gillette stepped up his game with The Great Unknown–he has taken himself to a whole new dimension. He is no longer a new “Progster in Town”, he’s aiming to be the Sheriff. “The Great Unknown” is a powerful, harmonious and feeling-infused musical flight, and a true testament of musical authority by an artist who refuses definitions and walks firmly and steadily towards the most selective elite of progressive music.
The Great Unknown4:41
All I Am 7:56
Thomas Lang on Drums
Conner Green on Bass
Diego Tejeida on Keys
His shots have graced many Rock at Night articles, as part of his press and photo coverage for music events throughout the US and big music festivals like Cruise to the Edge 2015, RosFest 2016, Morsefest 2016 and Progpower 2016 to name a few. His work has been also featured in the prestigious UK magazine Prog.