Richard Poulin 3-April-2008 The Problem of Pain, Part 1

Tony Massero-Vocals and Guitars
Dominic Massero -Bass
Vincent Massero –Drums

Torman Maxt is a family affair: 3 brothers from Southern California make the group. Other distinctive trait: the band makes Christian rock and makes religious and philosophical topics the running theme of their albums. And one might also add: Christianity is the center around which gravitates the various elements of their art. Thus the lyrics are really the centerpiece of their compositions.

“The Problem of Pain, Part 1” makes no exceptions. First of all, it is important to mention that the title is borrowed from the C.S. Lewis book of the same name. The well known citation from the book on the back of the album is worth reminding, because it summarizes the theme of that concept album pretty well: "If God were good, He would make His creatures perfectly happy, and if He were almighty He would be able to do what he wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both. This is the problem of pain in its simplest form." Very heady stuff, and a famous and fascinating metaphysical topic for discussion. C.S. Lewis used to be an atheist before he wrote that book, and he manages to address many of the arguments used by atheists to dismiss the very notion of a loving almighty God.

But music is music, and Christian or not, we are here to discuss the musical aspects of this work.

On the basis of such a preamble, one could expect complex music, with a varied palette of inspiration, especially since Torman Maxt is heralded as doing progressive rock. What one hears on “The Problem of Pain, Part 1” is an agreeable mini rock opera with some very nice moments of grace. If Styx is progressive in your dictionary, then let Torman Maxt be progressive. The use of “opera” here is not meant for its form but for its structure, with recurring themes, both musically and lyrically. Thus, a mini neo prog rock opera much in the same way as the Who's “Tommy” is considered as an opera. Minus the scope and the depth of the latter work, unfortunately. The central character in the “The Problem of Pain, Part 1” opera is fairly easy to guess from the tracklist, and makes also plenty of sense from a metaphysical standpoint. It's based on the story of Job, of course, the faithful, hard-working and God-fearing man who had to put up with an endless series of terrible tragedies and character-building twists of fate, leading to grueling tests of the depth of his own faith.

To get some idea of their style, which squarely fits into the general neo prog niche, a fairly accurate comparison might be Rush or Queensryche with a sense of the catchy riff of a Styx or Porcupine Tree, but with much less complexity at hand. One can even hear Dave Lambert of the Strawbs in the guitar style. Because the crux of the biscuit is really the lyrics, the main vocalist is crucial to the music. Tony Massero sings very closely like a cross between Roger McGuinn (The Byrds) (but much better than McGuinn and much less off-key) and Jane Addiction's Perry Farell. It can charm someone as much as scare the jimmies out of the you....

The album has a pretty good start with a dynamic “Overture” which already defines the musical style one will hear throughout this rather short (41:55) album (by our modern standards). It sounds so much like an early Rush or Styx piece, complete with the flashy, dramatic intro that you are taken by surprise when you realize that it's neither Geddy Lee nor Dennis DeYoung who does the singing, but a sort of boyish Roger McGuinn who would have taken singing lessons. And it incorporates some expressive breaks and mannerisms very reminiscent of “Tommy”, minus the pyrotechnics of a Keith Moon. The boys sure know their classics, but they have to deal with a human drum machine. But it sure is a very engaging intro.

Good blend-in with the next number, “Job's Song”, with some riffs borrowed from Pete Townshend more or less consciously, perhaps. Again, Rush and the Who perspire from every note, but man! Poor Vince “4/4” Massero pounds heavily behind each note as though each note was equal, struggling to keep the beat.

Another very competent and pleasant movement follows with “The Angel's First Song”, which features some very interesting acoustic guitar that could again feel in good company on some of Tommy's movements. And some catchy praying verses that are a recurrent theme: “Holy, holy, holy/God almighty/Praise and honor/You are worthy”.

The acoustic leaves its place to some angry, heavy metal guitar riffs toward the end, blending into... “Satan's First Song”, easily one of the best starts on the album, with more catchy riffs that immediately register in your neolithic prog brain. The guys sure can deliver a powerful rock style that works. But one has to admit though that the hammering is very weighty rather than heavy in the percussion department...

And from here, things start to go rapidly downhill, unfortunately. Or should I say, to stall. The problems are mainly double:
- Tony Massero tries more and more his Roger McGuinn's impression, with the mannerisms and that plaintive inflexion that might please some, but that annoys plenty, and gradually becomes rather annoying.
- The sections tend to sound much alike, and though it fits the bill of an opera with recurring themes and a unifying thread, it definitely becomes monochord. The alternating hard electric bits with interspersed acoustic parts sound fresh and lively at first, but the recipe wears out quickly. Fortunately there are some interludes, like the breezy, seaside electronic atmosphere heard at the beginning of the Angel's Second Song, which, yes, repeats the same prayer heard on the First Song again and again.

One certainly hopes that Vol. 2, due some time in 2008, will take us to different levels (read: higher), but Vol. 1 is a decent neo prog miniopera on a Christian theme with very few progressive leanings. It does contain very nice musical breaks, promising intros, but somehow, the excitement generated by the excellent melodies and powerful beats heard a the beginning of many movements swiftly evaporates due to the monotonous recourse to recurring themes. All right, prayers are built like these, and the work may have the design of an oratorio, but even Handel refrained of using exact repeats of the same themes within the same work. On the other hand, the group has a very engaging sound. Neo prog bands tend to shout, not sing, and Tony Massero has developed an easily recognizable timber and sound, well backed by harmonies, and does not have that unfortunate tendency of neo prog singers to spit out their lungs and go over the top at any cost. This is a trio of enthusiastic musicians and believers, and their music has the merit of being refreshing and uplifting, although it lacks musical substance.

Will better inspiration bless Torman Maxt after this? I do hope so. I find their style rather engaging for a neo prog band, and after all, it took Yes a few promising drafts before delivering a “Fragile” and a “Close to the Edge”. Plus, they sure do know how to sound exactly like some pretty successful prog bands of the mid-70s.

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