Ben Levin Group
Invisible Paradise
If Frank Zappa had been born a part of the current musical generation, I imagine he would be making music quite a bit like Ben Levin. In many ways, I could easily compare the two- they’re each gifted with a bold musical vision, a penchant for proggy quirk, and no shortage of expertise on the guitar. On that note however, I’d have just as many reasons to compare his music to the work of The Mars Volta, Dream Theater, Mahavishnu Orchestra or Magma. On their fourth album “Invisible Paradise”, I continue to be impressed by this group and what they’re doing. The Ben Levin Group continue to refine their fascinating blend of styles, and with technical proficiency on a parallel with some of rock’s greatest names, there’s no doubt about it; you should check out what Ben Levin and co. have to offer.
Last year, I had the pleasure of hearing the Ben Levin Group’s third album, “Pulse of a Nation”.  Even a year later, I can vividly remember how impressed I was with BLG’s proficiency and ambitious take on the progressive rock style. Although ‘prog’ was above and beyond the best term to describe the style of music, “Pulse of a Nation”s experimental approach distanced it from a lot of the clichés that have made the progressive label a bit of a dirty term to some people. For instance, although I may refer to Dream Theater when speaking of the Ben Levin Group’s instrumental proficiency, the comparison would carry the negative connotation of Dream Theater’s tendency to alienate their listeners through their self-indulgence. Rather than assume that good musicianship alone will keep the music afloat, Ben Levin offers a thoughtful sense of composition that rivals the skill and technique of the musicians around him. More often than not, Ben Levin’s writing style reveals not only an interest in jazz theory (not surprisingly given his Berklee College education) but also neoclassical music. Fusing these two schools together and filtering it through the crunch and vitesse of rock music, Ben Levin’s style manages to be simultaneously cerebral and sentimental. Given that the two are often mutually exclusive (and doubly so in instrumental music), that’s certainly saying something.“Invisible Paradise” takes the Ben Levin Group down a more subdued path than “Pulse of a Nation”.  Although vocal parts are few and far between, the booklet states that the album “is a piece of music about change and the temporary nature of paradise.” Although the album could have worked just as well within an explicit concept, this theme of mutability offers a pretty fertile ground for emotional dynamics. As was the case with “Pulse of a Nation”, the album flows as were it a seamless suite.
Although some of the Ben Levin Group’s earlier work could get quite aggressive, “Invisible Paradise” tends to lean towards the mellow end. The jazz and classical fusion translates into a welcome union of violin and piano that follows through most of the album. Particularly towards the album’s beginning, Chris Baum’s haunting violin work conjures impressions of BLG’s fellow Berklee alumni Kayo Dot. As the project title might suggest however, quite a bit of the spotlight is placed on Ben Levin and his guitar. Although much of his performance here depends on lead work, he rarely approaches shred territory, instead opting to keep things melodic, and- I daresay- tasteful. His guitar style ebbs and flows wonderfully with the rhythm section; as a guitarist, Levin’s greatest gift is that he knows when to be reserved, and when to inject fuel into his playing. As I’ve mentioned before, his lead style evokes impressions of Frank Zappa, but also the jazz-rock observations of John McLaughlin, and the push-pull dynamism of The Mars Volta’s Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. Having heard “Pulse of a Nation” before however, none of this comes as a surprise to me.Although “Pulse of a Nation” had a few minor vocal parts, one of the bigger surprises on “Invisible Paradise” is the presence of a significant vocal role. Although I would still consider the Ben Levin Group to be prog-enitors of instrumental rock, Courtney Swain’s vocal contribution goes a long way to developing the band’s sound into something more than what they were before. The only conventional, lyric-based singing section is at the very beginning. After that, Courtney’s performance depends largely on wordless vocalizations, a quasi-operatic voice that fulfills much of the same role as the violin. The voice tends to be kept to the background for the purpose of fleshing out the mix, but it is one of the most effective elements of the album’s sound.  As the ‘track titles’ (each adding a piece to a growing text emoticon) suggest, “Invisible Paradise”s composition style depends largely on the act of buildup.
For the most part, the Ben Levin Group manage to achieve a steady sense of flow, particularly during the superior first half of the album. However, by the time the album has reached its final quarter, “Invisible Paradise” feels decidedly less interesting than it was. Whereas my experience with “Pulse of a Nation” was consistently impressive, “Invisible Paradise” seems to trail off without a proper climax fitting the momentum it built up from the beginning. Although there is a symphonic ‘finale’ of sorts with violin ablaze, it doesn’t have the dramatic resonance I would have liked to hear, especially after the sort of emotional pyrotechnics the band conjures on the album’s first three tracks.Although “Invisible Paradise” doesn’t give me the same jaw-dropping impression as did “Pulse of a Nation”, it’s difficult not to be impressed by what Ben Levin and his fellow musicians are doing here. BLG have pieced together a fascinating melange of jazz, rock, and classical styles, without sounding the least bit contrived. Although I would have had my doubts to hear someone else cite these ambitious and technically proficient arrangements as being  inspired by “the magic and wonder in normal life”, the emotional resonance and curiosity pervades everything this band does. Highly recommended to fans of progressive music or any sort of modern fusion rock.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Conor Fynes
April 12th, 2013

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