One of the things that I’ve always loved about much of early progressive rock was not only how adventurous it was but also how damned heavy it could be. The music often had as much to do with Jimi Hendrix as it did with classical music. I ain’t talking about Yes’s flights of fancy or the pastoralism of Genesis but more along the lines of King Crimson’s angularity or even the early grittiness of Emerson Lake and Palmer. Yeah, I hear ‘ya, ELP??? Sure, just give a listen to that first album of theirs way back in 1970 and tell me that Knife-Edge, The Barbarian and Tank wasn’t some damned heavy shit! And heavy without being metal and often the heaviness came from the keyboards – mostly just Moog synthesizers and Hammond organs. The Italian bands from that era (remember Goblin?) also relied on keyboards to really knock you on your ass and many hard-core rockers from that era dug ELP as much as they loved Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. So why do I bring this up now? Well giving a listen to keyboardist Jason Rubenstein’s new album (and first in over 10 years), New Metal From Old Boxes has not only struck a heavy prog chord in me but has really made me realize how great it is to hear an all-keyboard album be one hell of a great and totally heavy instrumental experience.
I’d never heard of Rubenstein before when I got ahold of New Metal and realized immediately that this guy is really onto something here and is helping me (and any other heavy music fan willing to check this album out) to prove yet again that guitars aren’t the only way to get it done. Apparently Rubenstein’s been at it since the 70’s with both computers and music having done a wide variety of music, progressive and ambient, as well as working in software development, lately at Google and Pono Music. According to his bio, he found himself out of work late last year and, sick of the music he’d been writing for other people, reached into his soul and did the music that he really wanted to do. Good thing he’s been keeping up with the trends as New Metal From Old Boxes is as much influenced by old progressive music as by modern metal and Industrial music. As he puts it, “New Metal From Old Boxes features classic, loud rock production and a movie-like tension-filled soundtrack vibe. Imagine if King Crimson, ELP, NiN, Wendy Carlos, and Philip Glass got together to score the soundtrack for a heist movie.” I guess being out of work does not lead one to make lighthearted music! Which is a good thing as far as I’m concerned! The album is comprised of 11 blistering songs and an excellent cover of the aforementioned The Barbarian to close out the album. The album is also all Jason’s work (including drums which sound great even if they’re done electronically) and there are no ballads here – just balls to the wall heavy intensity with the occasional piano flourishes for contrast.
The Contemplation of the Cosmologer begins the album and shows the style that Rubenstein is using here – short intense melodic motifs under simple, propulsive drumming with the occasional lighter piano sections for a more contemplative feel. There’s also a really evil feel in the middle of the song that really propels it forward. Calculation and Walkway has just a couple of themes, one really heavy, the other more minimalist and they swirl around each other in a way that only a master composer can do so well. The Set Up is an excellent mood piece featuring a short piano ostinato over which Rubenstein adds in both heaviness and a fantastic imitation of a guitar solo. By now you’d think the guy would want to put in a ballad, but no – The Blow Off has real King Crimson feel with its constantly building tension to a very satisfying conclusion. After a couple of more songs in similar styles to the earlier ones, Rubenstein lets his Hammond freak fly on Frankenstein On The Red Line and it really has that gritty early prog sound that I love so much. The two-part The Steppes Of Sighs is probably the most aggressively metal song on the album and really shows off Rubenstein’s way of building songs to exciting conclusions. As I mentioned before, there’s never a let down here, so to conclude the album, we get the title song and it’s a great showcase for Rubenstein’s deceptively simple compositional style where he’ll take several short, intense themes and weave them together and on this one he’s content to let the piano stay out front with intense chords and short melodic lines and ends the song with an eerie and quite emotionally effective low-end piano lines. He finally concludes this very intense (and rather exhausting!) workout of an album with the aforementioned hard prog rock cover of Béla Bartók’s The Barbarian (filtered through ELP of course!) This is just one hell of a unique album in a very crowded field.
I think Jason Rubenstein is really onto something here with his brand of heavy intense music using his old “boxes” to create something that’s simultaneously vintage and refreshingly modern. Honestly I really enjoyed the hell out of this album and hope that Rubenstein can continue to make more heavy music rather than just doing soundtracks or other hired jobs. As with running this site, doing the work you love and comes from the heart is just so much more rewarding than doing only what other people pay you to do. You can hear all of the album via the Spotify playlist below and you can also purchase a copy of the it via the BandCamp link, also below.
review by Jeff Stevens
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