When pondering how to start this review of Speaking to Stones new release, Elements, I ran every clever angle I could through my musically subdued brain, and nothing could live up to the mind numbing aural forces that put it in said state. Guitarist and the driving force behind Speaking to Stones, Tony Vinci, took six years from the initial debut release of this project; those years were put to brilliant use. Unlike the initial project however, Vinci worked with keyboardist Anthony Brown (Graphite Symphony) for the songwriting process. Filling out the group are drummer Mark Zonder (Fates Warning), bassist Greg Putnam (Jam Pain Society), and vocalist Andy Engberg (Section A). The songwriters set up the base musical, thematical, and lyrical elements. The musicians were never in the same studio, tracks being recorded at remote locations then mixed. This gave a bit of wiggle room for the musicians to add their own touch to the end product, and it worked brilliantly.
Elements is a five part concept album, each track ranging from nine to fifteen minutes. The concept is a deep look into sin and salvation as related to the base archaic elements of the world, Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water, and the merged product of those, the Quinta Essentia, or “essential fifth” element. It opens with Fire, the purest representation of sin. The musical tone of this one is a suppressed rage of despair, ready to explode at any moment. We don’t want to sin, but sometimes we do anyways, and have to live with our actions. The sorrow and anger directed at ourselves is exactly what is reflected in this piece. Engberg’s vocals immediately announce their presence, adding the final depth of character that the music so brilliantly brings up. The backbone of all the songs is a triple threat of the precise drums, the sturdy bass, and a slightly distorted but powerful rhythm guitar. This adds such a sense of intensity and urgency to each song, building the desperation for the union of the elements.
Where Fire sets up one of the poles of the spiritual spectrum, the second song Wind, is the transitional song which lays out the inner journey needed to free oneself from the binds that our sins put upon us. Opening with a scattered yet structured instrumental, it immediately sets up the unpredictability of the path ahead, the uncertainty and fear that is involved with the ultimate submission, the one that will give us salvation from our sins. Here, in a very subdued and beautiful segment of the song, in the calm of the storm, the beauty of the waters of salvation are first glimpsed upon, the wind has carried us to this point, but the final steps are the hardest. This final step is the toughest, portrayed by an aggressive and technically brilliant instrumental section, showing the difficulty involved in giving up all to the waters.
Water represents the other end of the spiritual spectrum, the salvation needed to extinguish the Fire. In the Eighties, when all the hair metal bands were doing the obligatory power ballad, Water is the song they were trying to write but never could. The desire for peace has taken a final hold, and the soul and self is given up to a higher power, a greater being. In the search for salvation, the desperation has led to a calm sense of resolve, the waters are still. This song is a wonderful example of building structure. Layers and layers are delicately added, slowly but surely creating a sound and emotion worthy of the weighty nature of the song’s subject. I could feel the tears rise as my own sins welled up in me, wanting to be freed. If the ultimate objective of music is to affect emotional response, Water does this perfectly.
Earth, quite simply, is one of the best tracks I have had the honor of listening to, period. This is where we finally give ourselves over. Opening with quieter tones, the song explodes with a catchy yet sunning riff that simply refuses to leave my head for hours once I hear it. The rhythm guitar actually owns a lot of this song, it is what pairs with the phenomenal vocals to drive the moment of freedom home, but the song doesn’t stop there. Through the effort of unifying the heart and soul, the song carries through a variety of musical styles and tones, but never gets haphazard or confused. The band juggles all the musical balls for fifteen minutes, and never drops a one. Just when I get in that zone where I wonder where the song is going to go next, getting completely lost in it and wishing it would never end, it does.
Enter the soft acoustic sounds of a settled soul, the Quinta Essentia has been reached. The soft sounds don’t last long though, this is a metal album after all. The magnitude of the moment is carried so well in this final piece, that union of all the elements into the mysterious fifth element, the essential one that ties it all together. This is where it all comes together, it almost has an alpha and omega vibe to it, a beginning and end, the secret essence that runs between us and through us to bind us into something greater than the individual self. It is the only suitable end for an album of this magnitude and scope, unifying all the elements in a haze of mystery that we must continue to search for.
The impressions given above are how the album effected me, for the journey described is one I have struggled to take for a long time. The theme is open enough to apply to most humans and probably a few saints too. Musically, the album verges on perfection for me, and that sentiment has been echoed by some very trusted ears, including the Lady Herself. For the average prog metal fan, this is a must have. Weeks will be spent being lost in the complex yet inviting instrumental and vocal work. For the person, it is a soulful and surreal exploration of the inner essence of humanity. The expertise of the individual musicians shines in every moment on this album. I am at a loss to find a fault on this one to be honest, this album took hold of me from the moment I got it, and still has yet to let go.