Jeff Loomis – Plains of Oblivion

When former Nevermore shred maestro Jeff Loomis released his first solo album, Zero Order Phase, in 2008, he gave every assurance that it was only a side project and that his band would come first. Well, after one more album, Nevermore called it quits last year, and Loomis has become something of a full-fledged shred guitar solo artist. Earlier this month he launched his first solo tour, and in April his second solo album, Plains of Oblivion, is getting its release.

Like its predecessor, Plains of Oblivion is primarily about Loomis showing off his incredible shred skills. If this alone were all the album had to offer, it’d be relegated to the same pile as Joe Satriani and Steve Vai-technically capable music that is primarily about feeding the ego of the lead instrumentalist and is willing to sacrifice songwriting for showcasing technical ability. What sets Loomis solo material from the usual virtuoso guitar offerings is that where the latter flirts with experimentalism, would-be jazz and other dad-rockisms, the former is unapologetically metal. Plains of Oblivion reminds me of a modernized version of Marty Friedman and Jason Becker’s ‘80s shred excuse Cacophony-focused on being heavy and aggressive while showing off some crazy-ass guitar chops at the same time. (I think Loomis is aware of this-Friedman has a guest solo on opening track “Mercurial”.) The first three songs of this album-“Mercurial” along with “The Ultimatum” and “Escape Velocity”-hew pretty closely to this shred-metal blueprint, but halfway through the high speed 32nd note runs of “Escape Velocity” (delivered admirably by Soilwork drummer Dirk Verbeuren) the song breaks down into an acoustic and keyboard clean section that gives you a breather before Loomis makes his seven-string perform more backflips for your ears. The man understands no one could listen to pure shred for an album’s runtime, no matter how impressive, and knows just the right time to catch you off-guard with a different dynamic.

Loomis caps off his first shift of the album with “Tragedy and Harmony”, which, holy crap, has some lead vocals. Not from JL, but from Christine Rhoades, who has previously collaborated with Loomis in Nevermore. Her presence gives the song a little more structure and flavor-her voice is soaring and melodic, and forces Loomis to have to write around a vocal part instead of a guitar solo, forcing him to change up his writing dynamic a bit. Though Rhoades appears elsewhere on the album, she’s not the only guest vocalist-Loomis has succeeded in making me fist pump (a rare feat) by getting the one and only Ihsahn to appear on “Surrender”. As a huge fan of his voice and his music (both with Emperor and solo), listening to his ghastly shrieks over Loomis’ intense riffage and neoclassical leads pretty much gives me a boner. Hey, Jeff, maybe the next album should just be a Loomis/Ihsahn collaboration. A whole album of songs like this would make my heart skip a beat.

If you like Loomis’ last solo record, Zero Order Phase, or any of his stuff with Nevermore, you have an idea what you’re getting with Plains of Oblivion. Fans of guitar virtuosity, likewise, will know what to expect from an album with Loomis’ name on it. The best parts of this record, though, are when Loomis does things you wouldn’t expect, like recruiting guest vocalists, or recording a roomy acoustic outro that catches him getting up and leaving the room at the end of the song. The unexpected touches are what makes Plains of Oblivion worth checking out.