The Aaron Clift Experiment -
Outer Light Inner Darkness

(CD 2015, 63:41, Aaron Clift Productions)

The tracks:
  1- Kissed By The Sun(7:40)
  2- Locked(5:23)
  3- Fragments Of Sleep(4:37)
  4- Your Arms Hold Them To The Dark(4:20)
  5- Aoide, Goddess Of Song(5:58)
  6- The Last Oasis(8:36)
  7- Moonscape(12:05)
         - I. The Frontline
         - II. Fool's Fate
         - III. Outer Light, Inner Darkness
  8- Bathed In Moonlight(7:27)

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The Aaron Clift Experiment is a four piece hailing from Austin, Texas, who claim being influenced by the major classic and progressive rock acts (Genesis, Marillion, Dream Theater and King's X to name a few) , as well as J.S. Bach and jazz composer John Coltrane. That sounds like a good basis for good music, provided the musicians are good. The latter is not the problem, nor do the influences show through too clearly - so we may be onto something here.

The opening track Kissed By The Sun certainly leaves the listener wanting more. It's an intricate piece, opening with a strong guitar riff, soon followed by raging keyboards and a (real!) violin as it keeps changing for over 7.5 minutes, and includes a very well executed melodic bass solo.
Such a pity is that this is followed by the much weaker Locked which reminds me more of mid 80s Survivor than any of the aforementioned influences. Not that I don't appreciate Survivor, but this track, as well as the one after, Fragments Of Sleep, are closer to AOR than the promised progressive rock experience. Both tracks have a strong, less straight forward ending (the vocal arrangement of Fragments Of Sheep is very nice), but it's just not enough.
The voice of Aaron Clift himself (also taking care of all keyboards and pianos), and the musicianship of Eric Gutierrez (guitar), Devin North (bass) and Joe Resnick (drums) are certainly not the problem. It's more that composition-wise, the tracks are lacking something - as if the really strong parts are stuck together by adding a second rate duct tape clone, instead of a proper binding.
Things get somewhat better with Your Arms Hold Them To The Dark, which goes from a haunting melody to an almost danceable, near classical arrangement (the influence of Bach?) toward a heavy, guitar driven bit that does contain some prog metal influences.
Surprisingly, at the point the band had almost lost me, the opening piano and guitar riff of Aoide, Goddess Of Song pulls me back in. A vague memory of Savatage's In The Wake of Magellan, does that. The song becomes less heavy soon, with synths replacing the piano and the guitar backing down, but also leaving behind the AOR sound of the previous track. It's a wonderful piece, with some nice drum and percussion work half way through accentuating the vocals - before moving into heavier space again with the piano and guitar returning.
The Last Oasis is a piece that starts with just a string quartet (that also, but less prominently, features on Fragments Of Sleep), before the guitar and drums come in half way. It develops into a classical piece for string quartet, piano and rock band, and could well be my favourite track on the album. The 12 minute epic Moonscape (with a marching drum opening that made me wonder if this was going to be the band's own Genesis'Battle Of Epping Forest) is well composed, but could've done with a little more variation in dynamics and speed.
Finally, Bathed In Moonlight brings in the combination of string quartet and band again, resulting in a melodic, well sung, closing track.
The bonus tracks, an acoustic version of Your Arms Hold Them To The Dark and a shortened (single) version of Kissed By The Sun are nice to have, but not essential to the album.

Overall, this album has quite a few appealing moments, but also contains three tracks that simply don't cut it well enough. Despite the band leader being singer and keyboard player, the music certainly is not too heavy on keys but rather nicely balanced. The mix is balanced similarly, with a crisp bass as a bonus. Worth checking out.

*** + Angelo Hulshout (edited by Robert James Pashman)

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