Release Date:
December 7, 2007

Reviewed by:
Shannon West

Is it possible to become obsessed with a fragment of a song. I think so. I was that way about the part of Pat Metheny Group's "Roots of Coincidence" where it builds and builds and gets louder and louder then just. Stops. So here is Metro's "Up Above The Stars" which starts with a little sonic distortion but a decidedly "Last Train Home" mode, albeit a little chunkier and thick on the underside and about 2:45 in there is THE GUITAR SOLO to end all guitar solos. Fast, furious, clean and distorted at the same time. Then it breaks into the kind of anthemic hard rock instrumental that those of us whose "songs you grew up with" include more Metal than Manilow can grab onto and just ride. Delivered by Chuck Loeb (he of the current top 20 smooth jazz single). Richard Smith, another of my guitar heroes, has this story he tells onstage about the guys who stand on the front row and gawk during the solos then come up after the show with this kinda dazed look about them and just blurt out "Dude, you shred." That's the state this band has put me in. Dudes, you shred. Your CD has taken over my iPod and my laptop and it won't give them back.  
At some point fusion got a bad rep. It was probably driven by the excesses of a crop of followers who didn't have the virtuosity of Corea and Return To Forever, Weather Report, John McLaughlin, or Jeff Beck and tried to cover that lack with noise, distortion, and solos that had speed but no nuance. Fusion originally implied a melding of jazz and rock. Not a bad thing at all, especially for listeners whose musical explorations were going in both these directions and covering all the territory in between. On Express, Metro brings a fresh new perspective that blends classic fusion influences with world music, straightahead jazz, chill and ambient, blues and even a little Euro-electronica. On this outing there are also a noticeable amount of Metheny-isms. It isn't imitative but there are melodic and textural similarities throughout. PMG's brilliant and groundbreaking The Way Up is still opening new layers of revelation with each listen, but three years in you start looking around for something else that will offer some continuity of that experience - the immersion into music that is transcendent and raw, complex and sparse, lyrical and loud all within the same framework. This is the album that can do just that.  
Who better to create definitive 21st century fusion than Mitchel Forman and Chuck Loeb - virtuoso musicians who know no stylistic boundaries. Forman played with John McLaughlin and Wayne Shorter (Weather Report), Loeb's career as a musician and producer spans decades and genres. Add drummer Wolfgang Haffner and bassist Will Lee (most familar as the bassist with Paul Shaffer and the "CBS Orchestra" on the "Late Show with David Letterman') and you have a power quartet to reckon with. It's obvious that these sessions reverberated with the joy of playing with no commercial restraints. No research guru or label executive would let this music see the light of day. Not a single song "stays put." They all throw a stunning arsenal of solos, ensemble work, rhythmic and textural shifts, and unbounded influences around the core of the individual songs. The opener, "The Red Fish," teases you into mellow land with a loose funky groove then flips into tradeoff solos between Foreman and Loeb over a chunky backbeat and blasts of synth-horns. Straightahead chops mutate into evil blues-rock complete with B3 in "Sloth." Layers of shimmering sonic effects wrap around a lyrical piano melody that builds and breaks into another DudeUShred Loeb solo (this one at 3:58 in case you're keeping score) in "Tell me A Thousand Times," and "Up Above The Stars" has Forman soloing over layers of chilled out sounds and effects that break into the above mentioned Loeb solo then retract back to subtlety. Loeb lays Wes Montgomery octaves over a Chick Corea sounding Rhodes in "Nuna" and the moody and almost classical mood of "The Standard" then delivers a torrent of dizzyingly fast notes, each one clean and precise, in the exhilarating Eurobeat propelled title song.  "Absynth Blues" sounds like Jeff Beck meets Return To Forever (updated). The Metheny influence on “Rio Frio” is undeniable - the time signature, tone, and swirling vocal chant at the end. Similar guitar shadings and PMG-like shifts in mood and space show up often throughout this music, probably because these musicians have also reached the level where they can pull it off. What makes Express so appealing and a few notches more accessible than most current fusion projects is the melodic framework. The songs on this CD unfold and wrap around passages of introspective melody and elegant beauty that leave you breathless as they gain momentum.  

If you grew up with prog-rock then moved into fusion you're going to hear a lot of what brought you to that place and what you didn't know you were missing until this band put it all together and served it up 21st century style. If the experimental side of the music is new to you there is no better jumping off point than here because these songs always bring you back to that melodic place. This is a keeper, one that will hold up over the long run and keep revealing gratifying subtleties along the way.