Isobar — Isobar II

by Peter Thelen, Published 2022-01-01

Needless to explain, this is the second album in as many years by the San Jose, California instrumental group Isobar, formed by three ex-members of Metaphor — bassist Jim Anderson, guitarist Malcolm Smith, and keyboardist Marc Spooner. As with their first eponymous album, released a little over a year ago, drum duties are handled by none other than Mattias Olsson (Änglagård, White Willow, Necromonkey, The Devil’s Staircase, and many others), clearly one of the best drummers in all of Scandinavia, who is technically a guest player with Isobar, but he appears on every cut. The writing is shared by the three primary members, powerful and very adventurous compositions that clearly entail the defining attributes of the best in progressive rock. 

The eleven tracks here may sometimes find occasional comparisons to bits of proggy things one may have heard before, but their compositions are very original, and not particularly influenced by any single artist before them, and their lush arrangements are often quirky and unusual, though brimming with energy. The first three or four cuts seem to be a bit more keyboard dominated, but with “Zed the Exhaler” we begin to hear more guitar crunch, a superb six-minute workout of constant changes and shifting ideas that rarely repeat unless there’s a very good reason for it. 

And it must be said, their music isn’t built on flashy rock soloing, but instead on complex compositional elements that truly engage the listener, a style that will take numerous repeat listens to begin revealing itself. With a variety of keyboard and guitar tones at their disposal, they make a song like “The Suppressor of the Archives” perpetually interesting as it shifts and twists through a labyrinthine sonic world of amazing changes. The band employs guest players on trumpet and saxes on this track or that, offering some additional variety in the arrangements, though some sounds like flute are used as well, likely from a Mellotron or facsimile thereof, all from Spooner’s vast keyboard arsenal. 

This is one of those albums that you can’t help but want to play over and over again, and Isobar is one of the few so-called prog bands that’s truly moving the ball forward, as opposed to aping the sounds of yesterdecades.



Today is the opportunity to present the second album of the excellent American group ISOBAR, which was published on December 10 of last year 2021 and carries the single title of “Isobar II”. Trope Audio is the label in charge of publishing the album that we are now reviewing. This trio made up of Jim Anderson [bass], Malcolm Smith [guitars] and Marc Spooner [keyboards] once again enjoys the full collaboration of the hardworking Swedish musician Mattias Olsson on drums and percussion, as happened on the homonymous album by debut of the past year 2020.  Evan Weiss on trumpet and  Ben Bohorquez on saxophone occasionally collaborate on this album that was recorded at  Dolores Gulch Studios, mixed by  Robert Berry at Soundtek Studios and mastered by Rainer Gembalcyk at the Sienna Digital studio. Well, now let’s go over the details of this new ISOBAR repertoire.

Lasting just under 9 and a half minutes, ‘Short Story Long’ opens the repertoire with a statement of principles about the revitalizing lavishness that the group is willing to develop throughout the album; in fact, it is the longest piece on the album. After a solemn cosmic prelude, a complex bass line opens the way to the establishment of the central body, which stands at a crossroads between the stylized splendor of YES and the complex manor of GENTLE GIANT through the filter of ECHOLYN. The sequence of the various motifs runs fluidly through the melodic steppes that are articulated in a sonic engineering that is as robust as it is refined, engineering that always relies on a sophisticated rhythmic scheme, regardless of the dose of momentum used on each particular occasion. Great album start. ‘Obstination’ follows next to impose a very special climate of jovial fullness based on a rhythmic intensity very inclined towards jazz-prog and Zappian antics (almost like a hybrid of BUBBLEMATH and HOOFFOOT) and a generous use of dissonant resources. in thematic development. The lonely drums epilogue is simply spectacular. With the duo of  ‘Social Meteor’ and ‘Eigengrau’, the group continues with the exploration of its sonic palette. The first of these songs continues along the path of fulgurosa joviality of the previous one and adds a greater rock punch to it, as well as including some of the best guitar solos of the entire album. As for the second of these themes mentioned, this one takes a turn towards a measured ethereal lyricism whose sound traces are drawn with meticulous delicacy. A timely change of environment for this moment of the album. When it is the turn of ‘Zed The Exhaler’, the band returns to the symphonic lavishness that marked the opening piece, this time systematically focusing on the more ceremonious aspects of said solemnity to display an aura of exquisite density, in the manner of a hybrid between the GENESIS of the 76-78 phase and the KING CRIMSON of the early millennium. In truth, the obscurantist nuances are the ones that are most noticeable within the sophisticated musical block that the musicians put together with a perfect interconnection of their neighboring strengths. 

Themes 6-10 make up the suite  ‘The Jury Of Ten Men’, being that the titles of its sections are, respectively,  ‘The Suppressor Of The Archives’,  ‘The Impaler Of Distortions’,  ‘The Impersonator Of Sorrows’,  ‘The Image Motivator’ and ‘The Squire Of Reason’. The first section establishes an ingenious and agile combination of old-school symphonism, GENTLE GIANT specters and modern symphonism bonding with each other with a very awakened vivacity, the same one that allows the group to solve the color inherent in the labyrinthine compositional development in progress. The second section is installed under a warm and calm atmosphere, creating a stately and precious dreamlike atmosphere, while the third expands on a lyricism that oscillates between the romantic and the impressionist (a bit in the style of THE ENID). In any case, in this fourth section there are also some strategic spaces to let the rock vigor manifest itself naturally.The fourth section is a lively miniature that flirts with the GENTLE GIANT pattern through the filter of A TRIGGERING MYTH, its main function being to prepare the way for the arrival of the fifth and final section. This focuses on an agile and robust exercise in symphonism that collects and remodels the most lavish aspects of the preceding sections. ‘Flannel’ closes the album and does so with a striking and magnetic vitalism, initially appealing to a compact combination between the melodic finesse of the symphonic prog and the stately groove of jazz-rock. Later on, an interlude emerges where the matter drastically turns towards a parsimonious and nocturnal setting, not without certain disturbing nuances that border on the avant-prog and the Crimsonian paradigm simultaneously. However, as this momentum continues, spirituality becomes more versatile and sumptuous, creating a densely palatial aura around it. In this way, the group paves the way for a genuinely majestic epilogue (in turn, followed by a cybernetic coda).

This is what the ISOBARs offered us with “Isobar II”, a fabulous album that confirms the band in question as an important force in the progressive production of the United States in recent years. In fact, it strikes us as one of the most notable contributions to world art rock from the US in the past year 2021. A great second act from ISOBAR.