By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- In the current landscape of modern pop music where hard rock barely registers a blip, launching a project as esoteric as a psychedelic prog-metal band singing sprawling, nautically themed epics about an ancient Seagull God King might seem foolhardy. But all it takes is one listen to the cinematic self-titled debut of all-star outfit Legend of the Seagullmen (out Feburary 9 on Dine Alone Records) to realize the idea isn't folly. In fact, it's exactly the kind of creative, left field kick in the pants heavy music could use right now.
The brainchild of lead singer David "The Doctor" Dryer and guitarist/singer Jimmy "The Admiral" Hayward (better known for directing the animated films Horton Hears a Who! and Free Birds as well as the live-action movie Jonah Hex), Legend of the Seagullmen includes the heavyweight talents of Tool drummer Danny Carey and Mastodon guitarist Brent Hinds along with noted session bassist Peter Griffin (Zappa Plays Zappa, Dethklok, Steve Vai), keyboardist Chris "Mad Dog" DiGiovanni and guitarist Tim Dawson. The group started coming together after Hayward [who -- full disclosure -- I've known since shortly before he moved to San Francisco to work on Pixar's Toy Story around 1994] became friends with Hinds and hired Mastodon to work on the soundtrack to Jonah Hex.
Hinds introduced Hayward to Dryer -- who had already mapped out an intricate mythology surrounding the Seagull God King spanning eons -- and the seed that would become the Legend of the Seagullmen began germinating as Hayward's Hollywood Hills neighbor and longtime jamming buddy Carey and the other members joined the fold. With Hayward applying keen storytelling skills honed over his years of filmmaking, the pair put their heads together to conjure up the vivid characters and maritime themes that fill the album's eight widescreen, over-the-top odes to the briny deep.
Besides setting the seafaring tone of the album with the atmospheric sounds of ropes pulled taut by a creaking mainmast and tolling bouy bells, opening track "We Are the Seagullmen" serves as an overture and statement of purpose with it's chugging guitar riff and sea shanty, press-gang vocals. It segues smoothly into "The Fogger," the theme song for Carey's avenging aquatic angel character who unleashes righteous fury on humans polluting the oceans. The galloping anthem transforms at the midway point as a typically unhinged solo from Hinds introduces a moody section filled with swirling synths and a cannonade of Carey drum fills that builds to a fake-out ending before climaxing with another face-melting salvo from Hinds.
Despite bearing the indelible stamp of the two virtuoso players, the music on Legend of the Seagullmen hews closer to the more traditional heft of Judas Priest or Blue Oyster Cult than the knotty, prog-inspired complexities of Tool or Mastodon. "Shipswreck" follows, introduced by a mysterioso synth figure from DiGiovanni that gives way to lumbering, Sabbath-esque slabs of guitar menace and multi-tracked, effect-laden vocals that nod to soundtrack maestro Ennio Morricone's use of orchestral choirs for Sergio Leone's classic spaghetti westerns (an influence that can be heard throughout the album). Carey and Hinds again take the spotlight during the song's furious apex, their well-matched percussive pummeling and blistering fretwork bringing the tune to a cathartic crescendo.
However, the band's two marquee players aren't the only members to shine over the course of the album. "Curse of the Red Tide" opens sounding like the most sweeping Manowar power ballad not actually written by the preposterous loincloth-clad metal warriors. A full orchestra swells under delicate acoustic guitar and piano as Dreyer and Hayward dramatically deliver tandem vocals about an apocalyptic vision of ancient doors and crying dolphins before an evil laugh cues another charging guitar riff spurred forward by Griffin's propulsive bassline.
For all the deep-sea theatrics and Cinemascope ambition heard on Legend of the Seagullmen, a good-time vibe pervades the music that is usually absent when it comes to conceptual rock projects. Nowhere is that more apparent than on the album's raucous title track. A mosh-worthy throwdown built around a riff that wouldn't sound out of place on a Dictators or Turbonegro album, the punk-inflected tune offers a condensed take on the Seagull God King's legend with the cheeky chorus "That's right, this is entertainment!/We don't know why! We can't explain it!"
Not that the album doesn't have moments of seriousness. "The Orca" manages to distill the dark tale of Tilikum told in the documentary Blackfish into a frightening four-minutes of metal, drawing on experiences both Hayward and Dwyer had growing up near two of the water parks where the infamous killer whale was kept. A bit of levity returns with Hayward's melodramatic spoken intro on "Rise of the Giant Squid" before a descending guitar figure that echoes Priest's "Victim of Changes" kicks in, powering the paean describing a massive cephalopod's attack on Los Angeles.
By the time the closing "Ballad of the Deep Sea Diver" wraps the album with another spectacular Morricone-inspired flourish aided by Carey's ringing orchestral crash cymbals, the only problem facing a listener might be that Legend of the Seagullmen raises as many questions as it answers. What exactly is the Seagull God King? Who is the Man O' War Man the band sings about? When will the characters of the Admiral (Hayward) and Captain Red Beard (Hinds) get their own anthems? Fans will just have to stay tuned until the band resumes it's bombastic maritime tales on the next album.
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