When speaking in regards to the current state of progressive music, few would infer anyone but Australia’s Plini upon hearing the phrase “bedroom musician”. The man is an artistic machine. Should you need more evidence about his relevance in the world of prog, take a look at the view count of his supporting set live in Japan at the end of last year. There are few solo bedroom musicians I can think of who’d be capable of dwarfing the headlining act, none other than damn Cynic, by a multitude of two. Luckily for Australia’s proggy sweetheart, his debut (yes, this is the man’s first fully-fledged release) manages to carry the same youthful energy and sense of exploration that garnered his three EPs so much critical acclaim. It is an effort that towers over contemporaries, shrinking the universal scale of Sithu Aye‘s Set Course For Andromeda, and contrasting subtle fusion with sheer brute force in a way that would make Javier Reyes blush. Handmade Cities is an utter and total success in that creativity reigns supreme within every passing second, without ever compromising solid song structure.
The waves Plini has made in the progressive world has even stretched it’s nimble fingers out into the mainstream, with Steve Vai commenting “When I saw Plini play I felt that the future of exceptional guitar playing was secure.”. Opening track “Electric Sunrise” makes it very clear that Vai was not kidding. The song darts back and forth between dynamic composition with adroit glee, beginning with a gorgeous combination of clean ringing and acoustic interplay. Joy would be the best descriptor of the song’s melodic choices, and this joyful tone permeates the record’s entirety. Let us not forget however, that this is still undeniably a progressive album. The 7/4 introduction, alternating time signatures within the verses, abstract syncopation, and some brilliantly inventive kit work from one Troy Wright keep even the most subtle passages sounding expertly technical. In essence, these facets of “Electric Sunrise” are why Handmade Cities is such a fantastic effort. Continuing the trend, the title track provides the same technicality, addictive leads (including one of the best sounding rhythm synths progressive metal has heard in a good while), and dynamic songwriting. It isn’t quite as explosive throughout, but repeating motifs and clever builds make its crowning achievement three minutes and nine seconds in (possibly the best riff Plini has ever written) an immensely enjoyable time, even if the riff is quite short. Every segment of the album serves to make it’s surroundings look good, and it is this persistent elevation of songwriting over riff-writing that prevents Handmade Cities from ever feeling like an exercise, an issue that plagues the majority of instrumental releases presently.
“Inhale” is probably the clearest example of Plini‘s prowess in regards to dynamic songwriting. The track is steeped heavily in jazz influence, rocking back and forth between heavy, syncopated chugs, Dream Theater-esque lead runs, and somber, bass-fueled jamming. A gorgeous bass solo by Simon Grove of The Helix Nebula and Intervals fame (quite the impressive history) manages to transition the song into a rapidly morphing final two minutes that manages to dive in and out of tonal shifts without once feeling disjointed. Unfortunately, such dynamic songwriting only makes the follow-up track, “Every Piece Matters”, feel substantially less impressive than anything else on the album. It’s climax feels empty, and while the song is rife with addictive leads, it is easily the least impressive track on the record. However, the leviathan that is “Pastures” more than makes up for this song’s shortcomings through length and size. The track is massive dynamically, and the multitude of instruments from strings to mellow synths are all placed within the arrangement with tact. It concludes on an odd note, almost fading away too soon for its own good, but one can hardly complain after 7 minutes of painstakingly crafted symphony.
The symphony of sounds presented across Handmade Cities is at its largest in the brief “Here We Are, Again”. Prog is abandoned momentarily as Plini directs an orchestra of classical and contemporary sounds before leading into the furious closer, “Cascade”. It doesn’t reach the creative depths of Animals As Leaders own “Ka$cade” (likely because it is missing dollar notation), but damn if ever there was a more addictive progressive song in 2016. It is an utter joy that this song was chosen as the closer, because there is not a single song in Plini‘s discography better indicative of his style on the whole than this. When considering his incredibly varied approaches to the progressive genre, it should be all the more clear just how impressive “Cascade” is. Heavily lead-driven, filled with altering tones and dynamic transitions, the song almost acts as a showcase of one man’s work across multiple years. Without a doubt, this is the most disjointed song in the album, but in retrospect when considering Plini‘s entire career thus far, it is a standout on an album filled with excellent compositions.
Handmade Cities is a feat in that it belongs to no one else. Plini‘s inspirations are clear in his lead work, but he has now solidified a sound that will continue to be replicated with little success by masses of young, inspired artists. This album sounds like it was written by a musician entirely comfortable in his tone, boasting maturity beyond that of a debut, and simultaneously retaining a youthful energy so often neglected in the progressive metal sphere. A slightly underwhelming middle section might jerk the pacing of the record slightly, but one place instrumental metal shines is in its play value within a number of contexts. Be it the car, a party, during a jog, on the train, whilst gaming, before bed, Handmade Cities doesn’t require large amounts of focus or a specific emotional state to be a powerfully enjoyable experience. While focus will reward you with the understanding of the sheer amount of detail placed in each track, simply sitting back and letting the music do its thing holds just as much merit. This is undoubtedly the best progressive release of the year, and Plini‘s future as a crafter of the genre’s sound is looking brighter than ever.
1. Electric Sunrise
2. Handmade Cities
4. Every Piece Matters
6. Here We Are, Again
2. Handmade Cities
4. Every Piece Matters
6. Here We Are, Again