Office of Strategic Influence (O.S.I.) Biography
Last updated: 03/25/2003 12:55:39 AM
If there's a sling or an arrow that could be directed against progressive metal -- or worse, a prog metal supergroup - it's that the work often turns out to sound like a loose-bolted, duct-taped monster resembling the sum of disparate parts, those parts churning away at pure, conventionally unconventional progressive metal. OSI (featuring Fates Warning guitarist and figurehead Jim Matheos, Dream Theater drum giant Mike Portnoy and keyboardist Kevin Moore from Chroma Key and early in his career, Dream Theater), as the following story reveals, could have turned out that way.
But it most definitely has not. Not by a long shot. The music enclosed on this breathtaking debut, if anything, bears most prominently the stamp of Costa Rican resident Kevin Moore, which is a good omen, given that Kevin left Dream Theater due to a growing alienation with progressive metal, Moore subsequently proving himself on two murky and beautiful records as Chroma Key. The end result is the X-spot on a creative treasure mapping that saw the music wind its way from a comfortable progressive metal side project conceived by Jim, through the vast keyboard, sample, editing and vocal landscape that is Moore's mind, the dotted line ceasing at a conundrum of a record that will as likely appeal to fans of Porcupine Tree, Pink Floyd, David Sylvian, Radiohead and Wire as it will, the followers of Fates, Dream Theater, Vanden Plas, Pain Of Salvation or Symphony X.
Jim reiterates the above characterization of the journey. "Certainly Kevin had a lot of influence, especially since he's doing 90 percent of the vocals and a lot of the editing and sequencing; so you're going to get that in there. I would agree that at times it sounds like a heavy version of Chroma Key. This thing has taken so many turns from the inception to the final product. It was going to go in the direction of a prog-metal type thing. It was really my idea as a side project to do something outside of Fates. Mike and I wanted to work together for a long time so we talked about doing this and it was going to be in the prog-metal mold. There was a 25 minute song, a lot of those parts of which became these songs. And when Kevin came along, he started steering it in a different direction, a direction that I was really interested in, but not something that I had thought of before we started working on it. I think Mike and I still have our prog roots and like that kind of music and Kevin has kind of gotten away from that. And that part of his personality and his style really took hold of the music and brought it in a different direction."
But with three writers and three leaders in the band, a lot push, pull and play helped mold the eventual results. However, the parts of the trio can still, most pertinently, be defined. Mike turns in a shining, shimmery cymbal-smashing percussion storm of a performance. Jim blends acoustics with crushing riffs---riffs that hint at the unease and doom of prime Fates, exploring an emotional space that works well with Kevin's laconic, world-weary vocals. And Kevin... well, his vast array of technologies can be heard throughout, the man most often going for organic sounds spiced with slices and tweaks and chirps from some distant Planet X, Moore's ethereal radio of the mind drifting through the tracks in the form of discernible and unintelligible spoken word bits, pummeled by music that sets one to ponder. Loudly.
Jim on Mike: "I think he did what he always does: he played his ass off and did a great job. He's amazing. Hearing him on record and seeing him live so many times wasn't the same as being in the studio with him and watching him work; it's incredible. I think for him it was a little bit harder than he was used to because... it was actually a little harder for all of us, because each one of us is used to being in control of what we do. We might have had to compromise and bend a little bit and I think it was particularly hard for Mike, to take direction in the studio, which took him a little while to get used to, but he did a great job. I think he's happy he did that because it made him go places that he probably wouldn't have gone otherwise."
Not strictly part of the writing core, but essential to the slippery OSI sound is bassist Sean Malone. "When Mike and I first started talking about this project about a year ago," says Jim, "Sean was the first person we both mentioned as far as bass players go. I'm a Gordian Knot fan; he's great. At that time I was doing some solos for him for the next Gordian Knot record. He really came in at the last moment and put his style to it, doing his parts at home in Portland. Basically once all the guitars were done, I sent him the files. He's got the same recording system as I do so he put his parts on and sent them back. It's interesting because a lot of music still has a heavy progressive feel to it, and to hear someone play a fretless all the way through is an interesting take on it; you don't hear that too often. I think that was a nice touch; and he locks up with the drums great."
As well, look for Sean playing a Stick bass in the moody, plush and acoustic 'Hello Helicopter (think Robbie Robertson in outer space) as well as foreboding, nightmarish metal dinosaur 'shutDOWN' (picture the song 'Black Sabbath' on Peter Gabriel's Security album), which also features vocals and lyrics by Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson.
"I'd been conversing through email with Steven for about a year," states Jim, on Wilson's involvement. "I originally talked to him about maybe producing the next Fates Warning record and we weren't sure if that was going to work out for various reasons. But I knew I wanted to work with him. I've been a huge fan of his work for the past couple years. I sent Steven some of the original demos for the project, and honestly - I guess to put it politely - he wasn't blown away by them. Mostly because at that point it was still a prog thing and he's not really into that kind of music. But he did say he heard some potential in there and that he would be willing to contribute; he wanted to see where it was going as this was the very early stages. But after Kevin had got hold of the material and transformed it, he really liked the direction at that point."
Wilson fits right into the OSI family of conspirators. The OSI album pulses with pounding riff-mad rhythms, descends into quixotically futuristic Floydian lulls, then emerges once more. It's the deathly roar of the apocalypse balanced against frozen silences. There are shades of Eno, Berlin, Bowie, Moby, Radiohead, Peter Gabriel and much, much more, including the most ignored creases from the Rush catalogue from Hold Your Fire to the present, and spots of Dream Theater (two alumni after all). Add it up, and -- somewhat imprecisely -- we could be talking about Porcupine Tree, if not for the cornucopia of electronics, the arena of patinas, built and stilted from the mind and machines of Moore.
Case in point, 'Memory Daydreams Lapses', which is a tour de force of production acumen. "That was actually the last song I wrote for this record," notes Jim. "It's in a really odd time signature: 25/16. Again, that's one where Kevin wasn't exactly sure that he was going to be able to work with, so we talked about trying to get Steve Hogarth from Marillion to come in and do that song, although I never talked to him about it. And Kevin decided at the last minute to give it a shot and to me, he came up with one of the strongest songs on the record. The percussion loops that you hear on there are actually some of his friends in Costa Rica".
Once the firepower of the brunt of the record is expended, all comes to a cozy close with the album's most poignant track, a song called 'Standby (looks like rain)' taking a precious two minutes to cap the experience, Moore's smooth and tender voice accompanying more cosmic chatter to the gentle strums of Matheos on an acoustic. "That was part of the long song we had, but we just finally decided that 'The New Math' would make much more of a powerful intro and that it would be nice to have a nice, soft breather at the end of the record. Listen all the way through, and at the very, very end you'll hear a little bird tweeting, which is a nice touch. It was actually natural on the guitar track and we decided to leave it. It just happened when I was recording my guitar part; there was a bird outside and he just bled through my mic."
And finally, something I'd been wondering from the beginning, why the title OSI? "Basically OSI, or the Office Of Strategic Influence, was an ill-fated agency that was dreamt up by the Pentagon, I think, shortly after 9/11. Their purpose was basically to disseminate information mostly abroad, and if need be, false information, to put the U.S. war on terrorism in a more favorable light".
1. The New Math (what he said) 2. OSI 3. When You're Ready 4. Horseshoes And B-52's 5. Head 6. Hello, Helicopter! 7. shutdown 8. Dirt From A Holy Place 9. Memory Daydreams Lapses 10. Standby (looks like rain)
Jim Matheos -- Guitar, keyboards, programming / Kevin Moore -- Vocals, keyboards, programming / Mike Portnoy -- Drums. Also featuring Sean Malone -- Bass, Stick / Steven Wilson -- Vocals on shutDOWN.