A maelstrom is a very powerful whirlpool. In Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 story A Descent Into The Maelstrom, a shipwreck survivor sees at first only hideous terror within it, then comes over all Zen and reckons it a beautiful, awesome creation. There’s something akin to that revelation happening in the return of the mighty Bigelf, whose fifth album, one hell of a comeback, is at the same time overwhelming yet dazzling.
Bigelf are a magical, mysterious, mad-hatter’s fusion of prog, doom-rock, goth, glam, and melodic pop. They are late-period Beatles with the amps turned up to 11. They have in their armoury some of the wit and invention of Queen, 10CC, Tears For Fears, ELO and Sparks; the shrill energy and euphoria of Jane’s Addiction, Mercury Rev or Flaming Lips; the raw groin-grinding riffage of Black Sabbath or Killing Joke; ELP keyboard surges and the deceptively bucolic left-turns of Pink Floyd. As they blend and stir all these elements with increasing restlessness yet perfect poise, you realise that Bigelf are like nobody else on Earth.
Into The Maelstrom will spin you far, far away. ‘Head’s in the sky and I ain’t coming down,’ sings main man Damon Fox as this epic journey accelerates. He sounds, understandably, as thrilled at what’s taking place around him as you will be. In recent years Fox has had to pretty much rebuild a broken Bigelf from scratch. The LA quartet released three albums between 2000 and 2010, surviving the tragic death of a founder member. Across Money Machine, Hex and Cheat The Gallows they impressed and improved. The last, on Linda Perry’s label (she co-wrote a song here), seemed to be taking them to the next level of international acclaim.
They supported Dream Theater and Porcupine Tree on tour. But vocalist/keyboardist/guitarist Fox called for a hiatus, and that incarnation of the band ended. He found encouragement to forge ahead from ex-Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, as the two bonded over their respective bands hitting ‘their Let It Be phase’. Fox wrote the new album himself, and Portnoy stepped in as drummer. Bassist Duffy Snowhill returned, and Into The Presence guitarist Luis Maldonado brought lead guitar. Fox handles everything else, from crunching guitar riffs to inspired keyboard curveballs to velveteen layers of vocals, and creates a world of wow-factor. ‘Psychedelically cinematic,’ he calls it, ‘with a Mad Max post-apocalyptic feel.’ The album achieves that, then constructs rockets from the debris.
The loose concept’s about travelling back and forth in time to probe your troubles and fears, but really Into The Maelstrom just puts its foot down, engages its fan-of-popular-music-history brain, and flies. Incredible Time Machine screeches in with what sounds like an elevator ascending, an alarm call, before choppy dramatic riffs announce this will rock as much as roam. Sabbath are the first obvious reference point, but then the dynamic judders and shudders of the aforementioned art-proggers come in, and Bigelf keep moving the ground every time you get your footing. _‘_Welcome to the world of dreams,’ sings Fox, over a hubbub of heavy that’s filled with light.
Hypersleep drops in sci-fi dialogue and the meatiest of riffs, and nods to Major Tom, Horace Wimp and Logan’s Run. Exhilarating histrionics and Thin Lizzy guitar sounds ‘wake the dead’. There is so much happening in every track that it’s bewildering: the Beatles vibe of Already Gone, the cracking laser-licks of Vertigod and Control Freak; the big is-there-a-God questions of Alien Frequency (where Portnoy gets busy).
Throw in the sumptuous vocal arrangements of The Professor And The Madman and the playful, fuzzy Meddle-inspired section of High, and you’ve got kitchen-sink crescendos as created by HG Wells and Sheer Heart Attack-era Roy Thomas Baker. Edge Of Oblivion is another epic, flitting between the mischief of 10cc’s How Dare You and real, dark angst about genocide. Theater Of Dreams is McCartney after 19 pints; the three-part finale title suite, with eerie keyboards and end-of-days grandeur, is Star Trek meets MacArthur Park. Fox sings of the world ending (‘no more seas, no more trees’), finding solace in memories. The limitless, liberating world of Bigelf is beginning afresh.
Roll up, roll up for a wild interstellar ride that will blow your top hat clean off.