There are some new faces in the line-up for Simon Phillips’ fourth album under the Protocol banner as the veteran session drummer and former Toto member continues his impressive run of releases as a bandleader. This time around, Greg Howe takes over the guitar duties from Andy Timmons, while Dennis Hamm steps into Steve Weingart’s spot behind the keyboards. The other constant besides the drummer himself is the dependable pulse that Ernest Tibbs brings on the bass.
Despite the changing roster, Protocol 4 is not a marked departure from its predecessors. Instead, the music builds and expands on Phillips’ singular vision. This is heavy progressive fusion played with enough wit and invention to rival any of the classic fusion albums of the early 1970s, when Billy Cobham invaded the charts with Spectrum.
Nimbus highlights Phillips’ remarkable facility on his instrument as he sets up a melodic counterpoint to Howe’s harmonics. The guitarist adds a deep sense of groove to everything he plays, which really brings out the funky side of the material. Case in point: Pentangle features a slick drum solo from Phillips, who plays over the vamp, while Solitaire is a study in twisted, inventive syncopation.
Hamm’s keys lead the way into the fat, chunky riff of Celtic Run, which unfolds into a conversation between keys and guitar as Howe and Hamm pass ideas back and forth. The midsection sees the band drop down into a quiet interlude that provides a reminder of their jazzy side before Howe uncorks a characteristically attention-grabbing solo.
His sinuous and fluid guitar lines in the bluesy Phantom Voyage recall Jeff Beck in his fusion period as Howe flows elegantly around the melody. That influence shouldn’t be a surprise as Phillips’ played with Beck in the 1980s and was a major contributor to the writing on Beck’s album There And Back. However, the production on Protocol 4 far outstrips the aforementioned effort from Beck, with richer tones and a far fuller, more unified sound.
As knotty as the musicianship can be, there are still hummable tunes here and hooks to hold the ear while the players are flexing their instrumental muscles. Tibbs lays down a thick bass pocket beneath All Things Considered, providing the foundation for the soloists to launch their salvos, while Azorez epitomises what this band is all about, switching briskly between jazz, funk and rock passages.
If you only know Phillips from his long association with Toto, this is the perfect example of what makes his own recordings so compelling.