Berklee College of Music has an unbelievable reputation as a haven for developing the best of the best in music, and a list of alumni that would make any music fan take notice. A hundred Berklee grads have taken home over 200 Grammy Awards, including members of Aerosmith, Steely Dan, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, Train, and Living Colour. They also have unleashed some amazing musicians in the genres we tend to favor here, including Thomas Pridgen of The Mars Volta. Eren Basbug, who was recently interviewed by the Lady, is currently a student there as well. Oh, and a few guys from a little known band called Dream Theater made their first forays into becoming the standard bearers for progressive metal at the school. All this leads to the fact that whenever I see the name attached to a musician or group, I pay attention. When Eren gave us a heads up to fellow Berklee product Alek Darson, I certainly took notice. Then I hit play, and again was shown why this school has the reputation it does.
A native of Belgrade, Serbia, he attended Viser College where his focus was on music production. He then attended Berklee, to further his talents in performance and composition. He states that though he initially wanted to be a classical music composer, he’s been drawn to the aggressive and melodic, all the better for us fans of rock and metal. All the composition work is done by him, with the exception of some guest musicians: on drums are Milan Yeqy, Hadrien Pierson, and Mica Kovacevic, on flute is Milena Jancuric, on vocals is Vladimir Lalic, and the string arrangements and keyboards are done by Eren Basbug, who is quoted on Alek’s page as saying,”Alek is for me what Petrucci is for Rudess. He is not only an amazing guitarist and composer, but also a great friend.”
Panopticon is a term referring to a prison building designed to be watched by one guard. In the ten years previous to the album, Alek spent a good deal of time working on a huge variety of projects and styles, and with this EP he is expressing his own. The title is him pondering upon whether he is the prisoner or the guard. After giving the album a few spins, I would venture to say he is in charge, musically at least. The one thing that stands out above all else is his mastery of “the girls”, his stunning collection of Wood Guerilla guitars and basses, works of art on their own. Each has a name and a personality, and are clearly the stars of this EP. The album opens with Sprockets, an aggressive and hard hitting number filled with thumping power chords and some exceptional flare on the solo side. His sound is truly unique here, and he has the added bonus of being in control of all the string work, so he is able to merge the guitars and the bass sounds into each other to create an even tighter atmosphere. As to his guest drummers, they are stellar throughout.
Three more instrumental tracks follow, each with a very distinctive vibe. Flight Impressions is airy as the title suggests, a soaring dream of a song which certainly channels some Satriani vibe to it. There is a fairly rapid pace to it, but he never loses the atmospheric sense, and we as his prisoners so to speak never touch the ground. Waltz of the Titans has a stronger aggressive vibe to it, though not as much as the opening track. Kovacevic on the drums just kills it on this song, matching Darson flash for flash and flare for flare, pushing up the intensity of this track to a whole other level. The closing flute work by Jancuric quickly settles us before sliding into Spiral of Sanity, the longest track on the album. The progressive edge on this one is strong, with a tight flowing composition to it, and sharp changes that keep the listener committed fully to the song.
The Rind, the only track with vocals, has a solid Devin Townsend feel to it, force feeding its sound to us with a tremendous amount of quirkiness and personality from singer Vladimir Lalic. He really embraces the song, and holds back nothing in his characteristic performance. The songs musical aspects live up to his performance, giving us a truly excellent all around tune. The last track, the secret track that must be discovered on the site (I managed to find it minutes before writing this, phew!!!). This one, Fingers Painted Purple, perhaps a reference to what he’s putting his hands through as he shreds shit up on his wooden beauties, is another primarily atmospheric track with the abstract string compositions from Eren and his crew of talented players. The song is an aural dream, trying to take us out of the prison I’d imagine, though it serves more to just making us want to stay. But alas, we can’t for the album ends here.
There is no question of Darson’s brilliance on his instruments; he lays it all out for everyone to hear. I thing the only thing that could enhance here would be a permanent band that could diversify and enhance the solid work he has going on, and the one vocal track just shows how much potential there is to be had here. But no matter what direction Darson takes from the Panopticon, he surely has the skill and the passion to make it.
Panopticon can be purchased at http://alekdarson.bandcamp.com/album/panopticon