Backhand - Through the Turbulence as reviewed on The Phantom TollboothThrough the Turbulence accomplishes exactly what its title suggests: the album is full of frenetic solos and rapid sections, and deals with heavy thematic elements, but also showcases the musicians' appreciation for intense dynamic changes and quality songwriting.

Through the Turbulence
Artist: Backhand
Label: independent
Time: 12 tracks / 76:00 minutes

Thankfully, Phil Naro of Druckfarben put this album in front of me because I most likely would not have heard it otherwise. Released at the end of February, Through the Turbulence features the incredible combination of Venezuelan musicians Pablo Mendoza (guitars), Adolfo Herrera (drums), Adrian Van Woerkom (keys), and Oscar Fanega (bass), joined by Phil Naro himself as the lead vocalist. Through the Turbulence represents three-years' worth of labor (which shows in the final product) and is Backhand's debut release.

The album begins without any trepidation, unabashedly hurling an 11-minute instrumental at the listener immediately out of the gate. "IntrospeKtion" runs the stylistic gamut from Dream Theater power ballads to ELP-inspired keyboard runs, to Momentary Lapse of Reason segments of dreamlike quality. The band works in 12-bar blues with the ambience of Pink Floyd's "Echoes" for a good chunk of the track, allowing for bluesy guitar and organ solos before the explosion of a hugely symphonic outro. This final passage features Pablo's effortless finger tapping, akin to Guthrie Govan's playing style, though the melody is immediately reminiscent of Eddie Van Halen's "Eruption."

"Hold the Light" is the first introduction to Phil Naro at vocals. The track begins with an agonizing build of synth, drum stabs, and wailing guitar. The restless tempo Adolfo establishes on the snare, a second before Phil enters on vocals, continues the build of tension. "Hold the light," Phil begs, with the desperation of a man kept in darkness for too long. "Please hold the light!" The strong bass movement on the second verse is a nice shift from the eerie first; the third adds the guitar overtop. Throughout, the piano trills the same riff. The change at the 3:40-minute mark, where Pablo lays heavily on the Harmonizer for a massive guitar riff at the momentary breakdown. Nice interactions between the drums, guitars, and bass in the unison passage immediately follow, and then continue during Pablo's final guitar solo. Adrian plays out the emotive conclusion, accompanying Phil's final request to "hear the stories" and see the starlight.

"Spider Riff" is a cool track, mostly instrumental, with a cluttered introduction of messy, panning swirls of fuzz. A descending bass scale, countered by off-time drums, cuts through the static and then the main, syncopated riff enters: guitars, bass, and organ all descending on the intro riff together. The track utilizes a lot of symphonic elements: orchestral strings, brass, and organ patches to pad the background. There's also plenty of double-bass, time and meter changes, and tight unison runs. The bass solos over the ethereal breakdown in the middle, overtop panning electronic drum rhythms and light guitar. Adrian sings briefly in the middle, though his is more of a whispered, spoken-word poetry than Phil's all-out singing, and is almost buried in his busy organ work. The solo he trades with Pablo is probably the highlight of this track. In particular, "Spider Riff" stands out to me on Through the Turbulence: its overall tonality differs from the rest of the album.

"The Big Red Wall" begins with inarticulate vocal work from Phil, almost reminiscent of a Muslim prayer chant or some other Middle-Eastern ceremonial ritual. In that regard, the "big red wall" that Phil prays to scale and to break perhaps represents religious or cultural oppression. Guitar, bass, and drums lay down rhythmic three/two stabs which comprise the main riff. Oscar on the bass plays a prominent role on this track overall, especially at the breakdown 3 minutes into the track, just before the synth solo. Gang vocals, like a dark choir, chant throughout the breakdown before guitar and bass return to the main riff. Pablo's tight fingertapping and Harmonizer-enhanced solo are also worth mentioning as high points of this solid track.

"Hardwood" is the second true instrumental on Through the Turbulence and renews the symphonic feel of some of the earlier tracks. Choir-like vocals introduce the track, which features clean jazz piano, bright bass, traded organ and guitar solos, and plenty of double-bass chops. The main riff plays in measures following a 4 - 4 - 4 - 2 pattern and are interrupted by heavy passages and solos in 7/8. This track is reminiscent of Guthrie Govan's "Sevens," another instrumental piece which works in 7/8 and shares idiomatic similarities. I think it's safe to say that Pablo's playing draws a lot of influence from Govan's work.

"A Million People Crying" is broken up into two parts. Part 1 is melodic, a break from the busy tracks which have preceded it. Its compositional elements are mainly crisp piano and minimalistic acoustic guitar, joined by cello and vocal patches on the synth. The song picks up with the third chorus, where the orchestral patches return and the drums enter. Phil's refrain is a plead for the world to take notice of its neglected masses: "A million people living in a dark place / A million people crying for the light / A million people living in starvation / A million people crying to stay alive." This is a song about the issue of poverty around the world, and the inability of those with means to assist them. This state of need is the comprehensive condition of the world, Phil asserts, and "we're doing nothing." Part 2, an instrumental followup to its sibling, begins sparsely, like a windswept desert, echoing the barren conditions of the destitute. Phil's "ohhs" and "ahhs" are accompanied by powerful string patches. Suddenly, a chorus-drenched bass riff enters and is joined by restless jazz piano, which will maintain a presence until the track's conclusion.

Another instrumental, "Tears From the Sea" begins with the sound of waves, overlaid with Chopin-esque piano and embedded in distant symphonic patches. The track finally explodes when the synth assumes the melody and the band drives in 4/4. "Tears From the Sea" is an apt demonstration of the band's ability to write in a purely melodic, restrained fashion, allowing the melody to remain prominent without burying it in excess.

"Crime Story" reminisces the innocent abandon of youth: straddling regret and whimsy, reflecting on the errors of foolish decisions – and at the same time wishing to go back and make them all over again. "I'm trying to forget about the pain, it doesn't matter anyway if you're sorry," Phil reflects, allowing for the possibility of justification, as well as creating the loophole necessary for alleviating responsibility. Compositionally, this track is a fairly simple affair, though it boasts another blistering guitar solo and energetic double-time breaks on the the bridge. "Crime Story" is upbeat, rhythmic, and fun. It's also the only track on the album to fade out at the end instead of coming to a defined conclusion.

"Wonderful Piece," the first of two final instrumentals on the album, begins as a heavy track, with a double-bass and dirty guitar passage. It breaks down quickly to an eerie synth patch, while Oscar offers a tentative bass melody and Adolfo toys with the cymbals. The soft guitar riff begins the slow build through the heart of the song, but "Wonderful Piece" ultimately concludes pensively, with rubato piano. The last instrumental on the album, "Rollercoaster," is aptly titled: it is a short and fast-paced track, the shortest on Turbulence at 3:30. Nylon-stringed acoustic guitar briefly invokes some appropriate Venezuelan flavors into this track, just before the explosive conclusion. There is an abrupt squeal of brakes just before the track ends, an appropriately demonstrated stop, as the final song on the album shifts gears to venture into more reflective territory.

"Me, Myself and I," the album's finale, features a prominent acoustic guitar performance as well as plenty of bass movement. Emotive piano accompanies and hand percussion enters at the 2:00 minute mark. This pickup in tempo as well as the instrumentation gives the song a Latin, jazz/fusion feel. The sentiment of isolation, of lying awake in bed at night, fills the overall tone of the song as well as Phil's gut-wrenching lyrics: "There is something wrong here in my mind / It's just an illusion that goes away in time / Me, myself, and I." This song is a beautiful close the album, which has been principally full of monstrous guitar passages. Pablo's performance on the acoustic guitar is fantastic: economical, careful harmonics, and gentle lead. Phil's vocal work is stunning, and I'd be remiss not to mention Adrian's tasteful work on the piano as well. The song and the album end together with Phil's whispered, "Goodnight."

In sum, this is a great, long album, full of superb musicianship. The band bookends frequent instrumentals with sung tracks, keeping the best of both worlds in their composition. In that regard, the formula of Through the Turbulence provides ample opportunity for the supremely talented musicians of Backhand to shine, yet still allows for songwriting. In fact, the music is so tight and well-orchestrated that it could stand on its own without any vocal work whatsoever, but Phil Naro's distinctive voice adds an additional flavor to the end result. He brings an edge, clarity, and powerful lyrics to the overall production and frees the rest of the band to concentrate on their instruments without needing to step up to the microphone. Through the Turbulence accomplishes exactly what its title suggests: the album is full of frenetic solos and rapid sections, and deals with heavy thematic elements, but also showcases the musicians' appreciation for intense dynamic changes and quality songwriting.

Justin Carlton