I firmly belive that no post-Dream Theater Kevin Moore material is an easy listen, and OSI's long-awaited sophomore release is no exception. Many fans were curious how Jim Matheos and Kevin Moore were going to follow up their amazing debut release, and while first listens may leave some confused, a couple of thorough spins will have them hooked. Free is quite different from its predecessor in the way that it sounds a bit more like Moore's Chroma Key project than the self-titled OSI debut. Although there are still some amazing riffs from Jim Matheos, this album is definitely more Moore-driven and bears similarities with his more recent works, including his soundtrack Ghost Book and the last Chroma Key record Graveyard Mountain Home.
The duo is again supported by Mike Portnoy who plays acoustic drums this time around, displaying admirable restraint. No matter how many people may badmouth him, Portnoy continues to prove everyone what an amazing musician he is, appearing on all kinds of different projects, with great results. Free is perhaps his most minimalistic side, because of the thick atmosphere on the album, but at any rate, his performance his spectacular. Former bassist Sean Malone, on the other hand, has been replaced by Matheos' bandmate Joey Vera, playing bass on five tracks (which are mostly the heavier ones). The first two songs are also arguably the hardest-hitting pieces. "Sure You Will" kicks in with lots of electronic beats that give way to Vera's huge bass line and Matheos' crunchy guitar riffs as well as Moore's unique atmospherics. The title track continues in a similar fashion, and is shaped by Fates Warning-style riffs, a great bass groove, a plethora of sound effects, and a wickedly soaring chorus over gigantic, Tool-like riffs. Portnoy's drumming on this song is by far his best on the album, and continues to shock me every time I hear it.
From here on, there is a distinct Kevin Moore vibe happening. "Go" starts with wonderful acoustic guitars, static bleep sounds, industrial noises, and typical Chroma Key vocals. Minimalism is employed thoroughly on the song, with a symphonic aura created by Moore that might be the first thing to stand out on Free after the first couple of listens. The chorus is painfully gripping and rich in melody. What follows is arguably the best song, "All Gone Now". It is built upon a strong foundation of atmosphere and dynamics. Constantly shifting between mad riffage and daunting synth passages, this song features some of the finest melodies Kevin Moore has written since Awake. His synth melodies simply soar to high levels while Matheos' playing contrasts the eerie mood of the piece. "Home Was Good" is also instantly accessible, mainly because of Kevin's emotive singing where his voice echoes on and on fading into pure white noise, as gently strummed acoustic guitar sounds float above the evocative landscape. Strangely, this song recalls Moore's stuff on the Ghost Book soundtrack to me.
"Bigger Wave" is a bit like Blackfield, only more electronic. It is fleshed out with great breaks (Portnoy is amazing on this track as well), a rumbling bass, and an infectious chorus that goes like, "We can walk on the water and still find reasons to swim inside" in Moore's classic monotone. Speaking of vocals, this album is a lot more vocal-oriented than the previous one, and even the three Chroma Key discs. Moore sings on every track, and there are moments where his voice is the most central element to the piece. You have to hear "Once", the longest and most Chroma Key-like track, sung in an almost happy tone and enriched with various guitar textures; or the multi-vocal track "Simple Life" (with a killer blues guitar lead). Matheos doesn't play any solos, but he is very integral to the success of "Better", a bit like Porcupine Tree, with thick guitar chords that evoke his amazing playing on Fates Warning's Disconnected. The futuristic sound abstractions on "Kicking" are even shocking by Kevin Moore's standards and perfectly crafted. One exception is "Our Town", where the duo refrain from computer programming or electronic textures, and just play a moving acoustic track to end the album on a peaceful note.
I realize some people will say Free is no where near as melodic as the debut, but to me, this album, at its very roots, is very melody-friendly, and can become quite rewarding if listened at the right time and the right mood. If done so, you'll immediately pick up on the subtleties it encompasses and how every musical idea reinforces each other.