In the Presence of Wolves - Thalassas Album Cover as reviewed on The Phantom Tollboothpick-of-the-monthThalassas is a fantastic debut album, combining vivaciousness with thoughtfulness, and melody with technical proficiency.  It’s young and fresh, and hints at the quality of releases yet to come.

Artist: In the Presence of Wolves
Label: independent
Time: 8 tracks / 46:00 minutes

I’d been looking forward to writing this particular review for some time – partly because I knew the quality of the album would be stellar, partly because The Twenty Committee’s own Geoff Langley performed guest keyboards and synth, and partly because I’m friends with all the guys in this band and have shared a stage with them on several occasions.

In the Presence of Wolves is a New Jersey progressive rock band, made up of frontman Vini Stamato (bass/vocals), Chris Capitanio (guitars/vocals), Justin Alexander (guitar/vocals), and Mason Ingling (drums/vocals).  In addition to the fact that everyone in the band provides backing vocals, that Vini plays the role of Geddy Lee – leading from the bass – also adds to the unusual nature of ITPOW’s overall presentation.  Thalassas was engineered, produced, and mixed by Kevin Antreassian at Backroom Studios, co-produced by Chris himself, and mastered by Alan Douches from West Side Music.  The band’s numerous influences – Rush, Porcupine Tree, Mastodon, Opeth, and Tool to name a few – mutually shine reflected light across ITPOW’s polished and unique compositions on this, their debut release.

Thalassas kicks off with the full version of the band’s heavy-hitting single, which premiered on Gashouse Radio on August 26th (condensed to 4:07 for radio).  “Man of the Times” enters with strong, syncopated hits, channeling Porcupine Tree/Stephen Wilson for this start-and-stop introduction.  The band collectively provide strong vocal harmonies behind Vini’s ragged singing.  I particularly love the closely partnered roles Justin and Chris play throughout this track: jamming in thick, power-metal unison, and ascending together in riffs that are both harmonic and dissonant.  The fact that the band employs two guitarists isn’t simply an attempt to “beef up” their sound: both axes are part of ITPOW’s sum total arsenal, and are used throughout Thalassas to maximum effectiveness.  “Man of the Times” moves through a veritable metronome of meter changes and time signatures – variations of 6/8, 5/4, 7/8, and the occasional 4/4 throughout its 7:51-minute duration.  Chris’ solo at the conclusion is as polished, intense, and succinct as any veteran’s.

“Storm in a Red Dress” kicks off with Mason’s phased drums, ticking down rapid rimshots and tom hits to the fiery entrance of the rest of the band.  There are plenty of Incubus moments throughout this track, as well as strong harmonic/unison guitar work from Chris and Justin – including traded solos toward the track’s conclusion.  “Red Dress” is comparatively shorter than most of the songs on Thalassas, clocking in at just over 4:00 minutes, but it is certainly a whirlwind ride from start to conclusion.

The next two tracks, “Hypoxia” and “Palladium,” are the ones with which I was already familiar, thanks to ITPOW’s two-track demo EP, as well as from live performances.  The 7:00-minute “Hypoxia” (literally, oxygen deprivation) begins morosely, introducing the central riff that will dominate later portions of the track.  There’s an overall Riverside vibe to this one, even in the melodic breakdown at 4:48, where Chris’s gentle guitar solo takes on a more reflective timbre.  More strong, supporting vocals from the band complement and bolster Vini’s lead, and Vini shows off his pipes as well, especially at the 5:45-minute mark.  The choruses are huge, melodic, and gloriously anthemic.  There’s also plenty of nice textural contrast between bass and electric guitars on this track, via the different chord voicings represented.  The next track, “Palladium” kicks off in high gear, riding on Chris’ furious, Satriani-esque lick.  The band maintain the strong, up-tempo sentiment of the introduction for the first half of the opening verse, then drop into a tense lull – the beginning of the long, dynamic climb through the first chorus and eventual return to the introductory riff.  At the 4:33-minute mark, the band lapse into an atmospheric break: lush guitar chords over swirling synth support, a well-orchestrated bass solo from Vini, and a bluesy response on the guitar from Chris.  After the final chorus, the track’s huge outro kicks in, bringing the song to a stunning and sudden conclusion.

“Birdsong” is the shortest track on the album, clocking in at just under 3:00 minutes, and is the first track on Thalassas to feature acoustic guitar.  The track is part psychedelic/atmospheric ballad, part metal anthem.  Justin’s acoustic guitar work is beautiful, as is Chris’s volume swells on the electric that bring the song to its conclusion.

The “Thalassas” suite weighs down the latter third of the album.  A sweeping, three-part epic of 15:00 minutes, it derives its title from “Thalassa,” Greek goddess of the sea, and maintains a strong nautical theme (which, I’ve been told, Vini equates to “Moby Dick meets Tron”).  Part 1, “The Careless Abandon,” begins the story of loss and separation, the tale of an abandoned son seeking the father who set out across the sea and left him behind.  I especially love the guitar work in this first part of the epic: the gentle work on the first verse, the carefully split roles, the superb manipulation of time signatures, the bluesy breakdown at the 3:35-minute mark – just to name a few things.  Chris’s lead riff at 2:45 borrows partially from “Palladium,” supplemented this time by Justin’s harmonizing part.  Part 2, “What Dwells Below (The Portal),” begins on the spinning guitar feedback, introducing a cyclical 7/8 guitar riff that moves nicely back-and-forth between harmony and unison.  Entirely instrumental, this middle segment of the suite is best characterized in terms of its tight guitar harmonies; the sharp unison hits, conducted by Mason’s impeccable drumming; and the final, dissonant conclusion, which immediately entrances the final third of the epic.  Geoff Langley’s work on the keys comprises much of “Back to the Surface,” building ominously on huge octave rolls in the bass register and eerie hemiolas in the right hand.  The thematic ascension – the return to the surface – is palpable with the band’s return at the 2:40-minute mark.  Langley’s keys fade as the song drops into a steady 6/8 groove and Chris takes an elongated guitar solo, shared briefly with Langley’s synth, then answered by Justin’s additional solo, before the final harmonic run between guitar and synth.  The album comes to its final, reflective close here: fading out on lingering piano and guitar into absolute silence.

Thalassas isn’t perfect, but it is remarkably good for a debut album.  Vocally, there are a handful of well-intentioned moments that could have been more carefully ironed out.  Furthermore, the acoustic guitar mixing on “Birdsong” is a little shallow and digitally manipulated, and Langley’s synth sounds a little harsh against the other instruments on “Back to the Surface.”  These are minor complaints, however, and have far more to do with production than the band’s material.  ITPOW’s musicianship, on the other hand, is absolutely top-notch across the length of this release.  Vini is a strong vocalist, a vibrant frontman, and a tight, unconventional bass player.  Chris and Justin are both quality guitarists, with Justin providing strong rhythm and support to Chris’s more complex lead parts as well as taking the occasional solo.  And of course, Mason’s drumming is driving, tasteful, and – ultimately – faultless.

If you like metal, prog, or both, or if you happen to have a soft spot for New Jersey success stories, take a listen to In the Presence of Wolves, and keep your eyes open for the official album release in November.  Thalassas is a fantastic album, both vivacious and thoughtful, both technical and melodic.  It’s young and fresh, and it hints at the quality of releases yet to come.

Justin Carlton


4.0 tocks