In a heavy metal world populated by curious characters, Marty Friedman is right up there in the 'path less travelled' stakes. Having played with Megadeth through the 1990's, from the legendary Rust in Peace through to the infamous Risk, he upped sticks and headed off to Japan. Subsequent developments included involvement with progressive rock bands, video game/anime soundtracks, covers of various J-Pop tracks and collaborations with Japanese Idol group Momoiro Clover Z. And also a bunch of appearances on assorted Japanese television programmes, where he became known as Hebimeta-san, or in Anglicised terms, Mr. Heavy Metal.
You can't make this stuff up.
Anyhoo, I'll freely admit to having heard absolutely none of Friedman's work outside of Megadeth other than his guest spot on the opening track of Jeff Loomis' last solo album (ironically he's not even the only Megadeth ex-guitarist on that album, with Chris Poland also getting involved). However, his latest solo album Inferno was picking up some solid buzz on the internet from reputable sites like Metal Injection, so I took a punt on it.
It's bloody good, to be honest.
Inferno doesn't follow the standard instru-metal formula of basically just having 11 or 12 tracks of end-to-end shredding. There's certainly a decent quantity of shredding here, but the writing has clearly been song-driven rather than solo-driven and the range of material on Inferno is a huge plus.
Of course there are some out-and-out shredfests, like Inferno and Steroidhead, but the execution on these is nothing short of flawless and, at times, jaw-dropping. Credit is due to the songwriting here, as even the more traditional tracks weave their way through a variety of moods, never dwelling on a particular riff or solo for too long, and constantly keeping things interesting.
With his pedigree, you'd expect Friedman to be all over that, but there's a great deal more on offer here.
The aptly-titled Wicked Panacea layers electric guitar over a wicked flamenco acoustic backdrop (courtesy of Rodrigo y Gabriela) and alternates seamlessly between acoustically and electrically driven sections. Danko Jones provides guest vocals on the straight-ahead rocker I Can't Relax, which sounds something like classic rock and roll jumped into a time machine and encountered thrash metal 60 years later. And by this point, we're only at track five!
Given it's Marty Friedman, so a degree of weirdness is expected (indeed, necessary), and the best example here is Meat Hook. You've probably never heard a saxophone / piano / guitar duel in a metal track before, and particularly not over a thrash metal backdrop. That's hardly surprising, since it sounds like a completely ridiculous idea. And yet somehow it ends up coming off as one of the album's highlights.
The second half of the album ups the ante when it comes to intensity, with the brutal Sociopaths featuring a great guest spot from Revocation front man Dave Davidson. Again, Friedman goes against the grain to good effect - the bulk of the track is genuinely heavy but it veers into an uplifting neo-prog solo at around the 4 minute mark. It's followed by the similarly vicious, though more direct, Lycanthropes and that in turn is followed with the brilliantly contrasting Undertow, a glorious metal soundscape if I've ever heard one.
Rounding the album out are Horrors, which ends up being something of an intriguing virtuoso journey through all the moods and styles captured throughout the album, and a very proggy reprise of opener Inferno which provides a grandiose closing.
And at the end of all of that, if you're anything like me, you sit there with a slightly dazed look trying to comprehend what you've just heard, before rapidly reaching for the repeat button. I certainly won't be rushing out to track down his J-Pop back catalogue, but for now Marty Friedman has come right out of leftfield to provide one of the best albums I've heard so far this year.