MARTY FRIEDMAN – Drama (Album Review)

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If one were to ask Marty Friedman’s thoughts on technique, depending upon his mood, one might receive a polite scoff, or an understanding and thoughtful nod, but it would almost certainly be accompanied by some sage cautionary advice about how while it is an important prerequisite tool, it does not equal greatness, in and of itself. When one considers great writers, whether classical literary giants like Tolstoy, Dickens, and Twain, or modern crafters of the genre such as Tolkien, King, and Rowling, it is readily evident that a certain degree of master wordsmithing is necessary to secure such fame and tenure. However, one cannot just be a glorified thesaurus with a typewriter in order to produce the next great novel. One might argue that contemporary advances with artificial intelligence, paired with aforementioned thesaurus could equal an entertaining book, history proves that what sells great literary work is the heart and the human story inextricably interwoven with the words on the page.

Likewise, while Marty Friedman is, without any doubt, one of the most technically gifted virtuoso lead guitar players alive, it is not his technical chops to which he owes his fame, and one may reasonably assume that he would have it no other way. Rather, he has spent the last forty years making his guitar not just do something, but say something. Albums like “Scenes” and “Introduction” really pushed this direction, functioning not as a showcase for technical ability, but using technical ability as a vehicle to deliver stirring melodies and arrangements. Today, Marty’s new album “Drama” may just be his most ambitious attempt to use his masterful talents to craft something meaningful, to stand at least equal to his previous work, and perhaps even surpass it in some ways.

Considering Marty’s fame in the music world, not only in heavy metal, we need not dwell on his bonafide, but from his lifelong personal and working relationship with equally prolific Jason Becker, to his time as a pillar of Megadeth in the band’s golden age, to all of his solo work, it is understandable why he is one of the top names. It is probably safe to assume Marty was not named an ambassador of Japanese culture and heritage without earning the position through his laudable endeavors.

In the last few years, Marty-san has been largely focused on his reimagined Japanese covers with his Tokyo Jukebox series, with only 2014’s “Inferno” and 2017’s “Wall Of Sound” as the more typical releases. However, these were largely aggressive thrash albums. “Drama” marks a spiritual return to the more introspective direction of albums like “Scenes.” The new album was recorded in Italy with top-tier Japanese session musicians, with the sole exception being Gregg Bissonette on drums, famous for being in the original David Lee Roth band with Vai and Sheehan, along with his time with Satriani, and most recently as a “Starr” attraction in Ringo’s All-Starr Band.

The album opens with neither gentle clean melodies (“Scenes”) nor with crashing bombastic speed-metal rhythms (“Wall Of Sound”) but actually in blues-tinged low-gain lead parts over piano, in textbook Marty phrasing. After a few adagietto bars like this, a new Marty lead track is punched in, this time with slightly higher-than-medium gain, but still slow and graceful, full of dynamics, before returning to the first lower gain style. When the percussion joins in, still maintaining the same slightly faster-than-adagio pacing, higher-than-medium gain takes the wheel again, starting to really tear it up, crafting a textured scene rich in melody and feeling. Violin and piano join to paint a picture almost reminiscent of Tak Matsumoto’s 2002 “Hana” record. If this track, “Illumination,” sets the stage for the record, with its vision and feeling, it stands to be an interesting ride.

The second track, “Song for an Eternal Child,” paints from very much the same palette as the first, yet captures an altogether different atmosphere. It has such a Japanese pop and almost anime soundtrack feeling to it, that it could easily be on loan from Marty’s “Tokyo Jukebox” collection. Often the phrasing draws upon the same vibes that make Sithu Aye’s music like “Senpai III” so stimulating, and yet, there is something more serious in the writing that keeps this one grounded. It has a nice arc of building energy, climax, and release to tell a story without saying a single word.

As much as we Friedman fans generally hold his “Scenes” album in special regard, it is an unfortunate reality that much of the best music of the late 80s to almost about 2000 suffers from synth sounds which did their job at the moment but aged exceptionally poorly. Perhaps imagine Knopfler’s cinematic Synclavier doodling on the “Princess Bride” score for some idea. Another such example is the final track on “Scenes,” which may have been named “Triumph,” and in fact had a beautiful melody, and yet suffered from the technical and budgetary limitations of the moment. Marty sought to rectify this on the new record, with “Triumph, the Official Version,” but in a classy move, he did not just record the same parts with today’s far-improved synth technology. Rather, he did what he probably wished he’d been able to do in the first place; he hired top-shelf pianists, violinists, and other actual warm-blooded performers to give the somewhat rearranged classic a more timeless quality. Marty’s dynamics and technique pair well with increases and decreases in gain and tone throughout the track to truly succeed in making the track better. Unlike other examples, such as Mustaine wrecking “Rust in Peace” in his remaster of the album (“Look how they massacred my boy”) where the original artist has a head-scratching moment where they try to “fix” a masterpiece, Marty really did elevate “Triumph” so it lives up to its name.

Don’t get too comfortable thinking this album is just “Scenes II: A Metropolis of Gentle Eastern Melodies,” because the next track, “Thrill City” comes in swinging both fists, chugging and thrashing away to make room for what’s actually a fun and versatile little rocker. It might be best compared to the feeling of the “Music for Speeding” album, which while heavy, and sometimes thrashy, was more focused on finding a fun and accessible middle-ground for instrumental guitar metal. The track sort of coughs and dies at the end, like some Manfred Mannian calliope crashing to the ground, before abruptly we do, in fact, find ourselves knee-deep in the middle of a peaceful meadow called “Deep End.” This one casts about in a feeling of confusion and trepidation, nothing but grand piano for the first minute or so, before percussion and lead guitar join in to craft a sadly anxious atmosphere. It isn’t necessarily mournful, but it definitely has some personal issues to unpack. Offhand, it almost sounds like Marty is dabbling with a Sustainiac or an E-Bow in the first lead parts, which adds to the feeling of trepidation, with long drawn-out notes and less emphasis on the attack of notes. Eventually with some acoustic strums and a big vibrato lead crescendo, the song fades into a sort of cold, windy, rainy ambience.

“Dead of Winter” is one of the rare vocal tracks of the album. If Jason Becker can dabble in lyrics, so can Marty. While the song title might draw one to conclude it’s something from a band like Savatage or Primal Fear, it’s actually very much a product of pop-rock writing. The chorus is pure radio writing 101, and the instrumentation is medium gain, with nothing overly technical. There is a majestic guitar solo, yet it is tastefully accessible like the rest of the track, which employs piano, strings sections, little modern keyboard embellishments, and all the production hallmarks of a rock anthem for every man. The vocals are a bit like if Jame(z) Hetfield were in an alternative band, and some might argue he is, but this is not that article. Even if this isn’t specifically the cup of tea the average Friedman fan is seeking, it’s still very listenable and a refreshing palate-cleansing seventh-inning stretch for this point in the album.

Speaking of what the old faithful loyalist fan might be craving, the next track, “Mirage” is getting closer to the heart. Yeah. Opening with meandering semi-dirty guitar passages, with Marty’s distinctive mini vibrato bends, the entire phrase is repeated with more gain and gusto, and with snare and piano to add some punchy backing, before the entire drum kit and bass guitar jump into further up the ante. As a whole, the lead guitar parts throughout the track are fairly bluesy, and one could almost start thinking it was more like Kenny Wayne or Eric Johnson, at least until the telltale legato playing gives the whole thing away. The last half may seem like a casual tambourine-banging jamboree, except it is clear Marty and Gregg are both taking turns pushing the energy of the track to a more bombastic finish.

“A Prayer” is a textbook example of Marty taking the time to craft something that chooses the notes carefully to maximum effect. Like Vai will tell you, sometimes the most important notes are the ones you never play. This track opens with clean, very low-gain electric guitar singing, or perhaps weeping gently. After a minute of this quiet contemplation, drums set the rhythm, and Marty steps on his medium-well amp channel, and, like with the last track, delivers Marty’s version of blues playing, but it is apparent from the memorable melodies and repeating themes that this was all planned out carefully, in no way an improvisational jam made of blues licks and pentatonics. Eventually, the song leaves the way it came in, clean and sad, and with an almost dissonant chord of finality.

“Drama” Album Artwork

Perhaps this is paving the way for “Acapella,” the one-minute-and-change guitar solo, played fairly clean, with very little gain, sounding like a tweed Fender combo with a hint of chorus. This one is like a good circus performer, making difficult things seem easy. While “Acapella” is light on pizzazz, many of the fingerings occurring would be a handful for any seasoned player. Yet it somehow just works.

Of course, “Acapella” might have just been an appetizer for “Tearful Confession,” which opens with the same tweed combo vibes, and just Marty delivering somber phrasing without any backing, until eventually some synth keyboards provide some atmosphere for the respective chords. A couple of minutes in, Marty hits the high-gain channel and continues the original melody in a heavy, yet sad, slow-handed display of lead mastery, while drums and the rhythm section pound away at a deliberate tempo. There are places where he backs into a cleaner feel, before crashing back in with high gain again, before he doubles down around three minutes fifty, building to what may be the most majestic crescendo of the entire record. In the short time left in the track following this blitz, the song is a handful of sad and lonely broken-sounding notes and chords, eventually ending on an unresolved note, in good ole Wagnerian “Tristan and Isolde” tradition.

The core of traditional Marty content concludes with “Icicles,” another interesting little mini-symphony, starting with a fusion of jazz and blues influence, clean electric guitar over the top of sparse piano notes, before strumming steel-string acoustic sets the stage for the song to start building in complexity and drive. Just when it feels like it’s going somewhere, we have nothing but a couple of isolated Marty leads with hints of Latin percussion in the background, before the real drum kit comes in, he kicks the overdrive into gear, and the real song can get started. The song almost seems predictable when it turns out it isn’t. Some gnarly “Phantom of the Opera” chords come jarring into the middle section before there is a tonal shift, and Marty takes the lead parts in yet another direction. With a couple of minutes left, he goes for broke and delivers some beautiful leads, with arpeggios, little bends, just all the fire and gusto one could want, yet without ever being excessive to the point of becoming gauche. For most purposes, this is the end, although the album ends with “Dos Rebeldes,” an alternative Spanish language recording of “Dead of Winter.” Which one you prefer will come down to personal preference, but they are effectively, the same track.

There it is. If Marty Friedman’s goal was to create one of his most important pieces of work in thirty years, mission accomplished. This album walks the line between thoughtfully tender albums like “Scenes” and “Introduction,” and his heavy over-the-top playing from “Dragon’s Kiss” to Megadeth and on to his later heavy albums. Yet, this new album, “Drama,” manages to create something new. It is not just a handful of lighter songs with Eastern underpinnings, juxtaposed against a handful of heavy shred songs. That would have been easy. This is a carefully crafted arrangement of music, which, as a whole, dabbles in the entire musical consciousness of Marty Friedman, stepping fairly seamlessly from one of his moods or personalities to the other, taking us on a musical journey, rather than just writing a few mismatched songs to satisfy a label contract. If, as we suspect, Marty’s goal is to not just be a writer with a broad vocabulary, but a writer with something to say and a deeper purpose, it is our opinion that he has done exactly that. In a world where players may often speculate upon the value of playing like Gilmour, or like Gilbert, Marty resolves it decisively by playing like both, and we are thankful for it.

The new album is well-produced, sounds superbly, and is accessible to almost any guitar player, metalhead, rock enthusiast, or just about anyone who can appreciate talented writing and musicianship because that’s exactly what this album is. It hits the stores on May 17, definitely don’t miss this one.

Released By: Frontiers Music SLR
Release Date: May 17th, 2023
Genre: Rock

Drama track listing:

  1. Illumination
  2. Song for an Eternal Child
  3. Triumph (official version)
  4. Thrill city
  5. Deep end
  6. Dead of Winter (English vocal)
  7. Mirage
  8. A prayer
  9. Acapella (Guitar solo)
  10. Tearful confession
  11. Icicles
  12. 2 Rebeldes (Spanish vocal)

Order “Drama” HERE

9.0 Excellent

It is fitting that Marty Friedman has given his old song “Triumph” new life on this album, because that is exactly what this record is, an absolute Triumph. This may be Marty’s most important solo work to date. Whether you are a fan or not, do not miss this one

  • Songwriting 9.5
  • Musicianship 9.5
  • Originality 8
  • Production 9
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