Nick D’Virgilio – Invisible (Album Review)

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“Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be invisible? Let me tell you man, it ain’t as great as it sounds.” So sings Nick D’Virgilio in the title track of his brand new solo album. Rest assured from the outset, though: listening to “Invisible” is as great as it sounds. Simply because it sounds great. D’Virgilio (or NDV, as he’s professionally known on his album releases) has been anything but invisible for the past 25 years, having started making in-roads thanks to Kevin Gilbert and then making his mark with Spock’s Beard over the next 15 years. Along the way he recorded or performed with an astounding number of artists, not the least of whom were Tears for Fears and Genesis. Yes, that Genesis. These days his main band is Big Big Train although he still does an impressive number of sessions for a bevy of other bands when he’s not working full-time for the fabulous Sweetwater Studios. Oh, and then there’s that time he ran away with the circus, Cirque de Soleil to be exact. Although that era may have flirted with invisibility – his drumming station was hidden from the audience during the 1,426 Cirque shows that he played – it eventually led to the spark of an idea which inspired his new solo album. And it’s high time. His hundreds of recording sessions not withstanding, the world has been bereft of a NDV full-length solo album for nearly 20 years since his notable debut “Karma”.

Although “Invisible” is a diverse rock album with a variety of songwriting styles and special guests, there are a few key aspects which make it a truly unique recording. First off, every track features D’Virgilio playing a different drum kit, depending on what sonic approach he was going for. Working at Sweetwater has its advantages and in this case he had a massive array of drum vendors at his disposal. Ultimately this allowed the bulk of these vendors to have their moment in the spotlight, which is all meticulously detailed in an accompanying Drum Booklet. Secondly, there are live string and brass orchestrations interwoven throughout the album on nearly every track. Not just any string or brass section – these were recorded at the legendary Abbey Road studios. With masterful production and engineering from Mark Hornsby and D’Virgilio, the strings and brass seamlessly blend alongside traditional rock instruments, maintaining the essence of a rock album while affording it much greater depth and range. Thirdly, while D’Virgilio has one of the best voices around, the backup vocals on this album absolutely smoke, ranging from a Steely Dan to a Pink Floyd vibe. These three special ingredients help to take the album over the top and transcend what a regular rock album is capable of.

“Invisible” Album Artwork

The title track is the first proper song, an aching ballad of mixed emotion and regret which beautifully sets up the story of the album’s main character. Feeling essentially invisible at his dead-end job, our man leaves it all behind and heads out into the world encountering different characters and adventures as he goes. You can more or less track the story line in the song titles themselves, though each piece has different musical landscapes – and different drum kits – to explore. Though the song “Invisible” doesn’t feature drums, it does boast Jonas Reingold’s fretless bass which perfectly blends with Carl Verheyen’s guitars and NDV’s well-chosen electric piano. The orchestrated strings really add a sublime touch here, especially as they go up the octave to close the song. The album’s only just begun and already D’Virgilio’s vocals have likely given the listener goosebumps.

There are plenty of rockers on the album and “Turn Your Life Around” gets this party started with a hot instrumental opening section that features a fantastic Jem Godfrey solo, followed by D’Virgilio’s tribal toms over the verses. The string section dramatically adds to the driving intensity of the song. “I’m Gone” is intentionally set to the same beats per minute as “Staying Alive” and carries the swagger of Travolta hitting the streets as the soundtrack pumps behind him. It’s a great feel-good anthem for driving down the highway, the Steely Dan-style backing vocals adding to the elation. We then take a 180 turn for one of the only songs not written by D’Virgilio: an extremely moody and dark take on a sublime rendition of the Barret Strong song “Money”. It’ll make the hairs rise on the back of your neck. The atmospheric guitars over the rhythmic loops are fantastic, but when the vocal breakdown happens it’s the strings and brass that really add the chills. The only thing that could further it would be a flaming Randy McStine guitar solo at the break, but that’s saved for later in the album. Simply a stellar rendition of this classic song.

We discover that D’Virgilio doesn’t require all of the bells and whistles to make an impact with “Waiting For No One”. A relatively simple arrangement for this mournful ballad is all that’s needed for the heartstrings to be pulled with D’Virgilio’s emotive vocals. On the other end of the spectrum, “Where’s the Passion?” goes over the top in its delivery of one of the main themes on the album. The simple opening piano arpeggio from Jordan Rudess builds with Randy McStine’s guitar effects and then opens up wide with symphonic grandeur, all before D’Virgilio slays with his vocals. It’s one of the best pieces on the album, and yet the followup “Mercy” threatens to overshadow it. An absolutely relentless track, it opens with another killer Jem Godfrey keyboard solo followed by a pounding verse that then gives way to an epic chorus as prog keys are supplemented by the brass section. The Yamaha Live Custom Hybrid Oak Drums give D’Virgilio a massive sound that can still keep up with the pace of the song. As if all that wasn’t enough, the solo breakdown with Tony Levin featured on bass and one of Randy McStine’s best guitar solos ever is worth the price of admission alone. And again…man, those drums.

The revolving door of guests keeps coming with Paul Gilbert making a fiery cameo on guitar for the start of “Overcome” before the latter half of the song makes the most of the symphony with an engaging arrangement. Mention must be made of Jacob Dupre who gives a great performance on the organ during “In My Bones” which also features a killer sax section to get your feet dancing. But it’s NDV himself who gets the spotlight in “Wrong Place, Wrong Time” playing every instrument on the track (save for another jamming McStine solo) including a vocal freak-out section reminiscent of the Spock’s days. In the story-line this is a near-death experience for the main character, but for the listener it’s a wild ride with still two more tracks left. The rejuvenating “Not My Time to Say Goodbye” and “I Know the Way” are both uplifting ways to close the story album with strong backup vocal choruses. “Oh the sun is shining, my heart is pumping, life is flowing through my veins, and I know the way.” It’s a bright finale for the subject of our story, and a satisfying conclusion for the listener of this musical tale.

As is no doubt becoming clear, “Invisible” is not your usual rock album and it succeeds for all of the right reasons. D’Virgilio’s singing and drumming are impeccable, the musical guests are inspired, the symphonic and brass layering is pristine, the production immaculate and the songwriting extremely solid. Surely an album destined for frequent spins in your stereo system this year.

Released by: Sweetwater Studios
Released on: June 26th, 2020
Genre: Progressive Rock

Musicians:

  • Nick D’ Virgilio / Drums & vocals (all tracks), electric piano on 2; loops on 4, 5, 8, 9 ; bass synth on 4, 9; electric and rhythm guitars on 9, keys on 9, 12; percussion on 12, bass on 12, 13; electric guitar on 12, acoustic guitar on 14
  • Carl Verheyen / Acoustic and electric guitars on 2, 6
  • Jonas Reingold / Fretless bass on 2; bass on 3, 5, 8, 10
  • Randy McStine / Electric guitars on 3, 8, 13; electric guitar solo on 9, 12
  • Jordan Rudess / Piano & synths on 8
  • Phil Naish / Keyboards on 4, 5, 13
  • Strings / Orchestra at Abbey Road on 2, 6, 8, 10, 13
  • Jem Godfrey / Synth solo on 3, 9
  • Dave Martin / Bass on 4, 11
  • Tom Hemby / Funky electric guitar on 4
  • Don Carr / Electric guitars on 4, 10, 14; atmosphere electric guitar on 5
  • Jacob Dupree / Piano on 6; keys on 10, 11, 13
  • Tony Levin / Bass on 7; Chapman stick on 9; fret-less bass on 9
  • Stan Cotey / Electric guitar on 7
  • Ed Goldfarb / Keys on 7
  • Paul Gilbert / Electric guitar solo on 10
  • Rick Nielsen / Guitar solo on 11
  • Mark Douthit, Sam Levine, Doug Moffet / Saxophone on 11
  • Tom Hermby / Electric guitars on 14
  • Michael Omartian / Piano on 14
  • Kat Bowser, Beth Cohen, Nathan Heironimus, Sophia D’Virgilio, Jason Eskridge / Background vocals

“Invisible” Track-listing

  1. Prelude
  2. Invisible
  3. Turn Your Life Around
  4. I’m Gone
  5. Money (That’s What I Want)
  6. Waiting for No One
  7. Snake Oil Salesman
  8. Where’s The Passion
  9. Mercy
  10. Overcome
  11. In My Bones
  12. Wrong Place, Wrong Time
  13. Not My Time to Say Goodbye
  14. I Know the Way

9.3 Excellent

A long-time coming, Nick D’Virgilio’s first full-length solo album in nearly twenty years is an ambitious production which succeeds on every level. Rock instrumentation from an endless stream of special guests is tastefully enhanced by string and brass sections recorded at Abbey Roads. Through it all, D’Virgilio’s vocals and drum performances shine with the finesse he is known for, making “Invisible” a triumphant new chapter for this highly-esteemed artist

  • Songwriting 8.5
  • Musicianship 10
  • Originality 8.5
  • Production 10
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