Sound — 8
The past few years have not been kind to shred legend Tony MacAlpine. Between the theft of much of his gear on his last tour, and his 2015 colon cancer scare, it's no wonder that "Death of Roses" sounds as truimphant as it does. With the seeds of the album's sound planted during his recovery from the chemotherapy he was receiving, the album focuses more strongly on composition and layering than much of Tony's past solo works, and slightly less on his particular brand of neoclassical shredding. Tony himself handles guitar and keyboard duties on the record, while the rhythm section this time around features Pete Griffin (Generation Axe Tour, Giraffe Tongue Orchestra, Zappa Plays Zappa) on bass, and Gergo Borlai (Scott Henderson, Gary Willis, Hiram Bullock) on drums.
The album is an entirely instrumental affair in the vein of albums by his contemporaries Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and Paul Gilbert (he had actually spent a fair amount of time signed to the former's Favored Nations record label), but with a stronger focus on strong melodies rather than mindless noodling. Each piece feels more like a lyrical song than you'd find from a vast majority of shred artists, with the lead guitar often playing in a fashion one would normally associate with a singer. Even though it's a little more rare than on albums by his contemporaries, when he does launch into something fast and shred-like, it's still compositionally solid, like on the quirky "Axiomatic Jewels", with its intricate stop-start arrangements, and incredibly modern (read: almost Djent-like) rhythm section. "Chrome Castles" features some very Steve Vai-esque playing, with Tony's choice of scales and the overall smoothness of his playing instantly recalling Vai, albeit with a much catchier melody. While volumes could be written of Tony's lead guitar style, his keyboard work on the album also deserves a fair amount of attention, where he really flexes his piano muscles in the middle section of "Synthetic Serenity" and the beginning of album closer "Shundor Prithibi", and uses synths as backing through much of the album.
The backing band and Tony's rhythm guitar playing are also on point throughout, taking us through some of the more typical classic-rock inspired fare typical of shred albums from the Shrapnel Records days all the way up to more modern Meshuggah-influenced tracks that make ample use of Tony's seven and eight-string prowess.
As far as songwriting goes, the focus being on strong melodies rather than jerky transitions and noodle-y guitar parts gives "Death of Roses" an edge on a lot of competing shred albums, both new and old. While there's nothing too incredibly inventive in his playing or writing, he certainly does know his way around a good melody and rhythm, and nowhere is this more evident on "Shundor Prithibi", which features some of the most captivating melodies and chord progressions on the album, seemingly cycling through multiple keys in a jazz-fusion fashion, while still keeping the arrangement grounded and, dare I say it, catchy. Production and mixing are handled by Adair Daufembach, with mastering done by Seva David Ball, and their work on this record is exemplary throughout.
Lyrics — 8
As this is an instrumental album, there are no lyrics to review on this album, and the role typically given to a singer is filled by Tony's lead guitar playing. Many of the melodies from the guitars are almost vocal-like, and one can actually imagine certain sounds being performed by a vocalist. Many of the song titles sound like the kind of titles one would find on modern shred albums by artists like Animals As Leaders, "Electric Illusionist" and "Synthetic Serenity" being two perfect examples. "Shundor Prithibi" appears to translate to "Beautiful Earth" from Bengali, and is perhaps a bit of a flipside to any particular bleak outlook Tony may have had during his treatment for cancer, while "Death of Roses" does evoke an image of the passage of time waiting in a hospital.
Overall Impression — 8
Being the first part in a projected two-part series of albums, the seven tracks on "Death of Roses" represent a triumphant comeback for Tony MacAlpine, and it's a job well done throughout this record. There's a certain emotional aspect of his playing that's really brought forth through the compositional skills shown on the album, something that seems to be missing from a lot of recent shred albums, and a renewed penchant for catchy, quirky melodies that puts this work right up there with some of the best works from Vai and Satriani. Coming from a place where Tony was incapable of playing due to his cancer treatment, to the ability to put out such an incredibly focused album that actually has very strong compositions is a testament to MacAlpine's abilities, and makes "Death of Roses" one of the most satisfying listens in the shred scene that I've heard in a long while.